>> Monday, June 30, 2008
TITLE: Not Quite a Lady (excerpt)
AUTHOR: Loretta Chase
SETTING: 1820s England
SERIES: It's at the same time part of the Carsington series and the first in a series of novels about Fallen Women: see this great interview with the author at The Book Smugglers. As I said in the comments there, I love the idea of giving these women happy endings, rather than the horrid ones that they often received in the novels of the period.
REASON FOR READING: Autobuy author
IRRESISTIBLE FORCEMY THOUGHTS: I remember reading quite a few lukewarm comments about Not Quite a Lady when it came out, which was probably the reason why I didn't pick it up before this. Stupid me, I ended up loving it.
Darius Carsington is a spectacularly handsome rake with a rare intelligence and no heart, a man who divides his time between bedding loose-moraled women and writing scholarly papers. He finds society's “perfect darlings”....exceedingly boring. But there’s something intriguing, and not quite perfect, about faultless Lady Charlotte Hayward. He senses a crack under her polished surface, and finding it is a temptation he can’t resist.
Lady Charlotte is so beautiful, charming, and gracious that no one has noticed what an expert she is at Not Getting Married. Early on, she learned a painful lesson about trust....and temptation. In the years since, she’s devoted her life to all she ought to be--and she’s not about to let a man like Carsington entice her to do everything she shouldn’t.
A SPLENDID COLLISION
But the laws of attraction can easily overpower the rules of manners and morals, and sometimes even the best -behaved girl has to follow her instincts, even if it means risking it all.
The fallen woman in this first entry in the series is Lady Charlotte Hayward, and though she's not fallen publicly, she very much feels the effects of being so, inside. Ten years earlier, when she was only 16, Charlotte was seduced and made pregnant and with her stepmother's help, gave birth in secret and gave away her son. Since then, she's been successfully manouvering out of getting married, despite her father's best efforts. Partly it's because her early betrayal has left her leery of men and love, but it's also because not being a virgin, she sees no good way of getting into a marriage that would work, other than lying through her teeth.
But her avoidance comes to an end when Darius Carsington arrives to take over the estate next door to her family's. Darius is there as a challenge by his father, who's bothered by his son's coldblooded behaviour with women. Scientific genius Darius behaves just as scientifically in his liaisons, going through experienced women without caring in the slightest about any of them, and refusing to ever come in contact with anyone elegible. So his father dares him to either take over the almost-ruined estate next door to the Haywards' and make it profitable in a year, or be cut off and have to marry a heiress.
At the beginning of the book, Darius' attitude outraged me just as much as it did the Earl of Hargate. He doesn't dislike women (he's not like those disgusting mysoginistic "heroes" who think all women are whores), but when it comes to sex, he's a mix of the worst parts of animal (in the way sex is purely about physical reactions and impulses, with no feelings involved) and control (in the coolness and calculation with which he chooses his partners). I experienced a twinge of doubt about this guy as a potential hero, but that disappeared the minute he met Charlotte.
It was incredibly satisfying to see him fall, and fall hard. He immediately starts experiencing these uncomfortable, unfamiliar feelings... tenderness, protectiveness, pleasure in just being with this strange woman, and he's got no idea whatsoever what to do with them. He's confused and out of his depth, and doing things he would have condemned as irrational not a day earlier. Charlotte is out of bounds, according to all his rules, and yet he can't seem to stay away.
As for Charlotte, Darius inspires behaviour that is just as uncharacteristic. She's spent the past 10 years repressing every urge, avoiding any kind of involvement, but this irritating man just makes her forget her determination to be all quiet and circumspect. It's a fabulously romantic and spicy and funny relationship, and I loved every minute.
Chase's writing deserves a mention. She's got a certain witty, wry tone, a way of describing things and often poking gentle fun at her own characters that is very much her own. She's one of the few romance authors with voices distinct enough that I'd be able to recognise one of her books immediately. And it's not just voice, her writing is just plain good, with lots of showing instead of telling, and a knack for creating subtle, well rounded secondary characters. In other hands, Charlotte's stepmother or the neighbour who's determined to marry Charlotte would end up being stock characters, but here they are be fresh and original and believable.
Now for what generated most doubts among readers: the resolution of Charlotte's old, scandalous secret. Yes, there are some instances of quite amazingly unlikely coincidence and yes, the solution they arrived at strained credibility a bit. But see, I wanted to believe it very badly, so it worked for me anyway. And there was some very powerful stuff there. When Charlotte confesses the truth to her father, his reaction brought tears to my eyes. An amazing, amazing scene, and so was the one soon thereafter (don't want to spoil things, but I mean what happens when Charlotte's father goes out of the house and meets a certain someone). Just wonderful.
MY GRADE: I was going with a B+, but thinking about the many things I loved about the book and just how much I loved them has made me change my mind. This deserves an A-.