My reaction to Where the Heart Leads by Stephanie Laurens can be best summed up by one phrase: I think I missed something. It wasn’t a bad book, certainly, and I did enjoy reading it; however, I kept feeling like I was missing something, or that some of the book was meta that an avid romance reader and/or fan of the Cynster series would get.
Penelope Ashford is the daughter of a viscount and runs the Foundling House, a home for orphans from all walks of life that trains them for jobs once they’ve grown up. Apparently this piece of sunshine, sparkles and treacle has shown up in a few other Cynster novels, because Penelope repeatedly refers to how her sister and friends are also involved in the Foundling House. Four boys have gone missing — in that their guardians died, Penelope went to pick them up, and they weren’t there. Concerned for their well-being, Penelope approaches Barnaby Adair, the eminently good-looking and intelligent private investigator to the ton. Of course, sparks fly. Barnaby is attracted to Penelope’s uniqueness and intelligence, and she is drawn to him for similar reasons.
The conflict preventing Barnaby and Penelope from getting together is largely internal and, quite frankly, a touch bothersome. Barnaby has this elaborate plan to get Penelope to propose to him (because he knows that if he proposed, she’d be afraid that he would try to control her life). It works, but it left me thinking two things — first of all, it was rather manipulative, which left me thinking less of the hero, and second of all, Barnaby keeps saying how he dislikes being constantly in Penelope’s wake, which makes me wonder how long it will be before he starts to resent her. And Penelope just seems unnecessarily wary of marriage — after all, she’s seen plenty of happy love matches around her, and yet she’s still terrified that if she marries, her husband will try to bend her to his will. Which is exactly what Barnaby does, just a heckuva lot sneakier.
The mystery is alright, although the ending wasn’t very strong. It felt like initially Ms. Laurens had one idea for who the culprit would be — by introducing a suitor of Penelope’s early on that seemed likely to be a rival for Barnaby — but instead that turned out to be a bit of sequel-baiting. In fact, we don’t see the mastermind other than as his alter-ego Mr. Alert until the reveal, which means that there’s absolutely no way the reader could have had a shot at figuring it out. Also, some of the bad guy’s motivations — like why Smythe turned to murder — don’t seem quite on par with their characters.
The secondary romance between Stokes and Griselda was very sweet, and I would have loved to see more of it, rather than the main one. In fact, some of the space that was devoted to about five back-to-back sex scenes, which after the first one I skipped, could have been devoted to Stokes and Griselda and greatly improved my enjoyment of the book. Oh, and those sex scenes! I don’t think anyone really thinks that much during sex, and if they do, they certainly aren’t enjoying it. The prose wasn’t too purple, thankfully, and I understand that the scenes were supposed to show emotional growth, but they got rather repetitive quickly and didn’t feel like they really moved the story forward. I believe from other reviews of books by Ms. Laurens that this may be a reoccurring issue for her.
Now, I know it sounds like I’m riffing really hard on this book, but in reality, it wasn’t bad. I would consider this to be one of the better historical romances I’ve read so far. The characters were well-drawn; the dialogue, though not as witty as I had hoped, was good; the plot was serviceable despite its tendency to hit on the treacly side of the spectrum. The main problem was that a lot of the book felt kind of meta — like the author was saying, “Hey look at how I’m using this trope! Didn’t I twist it nicely?” Add that to a bad case of seriesitis (which, thankfully, did not present in multiple appearance of adorably little nieces and nephews, at least until the epilouge), and unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy the book as much as wanted to.
I’ve heard good things about Ms. Laurens, and I know some people swear by her, so I’m more than willing to give her writing another chance. I think, however, that I will find one of her earlier stories and start there — perhaps without the seriesitis I will enjoy her writing more.
Overall grade: B-/C+