Julia Quinn’s newest romance novel JUST LIKE HEAVEN is a historical romance set in 1824 England — in other words, just after the Regency era ended. Most of the conventions of traditional Regency romances are followed here even though this technically isn’t a Regency; that means we’re dealing with the aristocracy (the Ton), balls, country estates, and some elements of farce. But that alone won’t sell a book, so it’s a good thing that JUST LIKE HEAVEN also contains a plausible love story, an unusual plot, and excellent characterization.
Honoria Smythe-Smith is twenty-one and is still looking for a husband. Her brother, Daniel, had to flee to Italy after a duel gone awry; Daniel’s best friend, Marcus Holroyd, the Earl of Chatteris, has stepped in as a “surrogate brother” to Honoria and her mother. Of course these two are going to have a romance; what was unusual here is the nature of the Smythe-Smith amateur musicales. As the aristocrats of the day used to watch women (sometimes men, too) play music in their homes, having an annual musicale isn’t special; it’s that having one where the musicians are all terrible (and admittedly so) is definitely “out of the common way,” in period jargon. And it’s the way Marcus comes to view Honoria due to her service as a violinist (a really bad one) in the musicales that makes this book unique.
In a previous Julia Quinn Novel, IT’S IN HIS KISS, the Smythe-Smith clan was introduced, with the lot of them being described as anywhere from awful to abysmal musicians. But as it’s a family tradition, all the young ladies in the family learn an instrument, preferably a stringed instrument or the piano. Honoria plays the violin — badly, and she knows it — while her cousin Daisy also plays the violin, but even worse than Honoria. Cousin Iris plays the cello and is actually quite good, but no one can tell because of how awful the two violinists are, while Cousin Sarah (Honoria’s closest friend) plays the piano competently but no one can tell because once again, the violinists are so dreadful that any music they play sounds like noise that would scare dogs and cats.
In the earlier novel, IT’S IN HIS KISS, it was presumed that the Smythe-Smiths all had tin ears, and that every single last one of them in the current generation was terrible. But in JUST LIKE HEAVEN, that’s not proven to be the case; Honoria knows she’s bad, and she knows she has no real ability with the violin, but she doesn’t want to disrespect her family. And she does love music, so she tries her best, puts on a brave face, and knows she’s going to be ridiculed. (This, by the way, is the obvious farcical element, but it’s handled very well by Ms. Quinn, and there’s some genuine depth here along with the humor.)
As for Marcus, Honoria’s love interest, he’s six years older than Honoria. He’s known her since she was six years old, and as he was an only child, he was more or less adopted by the whole Smythe-Smith clan. They’ve always been great friends, and they enjoy each other’s company without artifice or pretense — meaning there’s a good amount of sarcastic banter here, but no real double entendres. But now that Honoria’s grown up, Marcus realizes that she’s the most interesting woman he’s ever been around; when he falls ill due to misadventure, she rushes to his rescue along with her mother, who’s been dispirited for years due to brother Daniel’s disgrace, and of course the sparks between Marcus and Honoria fly thick and fast even though neither does anything about it due to Marcus’s serious illness.
Once he recovers, Honoria finds out that all along, Marcus was in contact with her brother and that makes Honoria believe that Marcus really isn’t in love with her. (This is the weakest plot element in the book.) She removes from Marcus’s country estate and goes back to London with her mother. The pair have a rapproachment, Marcus comes to see Honoria’s service to her family as oddly heroic despite how awful she is as a violinist, and then the remaining farcical elements of the whole Smythe-Smith musicale ensure a happy ending for all concerned.
I really enjoyed this book. It was funny, had an unusual amount of music involved (which I thought a clever touch), the witty banter between Marcus and Honoria was great, and the overall feeling that these two could be real people in that time frame shows that Ms. Quinn’s sense of characterization was right on the money.
The weaknesses here are minor, but they bugged me. First, there are times in the narrative where the dialogue was anachronistic. For example, the line “It is what it is” is all wrong for post-Regency era England. They might have said, “It is what is,” but I’m not even sure of that; all I know is that this particular line is flat wrong for the era and it threw me out of the reader’s trance with great force. And that’s not the only line that threw me out — that’s just the worst of them.
Second, while I liked this romance a lot, I thought there was too much attention spent on Marcus’s illness and Honoria’s nursing of him (along with her mother). I can see where this couple needed to have an experience like that to get them to admit their feelings for one another, but why render these few days in such exhaustive detail that out of a 374 page book, over 130 pages are devoted to this illness?
And finally, I really didn’t understand why Honoria, who knows she’s an awful musician, felt she should stand up on stage beaming with apparent pride — I can see going up there and gritting her teeth, or going up there and smiling once because she’s happy she’s carrying on the family tradition. But as a musician, I know that I would never do this if I were unprepared with the music I was about to play (as Honoria most certainly is, because she doesn’t have the skill level to be able to play it competently, or even at all).
All that said, this is a solid, funny, and smart romance that gets most of it right, and I enjoyed it quite a bit.
— reviewed by Barb