I am a little concerned that Twilight has forever ruined me for young adult urban vampire (or other supernatural creature) adventure-with-a-smattering-of-coming-of-age-romance stories. I started, and then dropped, Cassandra Clare's City of Bones on vacation because one of the main characters (the main male hero) plays piano. Why must they all play piano?! What is so hot about that? Seriously? Stupid Edward. Also Jace is secretly tortured beneath his suave, capable, hero exterior. And also, he and his "family" live in secret amongst the unsuspecting humans. The writing is so much better than Twilight but that book has apparently embedded itself in my brain and it is ruining me. I didn't dislike Twilight as much as it maybe sounds, but I am damn sick of it by now.
The problem is, I actually really liked City of Bones. And I'm hoping I can bring myself to pick it up again in a bit. It was also a little intense for holiday beach reading, so maybe that was the other problem. Timing again.
So, after dropping the book I had intended to pick up and read, I went for the much lighter and more beach-suitable The Lost Duke of Wyndham by Julia Quinn. Hallelujah, I found the perfect beach read; and it was so good I kept it. I had sort of planned to purchase and then leave it for the resort library. But I will read this one again, and I'm very likely to pick up Quinn's other novels as well.
As might be expected, Lost Duke is a regency period romance. It's also incredibly solidly written, with hugely engaging characters, a believable-enough setting, humour, and some of my favourite plot points and characters. We have the dashing highwayman-turned-improbable-duke with various unsavoury and painful secrets; the highly intelligent, somewhat impoverished heroine in a rather untenable situation; and the attending tensions that go along with the strict social mores of the time period.
Jack Audley is our highwayman, who robs the grandmother he never knew (she is referred to as "the dowager" throughout the book; more on her in a moment), and finds himself increasingly and dangerously attracted to the woman who is his grandmother's lady companion, Grace Everleigh. Through a whole series of entertaining and somewhat shocking escapades, their relationship unfolds, as does Jack's relationship with his grandmother, his cousin (the duke he is deposing by his newfound existence) and the various people surrounding the Cavendish family.
The plot moves along at a good clip, the characters are fascinating, and they don't stay the same. One of the wonderful things about this romance is that one never wonders whether or not Grace and Jack can get along. They do, and the question is more whether or not they're going to be able to make it work in society. The only small problem I had with the book is that some of the tensions surrounding the social taboos and so forth seemed contrived -- but that was because I knew there was going to be a happy ending, and that the social taboos would either vanish or be broken without any serious repercussions. So that's not so much a problem with the writing as with the whole genre. That said, the dowager is one seriously nasty piece of work, and there is no question that she can make life hell for all concerned; and therein lies the major problem for Grace and Jack, not society at large.
The dowager embodies everything that was/is wrong with class societies with strict rules. She is completely awful. And she makes a brilliant "villain" for the book because she's not completely unsympathetic. She's a product of her time, breeding and station in life, and she is also a very lonely old woman who has lost everyone dear to her. In some ways, her loneliness is her own fault, but in other ways she has been dealt some fairly cruel blows by life too. She doesn't complain of them, either. Not the big ones. And that makes me just a little more sympathetic to her.
The characters in the book, as I mentioned above, are not static, nor are they inconsistent, both of which can be problems with romance novels. Each character behaves in a completely internally consistent way; any surprises are only surprises to us, not to the characters themselves. And the surprises were set up believably without being broadcast, which, as we have discovered in this blogging exercise of mine, is a pet peeve.
Of course, I knew there would be a happy ending. That doesn't have to be broadcast, it's a foregone conclusion even before I buy the book. The pleasure is more in seeing how the ending is brought off. Quinn doesn't fail here, either. The ending is suitably happy without being stupid, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.
Quinn has written a second book about this group of characters, this time from Thomas' (the deposed duke) perspective: Mr. Cavendish, I Presume. I'll be picking that one up when I am next near a bookstore that carries Quinn.