I think I have decided that Julia Quinn is a good go-to for vacation reading for me. Or romance reading in general. I can even, at this point, justify buying books un-seen because after three Quinn novels being a hit with me I'm pretty sure I'll enjoy it. Notwithstanding the end of The Duke and I, I enjoy her storytelling capacity, her sense of humour, her characters, and her take on Regency romance. She can even wring a little sympathetic tear from me, apparently, although I'll admit I was already feeling a little susceptible emotionally when I picked up An Offer from a Gentleman. And no, this is not a sad or even melodramatic book (mostly), it just hits all the right emotional keys for me in the right places.
So, imagine Cinderella in Regency England. Imagine she's not even the legitimate child of the wealthy father, but an unacknowledged bastard. Imagine that wealthy father feels some sort of duty to his offspring nonetheless, but his untimely death complicates things significantly when he had previously married what turns out to be the stepmother from hell. Imagine the fairy godmother is a well-meaning housekeeper, and the ball is a masquerade held by the eminent Bridgerton family; and imagine the prince enchanted by the lovely stranger isn't a prince at all, but Mr. Benedict Bridgerton, the most eligible of all Bridgertons...
And that's just the beginning. Cinderella's name is actually Sophie Beckett, and she is the illegitimate child of the Earl of Penwood. And Sophie is a great main character. She's in the unenviable position of having been raised as a young gentlelady, educated with her stepsisters on the Earl's insistence, and given the various privileges involved in being gently born -- but when her father dies suddenly, any protection she had from him vanishes and she becomes a lady's maid to Araminta, the widowed countess, and her two daughters Rosamund and Posy. Araminta and Rosamund are genuinely awful; unlike some of Quinn's other villains, I could find nothing to recommend them or make them the least bit sympathetic. Unfortunately, I also have no doubt that their ilk were abundant. Still are, sadly, I'm sure. A much more sympathetic character is Posy, the younger stepsister, who doesn't really want to be horrible to Sophie but is too afraid to stand up to her mother and sister.
One thing I really loved about Sophie is that she's not only intelligent and touchingly tough, she's also very self-aware. She's got principles and she sticks to them to her breaking point. This is not to say she doesn't slip up, but she doesn't make the same mistake twice. She firmly, truly believes in herself, and I really liked that. When thing go wrong (as they always do -- no spoiler there) she's prepared to strike off and make a new life for herself on her own, and the reader believes she can and will do it, too.
Now, I did qualify "not melodramatic" above, and with good reason. This book has, in no particular order, illegitimate children, daring rescues, jails, last-minute declarations of love, fist fights, cat fights, and fevers born of driving a phaeton in the pouring rain. Strangely, none of this seems particularly melodramatic in context, although I look at that list and wonder how the heck it's not. The only point I found slightly more over-the-top than I usually enjoy was near the very end; the scene was hyperbolic, and though cathartic I just couldn't quite believe it. Small quibble.
Again, here, the big enemy is largely Society and its rules, particularly for illegitimate children, and especially for illegitimate children who happened to be women with no one to stand by them. Sophie's story has a fairytale ending, but it's a little sobering to think about how many girls like her did not.
At any rate, this book was again well-crafted, humourous, light but still intelligent fun. The dialogue is snappy, the characters are very well-developed, and the plot is ridiculous in some places but largely believable. I knew that, as with all romances of this ilk, things were going to be all right in the end. But I still felt true pangs of sympathy for Sophie and her situation. Recommended for romance readers who like their Regency with a healthy dose of modern sensibilities, and for those who enjoy a fairytale retelling without magic but aren't so sure they enjoy romance. Be aware that it's a little silly, but this one may work for you.