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Scandal in Spring, by Lisa Kleypas

Title: Scandal in Spring (Wallflowers #4)
Author: Lisa Kleypas
Year of Publication: 2006
Length: 374 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 3.5 stars

This is one that doesn’t stick with me quite as well as the other Wallflowers books, and I’m not sure why. We’re back at the Westcliff manor to marry off the last of the Wallflowers, Lillian’s impish sister Daisy. The story starts off with her getting pretty brutalised emotionally by her father, who calls her a parasite and dares her to explain how the world has benefited from her existence. Ouch. He informs her that she has till the end of the season to find an English aristocrat to marry (the reason they hopped the pond in the first place), or he’s taking her back to New York to marry Matthew Swift, his protegee. Daisy revolts at the idea; Matthew as she remembers him is scrawny, dull, and overbearing, with all of her father’s worst business faults wrapped up in an unattractive package.

Well, imagine her surprise when the man himself turns up at the manor, filled out and handsome and doing charming things like making wishes in the well and freeing geese from snares. We learn, from Matthew’s internal dialogue, that he’s been in love with Daisy for ages, but that he never let himself believe in a future with her because of some mysterious skeletons in his closet. But, as is so often the case, the attraction becomes too compelling to ignore, and though he attempts to help Daisy to an entirely different husband, it becomes apparent to everyone involved that he wants her for himself. Daisy, at first infuriated by his high-handed manner, finds herself amiably provoked by him and eventually developing deeper feelings. Along the way, Daisy also learns to stand up for herself a bit, and she makes it clear that she won’t stand for a husband who dismisses her as inconsequential. She also comes to realise — and this is an interesting point for a romance novel to make — that the kind of ideal husband she has in mind (someone a lot like herself, romantic and bookish and impractical), would not at all make a good match for her. Scandal in Spring stresses a more practical balance in matrimony than a lot of books in the genre do, which is an interesting approach.

Needless to say, as is nearly always the case with Kleypas, the sex scenes are everything you hope for when you pick up one of these books. Kleypas has a talent for melding the physical and the emotional in a way that’s quite satisfying, and her erotica is never paint-by-numbers. I also enjoy that, for all she’s a historically-appropriate virgin, Daisy is not a frail and wilting flower. She takes initiative and demonstrates real sexual hunger of her own, without any of the virtuous, apprehensive hemming and hawing about it that can get so old so fast.

I think I would like this book more if the skeletons in Matthew’s closet had packed more of a punch. As it is, you sort of forget about them for most of the book, and then when they do pop up at the end, it’s clearly only to provide that necessary last-minute peril to the Happy Ever After. The subplot doesn’t really end up affecting much. It gives Matthew a reason (sort of) not to jump at the chance to marry Daisy in the first place, and it provides the third-act twist, but other than that, it’s pretty blurry and useless. I would much rather Kleypas have spent that time and those pages showing us some of Daisy and Matthew’s marriage. This was one story that didn’t need to end at the altar; I feel like they could still have a lot to work out with balancing their different natures, and there could’ve been a more interesting conflict there than the slightly odd hard right turn the story takes with the revelation of Matthew’s background.

Overall, Scandal in Spring is a perfectly adequate historical romance. It serves its purpose, it tells a nice story, it entertains for a few hours. Ultimately, thought, it’s not one of the ones that makes a tremendous impression. It’s not one I’ll pick up unless I’m deliberately revisiting the whole series, but it’s certainly no hardship to get through when I decide that’s what I’m doing.

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Devil in Winter, by Lisa Kleypas

Title: The Devil in Winter (Wallflowers #3)
Author: Lisa Kleypas
Year of Publication: 2006
Length: 374 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4 stars
Spoiler Warning: For the events at the end of It Happened One Autumn

This book surprised me when I first read it, I recall. I had been tremendously intrigued by St. Vincent in the earlier books, but after his abduction of Lillian at the end of It Happened One Autumn, I really wasn’t sure how I felt about a kidnapper and potential rapist serving as the hero of the novel. As for Evie, well, I had nothing against her, but she faded into the background of the first two Wallflowers novels — the most wallflowery of the wallflowers, as it were. I felt less personal resonance with her, though she did remind me of people I’ve known.

But really, that Kleypas crafted her in that way was masterful. Through the first two books, Evie is the shyest of the Wallflowers, victim of a pronounced stutter which makes conversation painful — all the moreso when she’s nervous, which, of course, she is around precisely the men she’s meant to be attracting. She’s also, as we had hints of earlier but have confirmed in Devil in Winter, the victim of substantial abuse from her family. She’s the daughter of a well-born lady who ran off with Ivo Jenner, owner of a gaming club (who readers may remember as a secondary character in one of Kleypas’s Regency novels, Dreaming of You). Her mother died, and a gaming club being no place to raise a young girl, her father allowed her mother’s family to reclaim her. As Jenner’s done quite well for himself, Evie stands to inherit an enormous fortune on his death — which looks to be soon, as he’s quite ill. Her mother’s family, after years of punishing her for her mother’s behaviour, now seek to force her to marry a cousin so that her money will stay in the family.

Thus is the setup at the beginning of Devil in Winter, when Evie takes desperate action no one could have predicted: she runs to visit Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent, and asks him to marry her. No one is more surprised than St. Vincent, but he takes the bait, since his family’s financial ruin has driven him to desperate measures already (see: his attempted kidnapping of Lillian). So away they hie them to Gretna Green for a quick wedding. In this section, I  appreciated Kleypas’s vivid descriptions of the cold and 19th-century methods of combating it on their way up to Scotland. Weather is a frequently ignored component of storytelling, unless there’s the need for a suitably dramatic storm. It was nice to get such detailed description to evoke the journey. They get their marriage of convenience, Evie insists they’ll only have enough sexual congress to consummate and then no more, except she ends up rather liking it, St. Vincent finds himself more attracted to her than to any woman before her — and so forth.

In many ways, the plot of Devil in Winter would be quite conventional — the rake reformed by the blushing virgin — if not for the unusual setting. Here as elsewhere, I appreciate Kleypas’s willingness to delve into non-standard elements of British society in the 19th century. For when Jenner dies, St. Vincent finds himself unexpected drawn to the business, furious to realize that Jenner was being cheated in his infirmity, and astonishingly capable of setting matters to rights. Not that his transition from utter reprobate into manager of a gaming den is smooth. He has to prove himself in a few fights, untangle a financial mess, raise the club’s standards to attract a better clientele, and, oh yeah, also save his new wife’s life from a jealous man believing himself to be Jenner’s son and rightful heir. The story turns when St. Vincent literally takes a bullet meant for Evie; what follows is a somewhat typical sickbed plotline, where St. Vincent’s life being in danger makes Evie realise just how much he means to her.

Again, the plot itself is somewhat formulaic, but Kleypas’s characters are what make it special. St. Vincent’s character comes across particularly well, with a great, unique voice, and watching Evie’s transformation from helplessness to self-assertion is a nice journey to follow. Kleypas actually deals with the aftermath of abuse and the tremendous strength it takes to come out of that, giving Evie a degree of psychological realism that I always appreciate, even in a fluff book. As ever, Kleypas fills out her world remarkably well — particularly in the person of dashing Romani croupier Cam Rohan (of whom more in a later book). We also see the further progression of the friendship that holds this series together. That friendship gets tested here — which is a nice touch, that it isn’t just assumed and easy — because, after all, Evie does marry a man who kidnapped and at least threatened to rape one of her best friends. But Annabelle and Daisy help to mend fences, and Lillian and Sebastian manage to come to terms (it helps when he nearly gets himself killed for Evie’s sake). Overall, a solid and enjoyable installment in the Wallflowers series.

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It Happened One Autumn, by Lisa Kleypas

Title: It Happened One Autumn (Wallflowers #2)
Author: Lisa Kleypas
Year of Publication: 2005
Length: 382 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4.25 stars
Spoiler Warning: I generally find it very silly to put spoiler warnings on romance novels, because the outcome is pre-determined. The characters on the back cover are going to end up Happily-Ever-After. That is a foregone conclusion. However, because there’s a twist to how it happens that I wouldn’t want to give away, and because it affects the next book in the series, Devil in Winter, I will place a mild spoiler warning on this review.

Lillian Bowman and Marcus, Lord Westcliff have fought like cats and dogs since the moment they laid eyes on each other, which in romance novel terms clearly indicates that they are meant to be together.

I’m a sucker for this trope, and I freely admit that. It showed in some of my earliest ships. Han/Leia, Indy/Marion, Beatrice/Benedick, Dimitri/Anya — my sexual awakening was characterised by this dynamic. Anyone who read my review of Julia Quinn’s The Viscount Who Loved Me has already witnessed how strongly this sort of relationship will attract me in a romance novel. So, in some ways, It Happened One Autumn was almost too easy for me to like. The cards were stacked in its favour from the beginning.

As in Secrets of a Summer Night (and many of her other historical romances), Kleypas complicates her love story with the realism of the society her characters live in. Westcliff represents the old guard in some ways, though he’s innovative and progressive in others. An aristocrat who knows that he must move with the times or get left behind, Westcliff focuses himself on finding ways to use his inherited wealth and status to integrate himself with the new, industrial world. Progressive as his economic views are, however, personally, he’s turned into a stoic, unyielding man, due in great part to his upbringing. I found myself wishing his family had been fleshed out a bit more — they’re important and yet periphery at the same time, which is an odd combination. His sisters seem like interesting characters, but they don’t get nearly enough screen time (and I still can’t figure out if they have prior novels that I’ve somehow missed or not). His mother is a classic dragon, though, and figures into the end game in a critical way.

By contrast, Lillian is new money and American. The Bowmans have traveled to London after utterly failing on the New York social scene, aiming to catch aristocratic husbands for the two daughters, thus uniting their money with a bit of class and respectability. Lillian the soap heiress is utterly unsuitable for Westcliff — loud, boistrous, bold, unrefined, incapable of keeping her opinions to herself (are we catching on yet as to why I like her so much?), and he doesn’t need her money. The attraction is inescapable, though, particularly when the Bowmans find themselves back on Westcliff’s estate for an end-of-season shooting party.

Predictably, chaos ensues, but the great fun of it is watching Westcliff thaw out. In Secrets of a Summer Night, he definitely comes across as the staid and immoveable businessman; in It Happened One Autumn, his sense of humour creeps out. He warms to Lillian, beginning to appreciate her good spirits and her energy. An impulse turns into a kiss which turns into quite a bit more — as ever, Kleypas does excellent sex scenes, and this book is no exception. Things heat up between Marcus and Lillian even as they’re denying they want anything to do with each other. And Marcus starts questioning whether it’s really all that important to have a respectable, proper, English rose of a wife — maybe a high-spirited, impetuous American who can knock him down a peg might be just the thing. We also see Marcus getting possessive — and as I’ve noted before, I rather like that in a hero — when his old school friend St. Vincent, who’s turned into an utter reprobate as an adult, starts wooing Lillian in all apparent seriousness. I love that Lillian actually gets presented with a choice — and she reacts to it spectacularly and in a way I totally related to. It can be alarming, to all of a sudden find yourself the focus of incredibly sensuous attention from a known charmer, and Lillian responds to that in a very real way.

One of the things I like best about this book is that the climactic action genuinely surprised me. I didn’t at all see it coming — and considering that this genre is a fairly formulaic one, that really counts for something. So, here’s the spoiler-heavy part of the review: Westcliff’s mother, who most emphatically does not approve of the potential match, lures Lillian into a trap, and she ends up abducted by none other than Westcliff’s old school friend, St. Vincent — impoverished, badly in need of a wealthy wife, and moved to desperate straits. Put in a pin in all of that; we’ll be back for it in Devil in Winter. He intends to take Lillian to Gretna Greene and coerce her into a marriage that will solve his financial problems, though he knows it comes at the expense of his friendship with Westcliff (and possibly at the danger of having his wife murder him fairly soon after the wedding). This is a romance novel, however, and so of course Marcus catches up to them, only to find Lillian midway through rescuing herself already; Marcus beats St. Vincent to a pulp; he and Lillian move on to happy-ever-after.

This book is great fun because of the colourful characters, and as ever, Kleypas takes great care to round out her world with a magnificent supporting cast. Lillian and Marcus both have friends and rivals to bounce off of, which always serves to make characters seem more fully realised. The pacing is good, moving between points of action and quieter moments, and there are a few scenes where Kleypas gets to show off a talent for description that is, I think, often underappreciated in the genre. I knock a bit off the assessment because of a weird subplot involving Lillian’s preternatural sense of smell and a supposedly magic perfume; the book didn’t need it, it’s entirely extraneous, and a pretty pointless distraction. Ultimately, though, this book is an exciting, joyous romp with thoroughly entertaining characters. Highly recommended.

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Secrets of a Summer Night, by Lisa Kleypas

Title: Secrets of a Summer Night (Wallflowers #1)
Author: Lisa Kleypas
Year of Publication: 2004
Length: 375 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4 stars

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.

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