Saturday 6 May 2017

#CBR9 Book 39: "Where Dreams Begin" by Lisa Kleypas

Page count: 373 pages
Audio book length: 12hrs 28 mins
Rating: 4 stars

Lady Holland "Holly" Taylor is at her first social engagement in three years, following prolonged mourning for her beloved husband. While waiting for her carriage to take her home, she is pulled into the arms of a stranger (who initially believes her to be someone else, naturally) and kissed passionately. Interestingly, reclusive widow that she is, Holly doesn't recoil and descend into hysterics or outrage, instead she allows herself to be swept away by the unexpected embrace and kisses the stranger back, not once, but twice. Only when he offers to seduce her does she leave, promising herself to never think of it again.

If only it were that easy. Her mystery man is Zachary Bronson, a former prize-fighter made financial magnate. Now one of the richest men in London (and probably England, isn't that always the case?), Bronson is nonetheless not properly accepted in polite society and certainly doesn't have the respect of the upper classes. He is seen as a vulgar upstart, for all that most are desperate to join in with his businesses, as everything he involves himself with seems to turn to profit. Bronson isn't all that bothered about being accepted in society for himself, but he wants an advantageous match for his sister (who is illegitimate) and he has a clever plan to get to spend a lot more time with the lovely Lady Holly.

Inviting her to his gaudy and opulent London home for tea, he makes her an offer so generous, she cannot in good conscience refuse, even though her reputation may be tarnished forever. As a widow with a young daughter, Holly doesn't have a lot to live on, and is currently staying with her husband' family, who claim they are more than happy to take care of her for the rest of her days. She has absolutely no intention to ever remarry, but is starting to feel a bit constricted after three years of isolation. So when Bronson, who wisely doesn't acknowledge their previous meeting (Holly seems so happy that he doesn't seem to "recognise" her), offers to pay her a small fortune in trust for her daughter, with an extra outrageous as salary for Holly herself, if she take her child and move in with the Bronsons for a year, to tutor them all in the necessary social graces, she'd be a fool not to accept.

The Taylors are appalled at Holly's decision, and claims that Bronson has unsavoury designs on her virtue, but Holly will not have her mind changed. And while Bronson initially may have had plans to seduce Holly, he quickly comes to see that their social standings are much too far apart and that she was never meant for someone as coarse and common as he. He knows that while he could seduce her, she would never consent to becoming his mistress, and he would lose her forever.

The main conflict in this book is the very realistic hurdle of a massive gap in social standing between the heroine and hero. While Zachary is filthy rich and very powerful, he is living in a time when making your money "in trade" was still seen as less worthy than being born into an aristocratic family. Even impoverished noblemen with thousands of pounds in debt would be more accepted in "polite" society than some upstart commoner who made a fortune through cleverness and hard work. That so many nobles would need his help to secure their own dwindling fortunes would only rankle more.

Lady Holly is the daughter of an earl who married a gentleman. While her husband wasn't titled, custom dictated that she take her ladyship title with her into the marriage. Holly married for love, and her husband was clearly a good man who treated her well. Yet it's also clear that she has never really experienced passion or overpowering sexual desire before she met Zachary. In this way, while Lady Holly is not a virgin, she is still very innocent and inexperienced and has all sorts of things to still discover about herself and her desires over the course of her relationship with Bronson.

Holly is definitely not one of those slightly anachronistic heroines who tomboyishly climbed trees and read the wrong kind of books and always wanted to break out of the confines of her station. No, she was clearly raised exactly as most noble young ladies were and married young, quite happy to be guided by the wishes and advice of her husband. Loving her husband deeply, she intends to mourn him for the rest of her life and never remarry. Yet after three years, she's also clearly looking for some new challenges and therefore she accepts Zachary's job offer. She constantly wonders whether her dear departed husband would approve, but as time passes, she learns to make decisions for herself and finds that she really enjoys being in control of her own destiny.

This book was originally published in 2000, when I think it was probably perfectly ok to have a romance hero who spends the first half of the novel going to brothels to carouse, just so he can try to put the heroine out of his thoughts. To me, this was absolutely one of the less appealing aspects of the story and I'm glad that even the most experienced of rakes in more current historical romances seem to forget all about their former promiscuity as soon as they meet that special someone who will ensure they stay monogamous forever more. While the scenario here is probably a lot more historically accurate, no one actually reads Regency romances for the gritty realism.

While I liked that there isn't some moustache-twirling villain keeping the lovers apart, both parties' insistence that they are completely wrong for one another and the time it takes for them to finally act on their attraction towards each other (after that first, very promising kiss at the beginning) got a bit frustrating for me. I also think that the final act complication, once the lovers have finally admitted their feelings for one another and are well on their way to HEA was an unnecessary addition (although it did make me want to re-read Dukes Prefer Blondes, so it's not all bad) that dragged the story out needlessly. It also added a frankly ridiculous supernatural element.

I see why my esteemed colleague in romance reviewing, Mrs. Julien, likes this book a lot. I don't exactly think it's a classic that I will revisit time and time again, but I'm glad I finally read it.

Judging a book by its cover: The cover I found for this is for the new edition of this book (the older one being something with a lot of pastel, if I'm not mistaken). I'm going to assume the cover model is meant to be Lady Holly, in her so very eye-catching red dress which makes Zachary completely speechless. While the dress the cover model is wearing is pretty, it looks more like a contemporary wedding dress that someone dyed crimson rather than a period appropriate  Regency gown. Very nice brocade upholstered furniture in the background there, though.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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