by Sherry Thomas, historical (2010)
Bantam, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-553-59244-3
His At Night is to Sherry Thomas what The Proposition was to Judith Ivory: a book that attempts to capture readers that would otherwise not pick up the author's books by presenting a different storytelling approach and incorporating popular tropes. Interestingly enough, Ms Thomas includes a passing reference to a character in this book that is blatantly hinted to be the hero from that book by Judith Ivory.
Like Ms Ivory, Sherry Thomas's writing style has been described as lush - which earns her both fans and detractors - and these two authors' initial foray into the genre resulted in books that are different in many ways from your typical bestselling romance novel. His At Night seems like a different approach to capture those elusive readers by incorporating tropes popular among readers: marriage by necessity, spy hero, a heroine so crippled by circumstances that she has no choice but to remain married to the hero despite how badly he treats her... the whole deal. I don't have the sales figures in front of me so I can't tell you how successful Ms Thomas's effort is in capturing those readers, but I can tell you that this story stops working for me after its first 100 pages.
Elissande Edgerton has an uncle who embodies every cartoon evil villain behavior that you can think of. He also has his wife, Elissande's Aunt Rachel, lying in a state of utter helplessness, bedridden and addicted to laudanum. Of course, a man as nasty as Edmund Douglas will attract the attention of England's finest spies, and therefore, when Edmund takes a three-day trip away from his house, these spies, of which our hero the Marquess of Vere is one, descend to play.
Lord Vere uses a riding accident in his past to play the buffoon in order to carry out his investigations without arousing suspicion. He has a sad past, some PSTD, and some baggage about relationships. At first he is attracted to Elissande because she bears a remarkable similarity to his fantasy girlfriend (really), but when he realizes that Elissande is trying to woo and flirt with him into falling for her and marrying her, he immediately goes into "Hussy! Liar! Scheming vixen! Bitch!" mode.
As you can probably guess, Elissande needs to marry someone as powerful as Lord Vere so that she and her aunt can escape their tormentor. When she believes that Vere is a buffoon, she decides to cast her net on Vere's unsuspecting brother Freddie. This only makes Vere go, "Oh, she's an even bigger whore than I initially suspected!" But when Elissande's time is up, she deliberately traps her victim into being discovered with her, thus compromising the two of them and making sure that marriage is inevitable. That lucky fellow that falls into her trap is Vere.
When Vere and Elissande first meet, this book seems to be on a roll. Both characters seem likable - Elissande pragmatic and determined, Vere amusing and deceptively foolish. But the story soon falls into a predictable rut when Vere has Elissande completely fooled and therefore initiates a sequence of scenes where he makes a fool of Elissande as he foils her schemes to get closer to Freddie. Because Elissande doesn't fight back, the joke is at her expense and I don't feel so amused anymore.
And then the marriage takes place and the story completely deflates like a balloon pricked by a pin. Vere, like the author's previous heroes, is a typical self-absorbed twit who believes that the world orbits around him. I mean, he had his brother all guilt-ridden and painfully watching over him in the last decade or so because Freddie believes Vere to be a functional idiot, but Vere doesn't even pause to wonder long and hard about what he is doing to Freddie. But Vere is supposed to be a talented spy. I find it bewildering, therefore, that he doesn't once pause to wonder why Elissande, from all appearances the beloved niece of a man rolling in money, will work so hard to marry him or his untitled brother. The fact that she casts her net on Freddie should tell him that she may not be as desperate for a title as she is desperate to marry ASAP. But no, Vere is all about how he is hurting and he therefore has the right to be cruel because that bitch has made her bed and she's going to lie in it for a long, long time.
The whole premise - Vere's uncharacteristic blind spot along with the fact that Elissande has no choice but to try and even humiliate herself into getting Vere to consummate the marriage - ends up coming off as very artificial to me. When things seem to finally go well late in the story, Vere pulls out yet another self-absorbed reason as to why he really must annul the marriage despite everything. By that point, I feel like clutching my head and screaming, "Oh my god! Just make all these contrived conflicts stop!"
I think I get what the author is trying to do. Both the hero and the heroine are playing roles. He's the buffoon, she's the polite lady who is always smiling. But somehow the author's efforts to explore and deconstruct these characters don't work for me. There is a tendency for the author to have the hero's issues dominate, when in this case, the heroine is the one who has a genuine reason to be afraid for her life. The hero is just being a big crybaby. I don't see any chemistry between them and it doesn't help that his behavior becomes increasingly erratic as the story progresses.
The suspense-lite spy plot also comes to dominate in the later half of the story when I'd rather see Elissande take a shoe and whack Vere in the head soundly until she finishes what the horse couldn't thirteen years ago. The problem with this subplot is that, just like Vere's fake and contrived "Look at me! I'm so sad and you should pity me even if the heroine is clearly having it worse than me because everything is about me!" blues, this subplot is so boring to read. There is no suspense. The villain is obvious from the start and it's only a matter of waiting for the evidence to pile up and implicate him.
No, I'm afraid His At Night doesn't work for me after the first 100 pages. Indeed, the book falls apart so quickly after those 100 pages, I'm still taken aback by how quickly I went from enjoying the story to scratching my head in bewilderment at the things taking place among the pages. Oh well, there's always another day, another book.
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