I hate the word "delightful." It feels like such an insipid word, but fuck it, if you ask me to sum up this book in one word, right off the top of my head, delightful it is.
Simply put, this book made me happy, this book made me smile. In a 3-bear rating system, this book would be Baby Bear to my Goldilocks because it is just fucking right. I cannot ask more than that of a comfort read. I really have to restrain myself in this review in order to contain it to a reasonable length, because I have a million reasons on my "Why I Love This Book" list. And yes, I do have a "Why I Love This Book" list. I can provide photographic proof, but you wouldn't be able to read my handwriting so the point is moot.
I have not always been a fan of historical romance novels. Throughout my teens, I have always regarded with scorn the paperback shelves with the books labeled with the big red heart of shame on the side binding. For me, it might as well have been the Scarlet Letter, that stupid red heart. Around 7 years ago, desperate for something frivolous to read, I grabbed a book by Julia Quinn. "It's less shameful to read a romance novel because she's a Harvard graduate." I told myself in order to mitigate my internal shame. And I have never looked back. This book brought back all those earlier Julia Quinn feeeeeeels.
Ignore the summary. The summary sucks and the title sucks. The characters made the book so much more fun than the boring as heck summary would have you believe. It is your typical historical romance, set in Victorian England. Our heroine is Louisa Cantwell, the daughter of a failed fortune hunter and his destitute society bride. Louisa has four sisters who are nearly unmarriageable, for various reasons (none of them scandalous). She loves them, she wants to be able to care for them. At the age of 16, our very admirable Miss Louisa Cantwell decides to make the completely mercenary and highly admirable decision to marry for money, so she can provide for her family, who are living in genteel poverty.
Flash forward 8 years later, Louisa finally has her chance. A family friend finally grants her the chance to make her London debut. Louisa is very old for a debutante, and she is completely unoutstanding in every way, but due to sheer willpower and effort, she catches the eyes of a few eligible young man. Her plan goes accordingly, and Louisa is on track to make a good match at the end of a the season (to a wealthy gentleman, of course), until---shit!---The Ideal Gentleman glances her way.
Felix, Marquess of Rivendale, has a shitty, shitty childhood, which we know from the very beginning. His stunning mother makes a fabulous match to a Marquess---which actually sucks, because she's not in love with her intended husband. She was forced into the marriage very much against her will, and being unable to take out her anger on her father, she instead takes it out on her husband. Her heartbroken husband plunges into a worsening state of heartbreak and despair with every passing year. Felix becomes their pawn, and as he grows up and learns manipulation from the very best, he begins playing games of his own, pitting his parents against one another as a desperate gasp for acknowledgement. They die. Felix swallows his regrets, and becomes determined to live his life his own way, to be The Ideal Gentleman in the eyes of society.
Felix has very definite plans for his life, he'll marry at an old age, to a pretty 17 year old with more tits than brains who will adore him blindly, and he'll never relinquish control over his heart. His plans gradually fall to pieces the more he gets to know the ever-so-ordinary, but inordinarily fascinating Louisa who will become "his undoing."
Louisa is freaking terrified of Felix. Not that he's ugly, far from it. She's terrified of him because he is fucking gorgeous, she is really, incredibly attracted to him, and HE may prove to be the undoing of her plan. Remember, Louisa plans to marry a boring, safe gentleman, and she is ordinary enough to know that she doesn't have a snowflake's chance in hell of getting a marriage proposal from Felix, the most eligible gentleman in town. Naturally, guys want what they can't have, and Felix turns into a circling hawk of prey once he sees that Louisa wants to run away screaming whenever he appears in the same room with her.
Their courtship is akin to a deer-in-a-headlight situation. It is hilarious, it is outrageous at times. Felix turns into kind of an asshole, but he is never irredeemably bad. They get married quickly, and the fun continues (and I mean fun). It is not all roses, Felix and Louisa both have their own internal battles to fight. Both characters have their issues with trust, and their struggle is believable, sympathetic, and never overwhelmed by an exorbitant amount of angst. I said I read this book with a smile, and I mean it. The story is not altogether light, but it is tremendously satisfying.
Reasons Why I Love This Book: Historical romances are all the same, pretty much. It is the characters that makes a book stand out, and these are the reasons why I adore Felix and Louisa. These are just a few reasons. If I were to name them all, you'd be forced to read a review the length of a novella.
Louisa is average: Louisa is not outstanding in any way. She is a success in town, but only out of sheer effort. She is smart, but not overly intelligent nor a wit. She is good-looking, not beautiful. She is flat-chested (and as a fellow itty-bitty-titty-committee member, I cheer her on). Felix does not love Louisa because she is beautiful. Louisa becomes beautiful to Felix because he loves her.
Her nose was red. The rest of her face, too, was somewhat ruddy. And the somber blue of her cloak did her complexion no favors, making her appear even more splotchy.
All this Felix perceived. But he could see only loveliness, endless, endless loveliness.
Love was not blind, but it might mimic a deteriorating case of cataracts.
Felix and Louisa are friends before lovers: They are so tremendously dynamic together. Their dialogue is full of hilarity, playful banter, laughter, teasing. They play games with each other. They do things to make each other laugh. Knowing her secret desire to be a voyeur, Felix climbs a hill and places two mannequins in compromising positions and repeatedly reposition them so that she could see them through a telescope. They learn together. He teaches her math. He fosters her desire and love for astronomy, he never puts her down, he never outrightly belittles her. As cold as he acts sometimes when he is trying to shield himself, Felix almost always treats Louisa with utmost courtesy. And he doesn't mind that she wears bust improvers.
“Well, my bust improver doesn’t so much improve my bust as create one where none exists.”
He glanced at her bosom. “So how much of that is actually yours?”
“Twenty-five percent. Thirty-five at most.”
His eyes widened.
“Only sorry to be caught, I see.”
“Well, I always did plan to make up for it.”
“How?” Was that a barely suppressed smile in his voice? “Isn’t it a bit late for you to develop a bigger pair?”
Louisa is not ashamed of her desire: Louisa acts like a lady, but a lady still has desires. This book may be set in Victorian times, and Louisa may be chaste, but it doesn't mean that she doesn't feel attraction. And what I love about her is that she acknowledges her carnal desires, her need, her want of the astoundingly attractive Felix, and she does not chastize herself for it. The love scenes are sensual, but exceedingly fun. I said that Felix and Louisa are friends, and that translates to the bedroom, as well. They have fun together, they laugh together, they learn together. And that's what makes this book so enjoyable, because the characters are having a tremendous romp themselves.
Felix is just the perfect amount of rake: He is not perfect, she is not perfect. There is an amount of angst, of course, and he has to overcome it, but unlike most HR leading men, Felix is a genuinely nice guy. He is sweet. He is so utterly sweet. He sends Louisa tulips, meaning "I am hopelessly in love with you." He knows she has wanted a telescope her whole life, and he buys her an extravagant one as a wedding gift. And the way he treats her family...I melt.
Louisa has a sister, who is mildly pockmarked. She asks Felix to comfort her sister and reassure her that she is not ugly, to "shamelessly flatter Frederica". This is how Felix does it. It's a long quote, but I love it so much that I will include it in its entirety.
“The only imperfections I see are a few shallow pockmarks on your right cheek. I would never have permitted any sister of mine to brood over such minor blemishes for the better part of a decade.
“Had you come for a London Season, you would not have dislodged Mrs. Townsend from her perch as the most beautiful woman in London. You might not even have disturbed Miss Bessler’s place third on that list. But make no mistake, you would have been mentioned in the same breath as those women. Instead, you have wasted your youth grieving for a gross misfortune that never took place: You are perhaps five percent less lovely than you would have been without the pockmarks, not fifty percent.
“Miss Louisa asked me to compliment you, but I shall not, not when you can go out and garner hundreds of them on your own with minimum effort. And if you will not, then there is nothing anyone can do for you—the matter is not with your face, but your head.”
Felix and Louisa are likeable: They are good people. They are not overwhelmingly stubborn for the sake of contrariness. I loved them both. They are not resistant to change. They have their moments of obstinacy, but they quickly, and the keyword is quickly realize their error. Their change is not sudden, it happens throughout the book. They learn from each experience. They apologize. They make amends to each other. They admit their faults. They open up about their past. They are honest to each other. They do not play stupid fucking petty mind games.
Truly, I loved them both.
The tension: Felix and Louisa do not have an altogether smooth marriage, and the tension is portrayed so well. They are utterly civil towards each other, but both are living on tenterhooks, the tension is high, and it is thoroughly felt. It is not overwhelming, but the reader is left slightly on edge, wondering if they will work things out. The portrayal of anxiety and stress is impeccably done.
This book is not perfect; I had some problems with the plot, but overall, the characters are so lovely that it didn't bother me that much. I do not recommend books lightly, and I hope those of you who read this enjoy this book as much as I did.
P.S. Don't read the short excerpt of her next book after the epilogue. It looks all sorts of terrible, and it takes away from the afterglow of this wonderful book. I was left scratching my head thinking: "What the actual fuck, Victorian ninja assassin lady fighting on a ship on a storm-tossed sea?"