Review: Where the Heart Leads by Stephane Laurens

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+

Published in: on January 27, 2010 at 1:40 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Review: Not Quite a Lady by Loretta Chase

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Now I know why Loretta Chase is the go-to author when converting new readers to the wonders of Romancelandism.

There is so much I could say that is good about this book. Not only was it incredibly well-written, but the characters were believable and engaging. Nothing took me out of the story, and that’s pretty amazing, especially considering that this is a Secret Baby book. I felt a flat-out, completely cynicism-free enjoyment of the story that I haven’t felt in a long, long time.

Lady Charlotte Hayward has a terrible secret — when she was seventeen, she fell in love with a rake and became pregnant by him. Unfortunately for her, he is killed in a duel (over another woman, no less) and she is left to face the scandal of a bastard child alone. Her stepmother, Lizzie, takes Charlotte away to the country, where the baby boy is born in secret and given to a clergyman and his wife who had been unable to have children of their own. Charlotte’s father, Lord Lithby, remains unawares of her plight, thinking his daughter is suffering from the same “wasting illness” that claimed her mother’s life a year before. Immensely grateful that scandal was diverted and ashamed of her actions, Charlotte devotes herself over the next ten years to being the best Lady she can possibly be. She lives in terror of her wedding night, when her husband will find out her shame and either her marriage will be ruined or scandal will erupt. To try to circumvent this she has become an expert in Not Getting Married, at least until she meets Darius Carsington.

Darius Carsington is the youngest son of the Earl of Hargate, and a devoted man of science. His particular area of expertise is the mating practices of animals; an expertise he puts into practice with the loose women of London society. He’s a slave to Logic and only has one rule regarding the women he beds — Don’t Sleep With Virgins. He has lived a relatively carefree life, but his father has given him an ultimatum. Either he turns around Beechwood Estate, which has been in Chancery for the past decade and is therefore falling apart, in one year’s time or he has to marry. Darius takes the challenge and finds himself next-door-neighbor to Lady Charlotte, who he can’t quite figure out.

I obviously can’t do justice to the plot or the characters in this review. When cut down to a few sentences of description they read like so many cliches, but on the pages they come to ferocious life, taunting and teasing and tumbling into piles of dirty laundry. While other readers more familiar with the Regency Romance genre may find these cliches to read tiredly despite Ms. Chase’s amazing writing, to me they were fresh and funny and new. And the dialogue — oh, the dialogue! It’s witty and dry without being over-the-top and there were several times that I laughed out loud. For example, when Lady Charlotte is reading some old love letters she found in a trunk and starts crying:

“I am not afraid of weeping,” came a deep voice from somewhere in the watery blur.

She looked toward the sound.

“My brother Rupert is not afraid of snakes, scorpions, or crocodiles, but he is afraid of weeping women,” Mr. Carsington said as he entered the room and gently closed the door behind him. “It is a terrifying sight, calculated to unman the stoutest-hearted fellow. Yet I am not afraid. I come armed.” He drew out a handkerchief.

Or after Darius dumps a pile of dirty laundry on Charlotte to hide her from the prying eyes of the local harridan:

He hastened to the heap of dirty linen in the corner.

An apron caught him in the face.

He saw Lady Charlotte’s upflung hand before he saw the rest of her.

The household linens and items of attire became a writhing mass as she struggled to extricate herself.

She sat up, sputtering, a pair of his drawers on her head. “You,” she said. “You.

He bit his lip. He coughed. He snickered. And finally, he let it out, a great whoop of laughter.

She scowled at him. “I was afraid to breathe,” she said. “Then my nose itched, and I dared not scratch it. Then –”

She broke off, glaring at him — no doubt because he must be grinning like an idiot.

“What?” she said. “What?”

“On your head,” he said. “My drawers.”

She looked up.

“You have my drawers on your head,” he said.

A pause.

Then, “Oh that,” she said. “Yes. I do that sometimes. Wear drawers on my head. It’s one of those interesting habits one gets to know about the other person as one gets to know the other person.”

“I should not wear them outside if I were you,” he said.

I loved how Darius and Charlotte talked about things to each other, and how Big Misunderstandings were avoided even though the potential for them was there. Yes, it was a little contrived how Pip comes back into their lives. Yes, the villain wasn’t particularly devious, just a little misguided (heck, I could see him as the hero of another book). Yes, her father must be dense to not have figured things out. But still, it was a good read, a solid story with excellent writing and strong characters.

Ms. Chase does such a brilliant job of capturing how people think and speak that it reads as real as anything I’ve ever read. She is certainly one of the best authors of our time and I hope she gets the recognition she deserves. I will be looking up her backlist.

This one definitely gets an A+.