HQN, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-373-80400-9
Historical Romance, 2017
The Lady Travelers Guide to Larceny with a Dashing Stranger is the second book in Victoria Alexander’s series about the Lady Traveler’s Society. You can catch up on the background details of this Society in my review of the previous book, but really, this one stands alone quite well so it doesn’t matter if you come into this one completely clueless about the previous book.
All you have to do is to take a deep breath as you realize what the heroine Lady Wilhelmina Bascombe’s plan is.
Willie is a widow. Her marriage wasn’t unpleasant, but at the same time, the author unnecessarily has Willie declare early in this story that she realized shortly after the funeral that she didn’t love George in a romance novel way. Didn’t anyone tell the author that having the heroine think of such a thing when the poor man wasn’t even halfway eaten by the worms yet can reflect rather badly on the heroine? At any rate, Willie and George used to hang out with a bunch of people that Polite Society would consider fast. They travel a lot, have parties and go woo-hoo here and there, although our Willie is understandably clueless about George’s more unsavory habits as we can’t have romance heroines who are, you know, actually fast. So, now that George is worm food, Willie realizes for the first time just how heavily in debt the man was, and she now has to pay the piper for all the good times she had when George was alive.
After having sold everything that can be sold but still coming up short in funds, Willie decides that she now has to… What? Marry a rich bloke? Come on, you must be new to the genre – romance heroines are not allowed to marry for money unless a sibling or a father will be inconvenienced without those funds. No, she declares that she will only marry if she wants to, not because she has to. Hence, her plan to save herself from a life of genteel prostitution or worse is to steal a family painting from a collector in Venice. This won’t be so bad, should she be a trained thief or a secret ninja, but no, our ordinary heroine thinks she’s Madolyn Smith and she’s going to pull an If Tomorrow Comes on everyone.
Fortunately, our hero Dante Augustus Montague is here to prevent our heroine from doing anything stupid. He believes that some of his family heirloom – a painting, of course – have somehow fallen into George’s hands, and now that George is dead, he believes that he can convince the widow to return them by showing her proofs of purchases and all that. The thing is, the widow is apparently leading a tour across Europe as a favor for the Lady Travelers Society, and hence it’s not the right time to wave receipts at her face. However, that doesn’t mean he can’t join the tour and get to know her better. What harm can there be in doing so?
As you can guess, both are after the same painting. Dante is led to believe that the painting was stolen from his grandfather’s gallery, while Willie believes that the painting is rightfully hers, left to her by her grandmother only to be used by her late husband as a collateral for a loan behind her back. Who is right here?
The Lady Travelers Guide to Larceny with a Dashing Stranger is a full length book, so for the publisher to also add in a bonus short story is a very generous move on their part indeed, bumping this book to over 500 pages. Let’s talk about the full length story that gives this book its title first.
Well, the story is alright, but it can be a very uneven read. I find myself charmed by certain scenes, only to feel restless when the scenes that come after become bogged down by mundane conversations of people poring over details that have been brought up and discussed a few times already. The secondary characters can be charming in one instance, only to become transparent and vaguely annoying plot devices in the next instance for the author to force the plot to move to a certain direction. Sometimes Willie is funny and smart, only to quickly morph into an uncharacteristically obtuse or even naïve creature for the next scene. It is as if the author herself found it hard to keep a consistent grip on pacing or even character continuity over so many pages. Maybe the story could have been shorter? I do wonder sometimes whether the author is paid by the word here, because the story doesn’t need to be this long. Mind you, the larceny thing in the title only takes place in the late third or so of the story – if you are expecting a fast-paced tale of espionage and cat burglary, sorry, this isn’t that story.
Dante is a pretty standard charming fellow, although it’s nice that he can step in to do things that will normally have Willie flailing around like a cow struggling to swim in the sea. But there isn’t much to him beyond that. Willie has her moments, but she is inconsistent. It also doesn’t help that the author seems intent on making our heroine atone and learn from her sins of… enjoying parties and nice dresses in the past. Apparently now our heroine needs to understand the meaning of accountability and responsibility… of what, if I may ask? She’s a genteel born lady. Please don’t tell me that I’m supposed to take the portrayal of well-bred Society ladies in romance novels to be selfless volunteers in the slums as some kind of gospel and then hold it against Willie for daring to enjoy the privileges that come with her life. It’s not like she has many privileges either: her father disowned her and held back her dowry when she married George, so it’s not like she’s a Kardashian living it up in the limelight. I don’t get what the author is trying to do with Willie’s character arc… or maybe I am not judgmental enough of happy people to get it?
I like the bonus short story, The Rise and Fall of Reginald Everheart, better because it is shorter and hence the pacing is tighter. This one also has a very strong “traditional Regency romance” vibe to it, in that there isn’t as much passion as there is plenty of talking, and the main characters have a sort-of asexual air around them despite the hero’s obligatory claims that he’s not that inexperienced when it comes to hoisting that thing around town. Still, things happen quickly, and they end quickly too, and this is good because the plot is pretty childish. Woman likes man, man has all kinds of excuses not to stay around town and be the man he thinks she deserves, she decides to make him jealous by pretending to have developed affections for a bloke that doesn’t exist, he realizes that he loves her, the end. There are some good scenes here, and I especially like how bewildered and vexed Dulcie Middleworth gets when she realizes that Michael Shepard has feelings for her but he just won’t act on it. She’d like to know why and honey, don’t we all.
Anyway, The Lady Travelers Guide to Larceny with a Dashing Stranger is decent, mostly because the author has been around long enough to know how to make her stories serve up a certain level of entertainment factor. But I’d hoped to be bowled over more. There’s a good reason why it takes me so, so long to finish this book – it’s very easy to put it down during the slower, draggy scenes but it’s much harder to work up the enthusiasm to pick it up again. It has its moments, but it’s not exactly “must read in one sitting” material.