Due to circumstances beyond my control, it’s been a few weeks since I last reviewed anything here at Shiny Book Review (SBR). To make up for that lack, I thought tonight was as good a time as any to review Sherry Thomas’s two latest Victorian romances, BEGUILING THE BEAUTY and RAVISHING THE HEIRESS.
BEGUILING THE BEAUTY is the story of twice-wed, twice-widowed Venetia Easterbrook, and her unlikely romance with never-married Christian de Montfort, Duke of Lexington. Venetia, you see, is a famed beauty, someone everyone knows but no one really knows, while Christian is a scientist and academic. And, of course, the first thing that we see is the young Christian falling in love at first sight with Venetia; however, she’s already married, which means Christian doesn’t approach her and his love goes unrequited.
Then, Venetia’s first husband, Anthony Townsend, slanders Venetia’s character in a quick, private conversation with Christian; not long after that, Anthony takes his own life, but that’s covered up by Venetia’s brother, Fitzhugh, as is the fact that Anthony left Venetia penniless.
Next, Christian finds out that Venetia has cheated on her second husband, Arthur Easterbrook — but once again, Christian has heard falsehoods, and credited them wholeheartedly, which is nearly impossible to believe considering Christian is a man of science.
Finally, the oddest coincidence happens; Venetia, her sister-in-law Millie, and her younger sister Helena, are in New York at the same time Christian gives a scientific speech. As Venetia herself is a scientist — a paleontologist — she insists on going. But once she’s there, she hears her good name slandered as the woman Christian has lusted after for a good ten years, and vows revenge.
I say this is an odd coincidence, partly because most talks of this nature would not be so well-attended that Venetia, as a great beauty, would be able to blend in. And considering the fact that Christian has been obsessed with Venetia for years, he should’ve focused in on her like a laser beam — oops, wrong century — rather than slander her to the point she’s recognizable even without the use of her first and last name.
So at this point, I was rather frustrated with the story, even though Ms. Thomas’s writing remains as clear and lucid as ever. I had the sense that the writing was great, but the story was contrived — and it just grew more contrived the longer it went on.
Don’t believe me? Well, how about this — Venetia ends up on an ocean liner with Christian, calling herself the Baroness von Seidlitz-Hardenberg and speaking only German and French. She wears a veil whenever she’s around Christian, one which obscures her features completely, and tells Christian she’s disfigured; however, the rest of her is on full display, and if Christian really has been obsessed with Venetia for years, he should recognize her body, or her voice, or something.
But for whatever reason, he doesn’t.
Anyway, if you can get past all the plot contrivances — and there are many, as the ones I’ve listed are just the tip of the iceberg — this is an interesting and sometimes moving love story that’s extremely well-written.
However, as I can’t quite get past the plot contrivances (especially as I do not understand whatsoever how Christian doesn’t recognize Venetia, veiled or not), and especially because I know Ms. Thomas can do better than this (see this link for further details), this book struck me as an unsatisfying effort by a fantastic writer. (And please, don’t get me started on the ending, because if anything, it’s even more contrived than the rest of it.)
Next up is RAVISHING THE HEIRESS, where we meet Millie Graves, an heiress, and Lord Fitzhugh (always called “Fitz”), a penniless Earl. Millie’s father wants Millie to marry a title, so all of her education has gone toward that end, while Fitz would rather marry the love of his life, Isabelle Pelham, but has no choice as his ancestral seat is a moribund wreck.
Once married, Fitz falls into a deep depression on their honeymoon; Millie, being a quiet and selfless young woman, does everything she can to help him while keeping his secrets. Eventually, she proposes an eight-year moratorium on procreation — partly because she’s desperately in love with Fitz and figures if she can’t win him in eight years, she doesn’t have a prayer anyway, and partly because she believes it’ll get him out of the dumps.
And so it goes; they rebuild Fitz’s house, they take over Millie’s father’s business (as the father dies young, and Millie’s mother is uninterested in running it), and they find out they’re more alike than not.
Sounds good, right? But there’s a catch — Fitz has Millie’s OK to go outside the marriage, while Millie herself does not. So Millie remains chaste, while Fitz sows whatever wild oats he wants . . . this is not palatable to modern readers, especially as Millie seems quite modern in many other ways (she figures out a way to run the business quietly with her husband being the “point man,” which, while manipulative, was probably one of the few ways a woman — married or not — had to actually run a business in the 1880s or 1890s).
Going on, Millie’s quiet suffering, while heart-wrenching, made me want to shake her. She’s bright, accomplished, and has built a solid friendship with her husband despite the circumstances of their marriage, all good; that she can’t open her mouth to say, “I’m in love with you, Fitz, so why don’t you get your act together already and let’s get on?” just defies credulity.
Finally, when the widowed Isabelle shows back up, Millie not only accepts this, but welcomes Isabelle in public while seething in private. Yet Millie’s seething is something her oblivious husband doesn’t pick up on, even though he seems to know her so well otherwise . . . what gives?
At any rate, RAVISHING THE HEIRESS, too, is a disappointment, considering it comes from the august pen of Sherry Thomas. It’s well-written — better written than its subject matter deserves — and the story made a bit more sense than BEGUILING THE BEAUTY. But despite the fine writing, the story just did not convince.
Overall, while these are better than average historical romances, they aren’t up to the standard of previous Thomas efforts like PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS and NOT QUITE A HUSBAND (reviewed elsewhere at SBR): they’re good, but not great. And when an excellent writer like Ms. Thomas puts out two books like this, when you know she can do better, it’s extremely frustrating.
That being said, these are romances that will divert you for a few hours due to the high quality of Ms. Thomas’s writing. And you may well want to re-read them, too; if you do, focus on the emotion rather than the plot contrivances, because the emotions are right even if much of the rest of it isn’t.
BEGUILING THE BEAUTY: B-minus
RAVISHING THE HEIRESS: B
— reviewed by Barb
**Note: For whatever reason, right now I’m unable to add links to Ms. Thomas’s books. My apologies.