Sunday, 17 November 2013

#CBR5 Book 137. "The Luckiest Lady in London" by Sherry Thomas

Page count: 304 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Felix Rivendale, the Marquess of Wrenworth is known in society as "the Ideal Gentleman". He is handsome, wealthy, charming, generous and famous for his lavish hospitality. Men want to be him, or at least his good friend, and it goes without saying that he's the most eligible bachelor on the market. He's clearly not a virgin, but there is not a whiff of scandal surrounding him, either. Few, if any, suspect that his cheerful and impeccable demeanour is a clearly constructed facade. Having been used as a pawn in the emotional warfare his parents conducted against each other, he's become deeply distrustful of strong emotions, and a master at manipulating those around them so subtly that they believe his suggestions are their own.

Miss Louisa Cantwell is the daughter of a country baron and and one of five sisters, none of whom are likely to snag the wealthy husband needed to secure the family's fortunes. She is neither particularly financially or physically desirable as a bride, but is also fully aware of it, and has worked tirelessly for the last eight years to plan her perfect season. Using every trick in the book, including bust improvers to make it look as if nature gave her a generous bosom, she's determined to find a husband by the end of the season, preferably not one who's too disagreeable. She's found two likely candidates, and uses every chance she gets to cultivate them and their relatives. She wouldn't dream of setting her sights on Lord Wrenworth, and is rather appalled with herself when they finally meet and she's both overwhelmed with lust for him, while at the same time convinced that he's a scoundrel, who can see right through all her. She's wondering why no one else suspects that he's not entirely as he seems.

Because she has absolutely no illusions about securing Wrenworth's affections, Louisa proceeds to be completely honest with him about her attraction. Felix finds it both intriguing and novel that this young woman clearly isn't taken in by "the Ideal Gentleman", and seems to actually dislike him, yet also confesses to erotic dreams about him. Since she sees what no one else sees, he can be shockingly forthright with her, and proposes to make her his mistress. Louisa somewhat reluctantly dismisses him, knowing full well that as a nobleman's lover she will never have the security she craves. Of course, not one to take no for an answer, Felix goes about eliminating her potential suitors, hoping that if she has no marriage prospects, she'll relent by the end of the season. Once he realises she's rather marry a butcher than become his mistress, he has to reevaluate his plans, and makes her his wife instead.

Louisa is a sensible and pragmatic young lady. She's considered all her other sisters, one is a recluse, one appears to be a lesbian, one is an epileptic and the last is "of completely the wrong temperament for the wooing of gentlemen". Their family are not exactly poor, their mother has a pension as long as she lives, but once she dies, the sisters are entirely on their own. She's deeply ambivalent about her feelings for Felix. On the one hand, she's infatuated with him and clearly desires him, on the other, she doesn't trust him for a second, and is uncertain about his motives for actually marrying her, rather than just holding out until she said yes to becoming his mistress. She has no illusions about the marriages of the upper classes, but figures that as long as she's enthusiastic and open for most things in the marriage bed, she might prevent her husband from straying, but she has no expectations of his love.

Felix is scared by the passionate desire he feels for his new wife. In his experience, love makes you weak and vulnerable and he tries to keep himself away from her as much as possible after their wedding night. He can't bear to hurt her for too long though, and soon her continued distrust starts to upset him. He knows that he manipulated her into marriage, and becomes terrified that he will lose her, or that his own marriage will become like that of his parents. "The Ideal Gentleman", who had no time for love needs to win the trust, love and devotion of his own wife.

Sherry Thomas' romances don't work for everyone. While a lot of the genre is frothy, light and diverting, perfect for cheering you up and giving you a much needed escape from your everyday cares, Thomas tends to focus on emotionally messed up protagonists who are often deeply unhappy, with themselves and each other, before they work through their angsty difficulties and start moving towards a happier future. The narratives of her books are frequently non-linear, moving back and forth between the past and the present. The Luckiest Lady in London is about intelligent, distrustful people who end up married to each other, gradually falling in love. There are no flashbacks, the story is chronological, with Felix' unhappy childhood revealed in the prologue.

Thomas has admitted that this novel is inspired by Loretta Chase's Lord of Scoundrels, which is so popular it's been number one on All About Romance's Top 100 Romances for at least the last 13 years (in 1998, the first poll listed, it was in shared fifth place). In it, the Marquess of Dain have parents in an unhappy marriage, his mother abandons him and his father is emotionally cold, so he tries his best to be as provoking as possible. He decides to become the most shocking and provoking hellion around, until formidable spinster Jessica (in my top five heroines ever) comes along and changes his life. Wrenworth (who actually appears or is mentioned in every single preceding Thomas romance, so this is sort of a prequel to them) has the same miserable childhood. His mother was pressured into marrying his father, who adored her. She loved another, and tortured Felix' father by strongly implying that his son was illegitimate. She doted on Felix, but only when someone could see it, otherwise both his parents had no time or affection for him. Learning quickly to distrust love, and managing without it, Felix decides to go in a different direction from Dain. He becomes "the Ideal Gentleman", universally irreproachable, adored by everyone. While Dain thrives on the shock and disgust of the ton, Wrenworth needs their adulation, while pretending to scorn it.

It's obvious that Felix becomes a victim of his own success. He clearly wishes that someone see through his perfectly crafted persona, and call him on his machinations, but until Louisa comes along, no one does. The fact that she not only sees the person he's trying to hide, but seems to like him, even when he's a scoundrel. His parents' loveless marriage convinced him that he was better without love, but when his own marriage is in danger of becoming as cold and barren, he realises he has to change before it's too late.

While parts of this novel has some of the trademark Thomas angst and upheaval, it's a lot more fun and light-hearted than her previous books. There's some amazing banter between Felix and Louisa, and he's such an awful, unapologetic schemer that you can't help but like him, even as you can't wait to see him brought to his knees. It's also incredibly refreshing to have a heroine, though a properly brought up virgin when she marries, is unashamed of her desires and curiosity about sex, even before she marries. All of these things make this my new favourite of her novels (AND I rate it higher than Lord of Scoundrels - gasp!)

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