The plane was delayed, luggage lost, and museums closed
Historical romance often disappoints because the setting does not resemble any actual historical period, but appears to be more a painted backdrop in a low-budget play about modern characters. For many, the backdrop provides just enough seeming that it allows the audience to suspend disbelief and focus on the action and characters. For others, its inaccuracies distract from the action, because the setting doesn’t match the plot and characters. In Sweetest Scoundrel, the setting is roughly 19th century England, but the characters act as though they lived in the 20th or 21st centuries, and that jarring disconnect contributed to my dislike of this novel.
Eve is a woman with a traumatic past who tries courageously to be and feel normal. The half-sister of a Duke, she keeps his books while he is mysteriously out of the country after a scandal. Which is how she meets Asa Makepeace, also known as Mr. Harte, owner and manager of Harte’s Folly, a famous pleasure garden that burnt down and is now being rebuilt – in part, with the Duke’s money. Harte comes from a conservatively religious family, although his father disowned him when Harte expressed his interest in the theater. Theater is devil’s work, according to his father’s beliefs. Both characters are defined by their traumatic pasts, and their histories are more extreme than many personal histories I’ve found in historical romance.
At first, the two start out at loggerheads, with Eve threatening to shut down Harte’s dream and livelihood. He convinces her to give the garden another chance, and Eve insists on looking into his bookkeeping. Which is how they get to know one another. As the theater is rebuilt slowly, it also suffers setbacks and sabotage. Eve and Harte work to solve the mystery and get the theater re-opened on time.
The romance between Eve and Harte fell flat for me – it was too sweet, too swift, too over-the-top. Asa and Eve very quickly advance to having sex, despite her fears and reluctance to feel any man’s touch. At the end, the “we can’t be together” trope seemed forced. Eve had come to realize what she wanted, but Asa stubbornly refused to explore options for having both the most important things in his life: the theater, and Eve. This stubbornness fit poorly with his earlier conviction that he could not live without Eve. As a last-minute attempt to add tension and feelings, it came too late and too dramatically. Throughout the novel, realistic characterization felt sacrificed to move the plot in the desired direction.
A few things did intrigue me about this novel: Mrs. Crumb, the Duke’s housekeeper, appears to be simply efficient and talented, but surely has some secrets that haven’t been divulged, as she plays a relatively large narrative part. The Duke himself, painted with the black brush of blackmail and amoralism, would make a fascinating hero of the next book in the series.
Ultimately, I have discovered that historical romance doesn’t do it for me anymore. I much prefer historical fiction where the setting and the characters remain true and consistent, and love stories that have more to do with real people than stereotyped characters.
Romance readers, rejoice! Jaclyn still enjoys them, and no doubt will continue reading and reviewing them here.
Historical fiction readers, check out the following list of books I would rather read:
Jaclyn has read this one, and highly recommends it. With my love of all the books Sara Donati has written, this is high on my to-read list.
My review of A Desperate Fortune will be posted this Thursday. In the meantime, trust that I enjoyed it.
Tower of Thorns, set in a much earlier time period, and involving faery creatures and magic, still brings that time period and the characters who inhabit it vividly to life. It’s the second in a series, so start with Dreamer’s Pool if you haven’t read it already.