Lisa Kleypas is my second-favourite romance author, after Julia Quinn, and the Wallflowers series goes a long way to explaining why.
Annabelle Hunt, Lillian and Daisy Bowman, and Evie Jenner have all spent several seasons on the outskirts of society’s notice, permanent wallflowers — each for a different reason. Annabelle is utterly dowerless to the point where the men of the ton are just waiting for her to slide into fallen woman territory, the Bowmans are uncouth Americans and thus totally lacking in social graces even if they are millionaire heiresses, and Evie is not only the daughter of a man who runs a gaming den but also cripplingly shy and possessed of a terrible stutter. The four women strike up a bargain, to try and help each other find husbands, starting with the oldest — Annabelle. Secrets of a Summer Night is her story.
I like Annabelle because she’s a bit unusual for a romance heroine — in that she’s actually conventional for her times in some ways that authors of the genre typically disdain. She likes nice things. She cares about fashion. She wants to be accepted in society. She likes typically feminine things, and that’s okay. While there’s a lot to be said for the heroines that are deliberately anti-establishment (and we certainly see plenty of that in various Kleypas novels), I like that Annabelle is a bit more, well, realistic. She is as a woman of her time would have been. If it weren’t for her financial state, she would be an ideal wife for any aristocrat — beautiful, poised, graceful. But impoverished as she is, Annabelle has to find a rich husband fast, or succumb to the worst — the clutches of a “benefactor” who’s already been enjoying her mother’s favours but would rather trade for the daughter. To save her family from ruin, to rescue her mother from infamy, and to keep her brother in school, she determines to snare a rich peer by the end of the season.
Enter Simon Hunt, who is most definitely what the Romans would have called a New Man. He’s rich, but most definitely not a peer. The son of a butcher who’s made a tremendous fortune in the railroad industry, Hunt is only tolerated in polite society because he has a few very powerful friends for business partners (including Marcus Westcliff — much, much more on him later). And he’s taken a fancy to Annabelle from a while back. They’re thrown into close proximity at that convenient convention of the mid-19th-century: the house party, wherein Westcliff (under persuasion from his female relations) invites a few dozen friends, colleagues, business partners, and their families out to his country house to stay for nearly a month. (Can I just say, I wish this was still a thing? And that I was rich enough and had rich enough friends for it? That would be amazing. Think of the hijinks that could ensue). Annabelle sets her cap for a hapless, botanically-inclined young man, but she keeps colliding with Hunt, with sizzling results. Simon feels increasingly possessive of Annabelle, initially intending just to drive off any other prospective “protectors” when she falls from grace, but eventually determining that the only way to keep her for himself is to marry. It’s high-handed and domineering, yes, but Simon’s charming enough to pull it off, and Kleypas makes sure the reader realises that his somewhat chauvinistic jealousy steams from overpowering love, even if he has trouble admitting that. He’s very Alpha, but I like that in a man (when he’s a true Alpha and not just a rampaging jackass — the difference is critical), so I enjoy Simon as a hero.
This being a romance novel, it’s no spoiler to let you know that, yes, Simon and Annabelle do wind up together. The contrivances that bring them together aren’t nearly as interesting as the exploration of England’s shifting class system. Simon represents the rising men of industry, Annabelle the rapidly disintegrating peerage. Annabelle has to overcome some fairly significant prejudices in order to accept her new life gracefully. In marrying Simon Hunt, she’ll never get the life she always thought she wanted — but she comes to see that Simon’s world certainly has its perks, and that having a husband she loves is worth it all. One of the things I always enjoy about Kleypas is her willingness to push the bounds of traditional fare. She sets the Wallflowers series in the 1840s, slightly later than the typical Regency period, and she doesn’t just use history as a gloss over everything. The characters are definitely part of the world they live in, and that means the difficult pieces as well as the pretty window dressing. Kleypas takes the advent of industrialisation and makes it integral to the plot; Simon has invested heavily in the burgeoning railroad industry, among other things, and his friend Westcliff is one of the few aristocrats to see that his kind must change or die. This dose of historical reality gives a nice texture to Kleypas’s books, richer than much of the genre provides. (More on how Kleypas utilizes new money and invading Americans will be forthcoming in my review of It Happened One Autumn).
This book would probably fall just shy of 4 stars if it weren’t for the fact that it inaugurates the Wallflowers series, which is one of my favourites in the romance genre. A great many of the best scenes, apart from the steaminess of Annabelle and Simon doing naughty things, are those which involve the quartet of friends. Lillian Bowman just about steals every scene she’s in. The banter between the girls is quick and feels natural, with plenty of giggle-out-loud moments. Their Rounders game may not be quite as legendary as Bridgerton Pall Mall, but it comes close. Overall, Secrets of a Summer Night is a solid start to a wonderful series. Recommended for all fans of historical romance.