Sunday, 5 March 2017

#CBR9 Book 18: "Devil in Spring" by Lisa Kleypas

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars
Audio book length: 10 hrs 5 mins

Lady Pandora Ravenel, one of the late Earl of Trenear's twin daughters is suffering through her first season. Normally she spends her times at balls sitting with the wallflowers, having invented some convoluted excuse for her inability to dance that evening. When a newly married friend of hers asks for her help to retrieve a lost earring, Pandora braves her fear of the dark to go out to the deserted pavilion, searching for the earring and getting herself soundly stuck in an elaborate piece of furniture for her troubles. The dashing and handsome and very unmarried Lord Gabriel St. Vincent comes along to help her, but once he's got her untangled from the settee, Pandora's dress and coiffure is rather worse for wear and they are caught in what appears to be a very compromising position.

Gabriel, Lord St. Vincent, is the son and heir of the Duke and Duchess of Kingston (Kleypas fan favourites Sebastian and Evie from Devil in Winter) and has been raised to do the right thing, even though he had no intention of marrying any time soon and has skilfully evaded both fortune hunting young misses and match-making mamas for years. He goes to Devon Ravenel, the current Earl of Trenear to ask for Pandora's hand in marriage. Devon is Pandora's cousin, having become her guardian and inheriting the title when Pandora's elder brother Theo was thrown from a spirited horse. At Pandora's fervent protests, he assures her that she won't have to marry Lord St. Vincent unless she is absolutely certain that is what she wants, no matter what scandal might result from her remaining unmarried. Pandora is worried what her refusal and the possible ensuing gossip will do to the marriage chances of her twin Cassandra, who seems to enjoy the flirting, gossiping, dancing and elaborate dresses of her first season, while agreeing with her sister that society's rules and expectations are very silly. Devon claims they've managed before, and will again.

Having heard of the situation their heir has gotten himself into, Sebastian's parents suggest inviting all the Ravenels to their country estate for a week, so Gabriel and Pandora can spend some time together away from society's wagging tongues and prying eyes, while the families get to know each other better. While initially, Gabriel is rather taken aback by Pandora's odd manners and forthright and impulsive way of speaking her mind at all times, grows more intrigued and attracted to her with every passing encounter. He wonders at her strenuous conviction against ever marrying, and soon wants nothing more but to persuade her to become his wife.

Pandora's family life before her cousin inherited the title was dysfunctional, to say the least. Her parents don't seem to have had a very happy marriage, with frequent arguments and extra-marital affairs on both sides. Neither of them had any time for their three daughters, lavishing all the attention on their son, Theo, who was spoiled, arrogant, had a terrible temper and a drinking problem. Their eldest daughter, Lady Helen, was shy and reclusive and didn't really mind growing up on a remote country estate. The ladies Pandora and Cassandra were left to their own devices, able to do whatever they wanted, running more or less wild throughout their childhood and adolescence. Pandora is neuro-atypical, struggling with possible ADHD. She's terrified of the dark and has poor hearing and occasional tinnitus in one ear after her father threw her into a wall once he caught her eavesdropping. She now has some examples of happy love matches, with her cousin Devin having married her widowed sister-in-law Kathleen after Theo's death. They are utterly devoted to one another, as are Lady Helen and her husband, the Welsh industrialist and department store tycoon Rhys Winterborne.

Pandora's chief objections to marriage, however, come from the fact that she wants to be an entrepreneur, inventing and developing board games. She already has a patent on one, which she needs to put into production. Mr. Winterborne has promised to sell it in his stores. If she gets married, she can no longer negotiate business deals or sign contracts. She will no longer be considered a legal entity in her own right and any profits she makes from her inventions will automatically go to her husband. She doesn't think any man is worth giving up all that, but after a week with Gabriel pitching woo at her, she's starting to wonder if she isn't going to have to find some sort of compromise.

Long story short, Pandora and Gabriel end up married. I'm sure you're all shocked at this development. Gabriel insists on Pandora taking a body guard around with her when she does business, but otherwise seems very happy to let her develop her board games. Only when Pandora becomes witness to something that puts her life in danger, does it become difficult for him to keep his promises about letting her run her own company.

Lisa Kleypas returned to historical romances after many years of writing only contemporaries with the first book in the Ravenel series, Cold-Hearted Rake. This is the third in the series about the various Ravenel family members. I'm assuming Cassandra, Devin's younger brother West and Ethan, the mysterious Bow Street Runner from this book with the distinctive Ravenel eyes who claims he totally absolutely isn't in any way related to them, but who is obviously some sort of illegitimate relative of theirs are going to have their own romances in future books. While the previous two books in the series were perfectly fine, this is the first book in the series I've really enjoyed and thought was comparable to some of Kleypas' earlier really good historicals.

My fellow connoisseur of romance on the web, and much bigger Kleypas fan than I, Mrs. Julien, highlighted the way Gabriel infantilizes Pandora a lot in her review. I have to be honest, while I was very unhappy about one scene, where there was frankly some Old School "No, really you'll like it" pressuring from Gabriel towards the very bookishly smart, but actually very inexperienced, innocent and rather reluctant Pandora, I didn't really notice his rather patronizing behaviour until Mrs. J pointed it out. My main complaint with him is how quickly he goes from thinking Pandora is a bit crazy and out of control, to appearing to view everything she does as quirky, whimsical and cute. As his parents are a beloved romance couple in their own right, he was never going to have a horrible childhood or parental issues to make him interesting. Frankly, Gabriel was so perfect I found him rather dull. It's hinted that he has a dark sexual side, but at no point in the book did his proclivities seem shocking or unusual.

I really liked the feminist angle of Pandora's very real objections to marriage. With the support of her family, she could easily have made a name and career for herself in her own right, and even after Gabriel consults his solicitors to find a way for Pandora to marry him and still run her own business, it's clear that no matter how accepting the husband, there were no loopholes for this. Widows had the right to run their own companies, but not married women. Married women didn't really exist legally, they were just a part of a unit, where the husband had all the rights and power. Gabriel's older sister, Phoebe, is amused at his confusion when Pandora has explained her stance to him, and tries to help him get a much-needed reality check before he continue his courtship.

Having not read the excellent Devil in Winter since 2012 (it really is time for a re-read), I'm a bit hazy on all the plot details, but suspect Ms. Kleypas had the dramatic events of the second half of the book lead to Pandora's life being threatened as a way to mirror Gabriel's parents' book, where Evie needs to nurse Sebastian back to health. Pandora's brush with death also lets Kleypas show off female surgeon Garrett Gibson's advanced medical skills (if I'm not mistaken she's going to be the heroine in the future book where Ethan totes-not a Ravenel is the hero). The whole plot, with shadowy conspiracies, near-death experiences and possible corruption in the government is clearly setting up for later books, but it felt a bit out of place in a novel about an inventive and impulsive society original and the rake she marries.

I listened to part of this book in audio, with Mary Jane Wells narrating excellently. I got impatient to get to the end, however, so read about half in e-book format. The audio is highly recommended, though and I may get future books narrated by Ms. Wells if the option presents itself. This is my favourite of the current Ravenel series, if not up to some of Ms. Kleypas' more classic novels. I still don't regret paying for the book and will be looking forward to new books in the series.

Judging a book by its cover: I'm honestly not sure whether the marketing people at Avon ever really read Ms. Kleypas' books, because with the exception of the hair colour of the cover models, all three book covers for her Ravenel series have been pretty anachronistic and wrong for the contents. This cover looks more like it should feature in some sort of contemporary wedding fashion spread, with a gown that in no way looks appropriate for the late Victorian era. I kind of like the dreamy, seemingly fairy lit trees in the background, but the whole feel is completely wrong for a spirited and stubborn heroine like Pandora. If thise were a contemporary, the picture would be a lot more appropriate.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

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