by Nicole Byrd, historical (2004)
Berkley, $6.99, ISBN 0-425-19683-6
Beauty In Black is a nice Regency historical romance where the characters may think or behave in ways that are similar to characters in many other books of this subgenre, but at least their behavior and mindset fit the context of the story. There is no abrupt and baseless stance against marriage, no annoying angsts that are inserted for the sake of angst alone - in short, while there are many things about this book that could be considered clichés, they are actually necessary part of the story. That's what struck me about Nicole Byrd's Beauty In Black - everything on the whole comes together nicely and flows very smoothly. It is a pity therefore that this book pretty much derails towards the end when for the most part it is a well-written story.
The Beauty In Black in question is our widowed heroine Marianne Hughes. She is in London as a chaperone to her self-centered niece Louisa Crookshank. She's not particularly fond of her niece, but aunts gotta go what aunts gotta do, especially when Louisa's mother has a bun in the oven and is unable to tag along with Louisa. Louisa has a far from sweet agenda: she's young enough to be furious when her infatuation with a handsome neighbor is thwarted, so she's now determined to snare a titled husband just to show the world that they are so, so wrong to look down their noses at Miss Thing here. How dare they call her shallow? She'll show them!
To make her point, Louisa decides to marry John Sinclair, a marquess with a face that is badly scarred by smallpox. That will show the world that Louisa is not shallow, right? John, as a result of his scarred appearance, avoids people in general, coming out at night and acting like the Beast to Marianne's Beauty. He is quite moved when Louisa seems to be warming up to him despite his scars, but alas, he finds himself attracted to Marianne. Before John and Marianne can do anything, however, Louisa takes advantage of John's awkward social skills to announce that she and John are engaged to be married.
Where this story could have turned into a painful story of martyrhood and lack of communication, Beauty In Black instead makes sense. John isn't good with people and he is out of his league when it comes to the games the Ton play, so it makes sense that he doesn't see the pit on his path until he falls right into it. Marianne can be a little too perfect, but she is also sensible and pragmatic on the whole, plus she has a realistic previous marriage compared to some of the other widows out there. She is a nice match for John. She can't do anything to stop Louisa because she isn't sure of John's feelings for her before the betrothal is announced. So that too makes sense.
John is a very sympathetic hero. His late father had created a rift between John and his brother (the hero of Dear Impostor) and this book sees John slowly mend the rift with his brother with Marianne's help. Awkward around people, although not in an emasculated way, with an adorable dog for company, he is a very likable hero who is tortured but nonetheless manages to function without whining endlessly or blaming everybody else for his problems. Marianne isn't an interesting character on her own, but the author has her bringing John so slowly out of his shell, so it's hard not to root for her in this case. Even Louisa is an interesting character in her own right. She's not the nicest young woman around, but she's not cartoonishly evil, just young and immature.
Until roughly into two-thirds of the story, Beauty In Black is a charming character-driven story starring characters that I can root for and care about. The author also introduces a subplot about someone trying to harm Louisa, and this subplot feels tacked-on for no good reason. It stands out very awkwardly among the well-written character-driven internal conflicts because this subplot is just not good at all. There is also an awkward love scene late in the book that is definitely tacked on for the sake of giving the readers a sex scene. Until all these tacked-on self-conscious concessions come roaring to the forefront to make me go "Huh?", I have an easy and pleasant time going with the flow of this story.
It's a big pity because until then I am convinced that I have a keeper in my hands. As it is, Beauty In Black is a book I enjoy reading, but it's not above making some unnecessary concessions to the bestseller formula that end up compromising its own quality.
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