by Anthea Lawson, historical (2008)
Zebra, $3.99, ISBN 978-1-4201-0456-1
Anthea Lawson's debut historical romance Passionate is a very readable fun story that tries and succeeds to be a little different from the usual fare at the market at the moment. However, it dips into some clichéd moments late in the story that can be quite jarring compared to the more refreshing elements in the story.
James Huntington knows that he is not going to be inheriting any grand estates or money any time soon - the title had shifted to his uncle after his grandfather's death, and the new Lord Denby already has an heir when he took in the orphaned James and his sister. Still, despite his antagonism with Lord Denby's son, James feels compelled to help Lord Denby when the man informs James that someone has to go to Tunisia and locate, based on the scribblings of James's late grandfather, a new species of flower. You see, his grandfather had left an unusual condition in his will. Any descendant that locates the flower and publishes the man's journals will inherit the Somergate estate.
Lord Denby wants to give Somergate to James and his sister, but this cannot happen without someone following the notes of James's grandfather and tracing the man's path to the location where the late botany-obsessed fellow saw this flower. James also needs an excuse to lay low after getting involved in a duel, so he decides to take up this mission. Lord Denby suggests that James seek out the expertise of Sir Edward Strathmore, a regular correspondent of James's late grandfather. In doing so, James bumps into Lily Strathmore, Edward's niece who is painting Edward's flower collection.
Lily doesn't want to marry, but her parents are pressuring her into an engagement with some guy she barely knows. You know how these heroines are - they may put out to handsome strangers after a few days into their acquaintance, but heaven forbid they are forced to marry without love. Lily would rather paint, but she realizes that if she didn't marry, she would be forced to become the spinster daughter who would take care of her parents. The idea of being "married" to her parents gives her the chills, so she decides that a marriage to some stranger is the lesser of two evils. That is before she meets James, of course.
Slowly but surely, the story will move to Tunisia as Lily along with the rest of the Strathmore family join James in his expedition. In the meantime, there is plenty of entertaining shenanigans as James's naughty cousin tries to sabotage his mission.
James is not a Duke or an Earl, which is a nice change, but he unfortunately has some rather predictable and familiar issues with love and heartbreak. Still, he is an acceptable, if rather generic, hero. Lily has some traits that are quite unusual for her ilk - for the most part, she displays a nice sense of awareness of her surroundings as well as of the people around her, and she is reluctant to marry not because she's a sheltered twit but because she is genuinely passionate about her art and she knows that the man she marries will very likely refuse to let her continue to dabble in her passion. It is the interaction between James and Lily that make their relationship a most entertaining one to follow. They bicker, they banter, and they exchange heated glances and more in a most charming manner. There is a nice timing to the light comedy and there are some well-written scenes of emotional poignancy to balance the comedy.
However, I find that the momentum of the story sags a little when Lily pulls the Avon Romantic Boyfriend Test late in the story. You know, the one where after she's put out to the hero and basically has her back against the wall with nowhere else to go but down, she will still refuse to marry the hero no matter what until he manages to convince her of something readers know all along - he loves her. Now, I know sometimes we ladies like to play hard to get so that the men would flatter us and say nice things that will make us feel really good about ourselves, but in Lily's case, her dramatics unfold in such a predictable manner, so much so that I can only sigh and wait for her to come to her senses. I find her cousin's interactions with the naughty cousin of James more interesting during this stage of the story.
Still, Passionate is a very enjoyable lighthearted romp that blends both familiar and refreshing elements to make it a somewhat refreshing read. If the author's bio in the book didn't specify that this is the author's first book, I'd suspect that this book is written by a polished professional under a pseudonym. At any rate, I think I will stick around a while longer to see what the author has to offer in the future.
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