Sherry Thomas Equals Consistent Excellence

Sherry Thomas burst onto the romance writing scene in April of 2008.  She writes English historical romances set right around the turn of the 20th century, and has found incredibly fertile ground in that milieu.  She’s been called “the most powerfully original historical romance author writing today” by Lisa Kleypas (herself no slouch in that category), and has drawn rave reviews from readers, critics, and fans.

I decided to take a look at Ms. Thomas’s work all at the same time, re-reading her novels PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS, DELICIOUS, NOT QUITE A HUSBAND, and her newest, HIS AT NIGHT, in order to review them as a set.

PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS is about Gigi Rowland, Lady Tremaine.  Gigi is an independent woman who comes from a very wealthy family and has a troubled marriage with Camden Saybrook, Lord Tremaine — one so troubled that they’ve spent the ten years since their wedding day on separate continents.  Gigi also must deal with a mother in Victoria Rowland whose own hopes of marrying into the aristocracy were dashed when her family fell on hard times.  Victoria is a classic beauty who was widowed over ten years ago; now, all her hopes are settled upon Gigi either keeping her marriage hopes alive (as Lord Tremaine is the sole heir to a dukedom) or perhaps finding Gigi a new duke after Gigi’s impending divorce.

Gigi neither wants nor needs her mother’s help, having entered into an extra-marital friendship (not quite an affair) with Lord Frederick Stuart.  Gigi’s plans are to get a divorce, then remarry the younger Frederick (called Freddie) and be happy for the rest of her life.  But she’s still in love with Camden, Lord Tremaine, and her feelings cannot be denied . . . whatever will become of Gigi, Freddie and Tremaine?  And will Victoria find a duke of her own and stop bothering her daughter about it all?

The plot as summed up does not do justice to Ms. Thomas’s incredible use of language.  Put simply, if you want to learn how to combine words to deepen your plotline, you could learn a lot from Sherry Thomas.

From page 233:

“We were married ten years and five months when (your father) passed away.”  Mrs. Rowland took a small cream cake, set it before her, and cut it into perfect quarters.  “You’ll be married ten years and five months in a fortnight.  Life is uncertain, Gigi.  Don’t throw away your second chance with Tremaine.”

“I would rather we not speak of him.”

“I would rather we do,” said Mrs. Rowland firmly.  “If you believe I have schemed only because Tremaine is in line for a dukedom, then you are greatly mistaken.  Do you think I never came upon you together in the sitting parlor at Briarmeadow, holding hands and whispering?  I’d never seen you so alive and happy, before or after.  And I’d never seen him that way, completely without his reserve, for once acting his age, when he’d always carried the weight of the world on his shoulders.”

“That was a long time ago, Mother.”

“Not long enough for me to have forgotten.  Or you.  Or him.”

I also adored the subplot with Victoria Rowland and Langford Fitzwilliam, the Duke of Perrin; it’s funny, touching, heart-rending and true-to-life, all at once.  Don’t miss PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS, one of the best books I’ve ever read in the romance genre, period.

Sherry Thomas’s second novel is DELICIOUS, about a cook, Verity Durant, and a politician, Stuart Somerset.  I didn’t like this book as much, though it has many excellent descriptions of food and I enjoyed the subplot between Somerset’s secretary Will Marsden and Lizzy Bessler (Bessler starts out as Somerset’s fiancée, then ends up with Marsden later).  Bessler isn’t exactly a straight woman — I think in today’s terms she’d be called “bi-curious” — and the seduction between her and Will Marsden is fraught with complexity from the start.   But as this is a romance, once she realizes how powerfully attracted she is to Will Marsden, her fidelity is assured.  (In the real world, things don’t work out so neatly, but I really liked these characters and hoped for the best for them.)

The main reason I wasn’t as taken with the characterization of Verity Durant or Stuart Somerset is that both of them closed parts of themselves off very early in life.  While this is realistic, and their passion for each other felt genuine, I kept thinking they needed modern psychology more than they needed each other.

Still, I liked DELICIOUS, though not as much as PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS, mostly because of the subplot.  Comparing the two, the first book had much more life in it than the second — I could see where Gigi and Camden had taken wrong turns in their relationship with each other while delighting in the 48-year-old Victoria Rowland’s courtship with the fortyish Duke of Perrin.   Whereas in DELICIOUS, most of it is a retelling of the fairy tale of Cinderella — and while it’s interesting  (Verity being the stand-in for Cinderella, of course, as cooks work very, very hard), it just didn’t draw me in somehow.  The subplot was much more realistic with Lizzy and her “Sapphic influences” and her near-mistake with a woman of the aristocracy having to deal with her feelings for Will Marsden.  All of that made sense to me, and redeemed this novel from what I’d viewed as above average but not outstanding to far better than average and awaiting what Ms. Thomas would do next.

In NOT QUITE A HUSBAND, we meet physician Bryony Asquith Marsden.  She’d been married to mathematician Leo Marsden (the younger brother of Will from DELICIOUS), and things badly crashed and burned.  She’s now in India traveling about and using her skills as a doctor, while Leo has been sent by Bryony’s meddling sister, Callista, to check on Bryony.  Leo had no interest in doing this until he was told his erstwhile father-in-law is dying (a lie), so of course he had no choice but to go to India after her.

The Marsdens’s marriage was annulled several years ago after Bryony and Leo lied and said it had never been consummated.  (This was the easiest way out of a bad marriage back then).  Yet there hasn’t been anyone for either of them since, and the two of them still haven’t figured out how to communicate with each other, yet have a tremendous amount of affection and passion for each other.

On the trip out of India, which is complicated by getting involved in a war between the British/Indian troops and those opposed to British rule (Leo and Bryony are shot at and take refuge at a local fort, where Leo defends the fort with the soldiers and takes a wound or two while Bryony uses her skills as a physician and surgeon to keep him and the other soldiers alive), they finally figure out how to communicate with each other, and resume their marriage.  Note that while their remarriage is not shown, the end of the book makes it clear they have remarried and are doing fantastically well with each other.

NOT QUITE A HUSBAND was realistic mostly because of the portrayal of Leo and Bryony.  Both were very smart people and very capable people, but had almost no communication skills.    This is something that happens often to extremely smart people who’ve had difficult childhoods (as both had); instead of learning to communicate, a smart person often takes refuge in whatever knowledge he or she can amass rather than learning how to really communicate with his/her spouse.   The Swat Valley uprising of 1897 was the way to throw these two together long enough to be forced to deal with each other, and I think it makes perfect sense from an emotional level and a practical one that Bryony and Leo renewed their marriage in this unusual way.  That the background was well-drawn and the language lively and assured only helped cement these two powerful characters and make me more interested in their eventual fate.

Note that NOT QUITE A HUSBAND is the only one of Ms. Thomas’s four novels to date that does not have a subplot.  I think that made sense in this context; the whole story is about why these two cannot communicate, and once they finally figure it out, their marriage resumes in a much stronger fashion than before.

Finally, HIS AT NIGHT has an intriguing premise also.  Spencer, Lord Vere, is a secret agent for the Crown of Britain and uses the pretext of being an amiable idiot to blunder into places he really doesn’t belong and get away with it, while Elissande Edgerton has been treated horribly by her uncle Edmund Douglas and is a virtual prisoner in her uncle’s house — all she’s been able to do is help her aunt, Rachel, from sinking further into a laudanum-induced haze.  (This was caused by her uncle’s inattention, bad treatment, and a lifetime of being beaten down and battered.  Elissande has great sympathy for her aunt and refuses to abandon her, which is why at twenty-four she’s still in her uncle’s home.)

When Spencer and Elissande meet, the first thing that happens is that Elissande manages to force Spencer into marrying her by the simple expedient of being caught without her clothes in Spencer’s presence.  Note that Elissande is not sexually experienced; rather, she is desperate, and she will do anything she can to get herself and her aunt out of her uncle Edmund’s clutches for good.

Over time, Elissande figures out that her husband is not the amiable idiot he seems and that her marriage, despite its unusual start, is worth it to her — but can she convince Spencer of the same?  And will Freddie, Lord Stuart (and Spencer’s brother) finally marry the woman of his dreams, Angelica?  (Freddie was Lady Tremaine’s intended in PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS and is a noted painter, while Angelica loves art but does not have the talent to paint.)

HIS AT NIGHT is a good book with much derring-do and intrigue along with a believable romance between Spencer (whose been forced to play the idiot all these years) and Elissande, not to mention a good subplot between Freddie and Angelica.   I do not believe it’s the strongest of the four books Ms. Thomas has written, but it’s enjoyable and solid.

Final rankings of Ms. Thomas’s books:

1) PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS — the first, and the best.  Grade: A-plus.

2) NOT QUITE A HUSBAND — really good in all aspects.  A first-rate novel.  Grade: A.

3) DELICIOUS — the subplot is better than the main plot, but it’s a solid book that will be enjoyed far more if you are a culinary enthusiast.  (It’s been compared to books like CHOCOLAT, LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE, and others in that vein because of all the intricate and detailed information about food.)  Grade: B-plus.

4) HIS AT NIGHT — solid, enjoyable, and interesting, it still does not match up to PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS or NOT QUITE A HUSBAND.  Grade: B.

In summation, you could do a whole lot worse than pick up a Sherry Thomas novel — any of them — as even the weakest of the four will keep you up long past your bedtime.

— Reviewed by Barb.

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