Avon, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-06-238863-6
Historical Romance, 2016
Lady Charlene Blanchard was orphaned young – her father committed suicide after losing one too many times at the gambling table, and her mother followed him not so long after. Her mother’s half-sister, Sarah Pettijohn, eventually came to take her in, but Sarah is an actress of modest means, so Char ends up living at the fringes of Polite Society. Her only tie to that world is Lady Baldwin, a widow and former actress who seeks companionship with Sarah and Char because her own daughter hates her and treats her like dirt back home. When her late father’s heir cut off her allowance payment and refused to entertain her any further, Char and Lady Baldwin – who really led a colorful life, to put it politely, before she married up – conspired to train Char into a pickpocket to make ends meet. Char loves what she does – not only it is a way to get paid, it also allows her to feel powerful, free, as she avenges her father’s many losses to and even abandonment by his friends by stealing from them.
When Char tries to steal a money pouch of an American who has newly arrived in town, she ends up being caught by the man’s buddy. Don’t worry, she puts up a good chase, so this is not an incompetent darling we are talking about here. She manages to get away from him, but something about him haunts her, makes it hard for her to forget him. Little does she know that she has made the same impression on him.
Shortly after, it is announced that Gavin Whitridge, the Duke of Baynton, is looking for a wife after losing the woman he thought he’d marry to his younger brother. Lady Baldwin, seeing an opportunity, manages to convince Baynton’s grandmother that Char’s pedigree is perfect for someone like Baynton. She is correct: when Char reluctantly plays along, mostly to appease Sarah, she easily captures Baynton’s attention and makes him stand at attention, if you know what I mean. He begins courting her.
Meanwhile, Baynton’s twin brother Jack, who vanished without a trace when they were both 15, finally makes his way back home… as an American lawyer on a mission to negotiate peace with the British government before the two countries go to war. His mother is thrilled to see him again, and Baynton tells Jack that if Jack wants Baynton to use his influence to open doors for Jack to meet the important people in the government, Jack must live with the family during his stay in town. Oh boy, this is an awkward one, as Jack ran away from home back then because he despised his life, knowing that he would forever be the spare and watching his older twin get all the love and adulation from their asshole father. And then he has to fall in love with Char, the very woman he caught trying to steal his colleague’s money and now seeking to become his sister-in-law.
The Fairest of Them All is actually a pretty average romance, because Char and Jack have something that is basically love at first sight, and any development from that point is told rather than shown. This is a far more interesting story, however, as it is all about the selfish nature of love.
As Sarah tells Char later in this story, everyone uses one another. Char is counting on Baynton’s proposal to give her and her aunt security, and she becomes increasingly torn between what she feels is an obligation to Sarah and Lady Baldwin and her own desires. Sarah is banking hope on Char’s nuptial to Baynton so that, one day, she can have her plays be performed on stage. Lady Baldwin is miserable as she is treated with scorn and derision by her own daughter, and she hopes that when Char becomes a duchess, she can use their friendship to rub it into her daughter’s face. Jack is using Baynton to complete his diplomatic mission, and he is the first person to realize – keenly, painfully – that he is repaying Baynton’s help by stealing the woman that man wants to marry. Baynton isn’t sure what he wants, but his “love” for Char is far from noble.
And yet, everyone here comes off as real, in beautiful shades of grey rather than stark black and white, and, if they may not be entirely likable (although I do like them all), their motivations are clear, understandable, and even relatable. Char may be conflicted between duty and desire, but she is a tough, strong lady whose not-so-pleasant life experiences only made her rather than broke her. This is no martyr or hapless damsel, instead – and I have to give the author lots of love here – Char is allowed to be less than noble in order to survive. I really like this. She is looking for a man who slays a dragon for her, just like how her father told her on the very last night she saw him alive, and Jack is that person. This is a heroine who is a beautiful blend of strength and vulnerability, and I find the result fascinating.
Jack, he’s an interesting hero. Usually, the author creates a hero whose behavior can be the cause of the conflict between him and the heroine. Here, however, Jack gets along perfectly well with Char. Both realize early on how alike they are in terms of principles and philosophy, so the two of them are always in sync. Jack’s behavior, therefore, creates conflicts outwards – to his brother. This is a classic case of a girl coming between two brothers, although this being a romance novel means that the usual tragic consequences are averted here. You won’t find their mother singing Tell Me It’s Not True at the last page, don’t worry. But oh, the drama that results! It’s almost farcical, were not for the fact that I am somehow such a sucker for the whole brother versus brother drama that I am at the edge of my seat.
I also love how Jack and Char towards the end decide to basically just give the world the finger and run away together. This story is all about how love is beautiful, remarkable, yet utterly selfish, and hence, this development feels just right, appropriate. Think about it: there is a lot of uncertainty in the future. America and Britain will go to war, and who knows what kind of sad songs Jack and Baynton will sing when that happens. Hence, it makes perfect sense to live for the now, for what peace one can find for the time being, no?
Now, the problems with this story. Simply put, there are many crucial developments that are glossed over, told by the author rather than shown, so much of the emotional impact of this story is diluted as a result. Also, Jack’s history with his family never feels fleshed out enough to give me a good understanding of the relationship between him and his twin. The whole story seems too big for the word count. There are many moments when I feel that the story has jumped from A to D and then straight to J. But I don’t really mind all these issues much, to be honest, because when Jack and Char are together, the author makes me believe in the urgency, intensity, and chemistry of their feelings. These two have some very sweet moments that seem to have a darker, even angst-driven undercurrent. I love this.
Anyway, the sensible part of me feels that the often underwritten parts of The Fairest of Them All make this one a very solid four-oogie read, with one oogie deducted for its problems. But I can’t do that. I only have to read again this book to experience all those lovely feels, to know that I can’t make myself to give this one anything less than five oogies. It got me, it really got me.