Avon, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-06-207294-8
Historical Romance, 2015
The Secrets of Sir Richard Kenworthy is allegedly the final book in Julia Quinn’s quartet about the Smythe-Smith girls, but it can stand alone pretty well in my opinion as the author doesn’t allow the secondary characters to ever hog the limelight too much. One thing I have to say about the author: while her books may all seem to be part of one big never-ending series – hence my use of “allegedly” in the previous sentence – she always knows how to introduce sequel baits in a manner that feels like a natural part of the story. She makes it look so easy when, in truth, she’s writing the kind of romance that is the hardest when it comes to juggling the need to tell a story and to sell the next six books in the series – the humorous romance of manners.
This book is also interesting in that Julia Quinn unveils her first full blown asshole hero. Yes, in the past, her heroes can be passive aggressive, manipulative, controlling, and what not underneath their good-nature demeanor, but Sir Richard Kenworthy is a straight up asshole. He needs a wife ASAP so he manipulates events to force Iris Smythe-Smith to marry him after she initially turned down his proposal, keeps the reasons for his need to wed her a secret until someone else has to tell Iris about them, and then acts grossly offended when the wife calls him on his crap. Seriously, this guy expects Iris to drop everything and sacrifice everything else for the interests of his family, and the author makes it clear that she knows what an asshole her hero is. So yes, this is Julia Quinn taking a walk in the dark side, and it’s… glorious.
I hate Richard. I loathe that jackass. I’m tempted to call him Dick but that would be an insult to dicks everywhere. Besides, dicks can be fun when they are attached to the right types of guys. Ahem. But damn, it feels good hating him because the author does a fabulous job making Richard such a realistic and believable kind of asshole. His defensiveness, his cowardice, and his inability to be straight up honest are all actually something I can imagine anyone doing when placed in his shoes. That’s the best kind of villain, if you ask me – one that I can hate even as I sort of understand why he’s doing all this nonsense.
Of course, with this being a romance novel, the author would try to convince me that there is something about Richard that is worth the heroine’s time and affection. Well, that’s the problem here: I don’t see what that something is.
The problem here is that the author spends about two-thirds or so of this book doing the typical Julia Quinn thing: a romance of manners with humorous interactions and quips. Richard occasionally suffers twinges of guilt, which are pretty clear warnings of the stormy weathers in the last third of the story, but I won’t blame any reader who would think, “Oh, this is a story by Julia Quinn, she couldn’t even make a man-eating shark seem bad!” only to shriek for a public castration of Richard by the time the story ends. You know what they say, beware the nice ones… especially this one. Anyway, as I’m saying, I feel that there is too much time wasted on funny ha-ha and enough time spent on showing me that Iris is getting even a little of her money back by investing in this relationship with Richard and his toxic self-absorbed family.
Also, the author pulls that tired “Oh, he says he loves her at a crucial moment when she’s all vulnerable, so that makes up for everything, it’s true love 100% confirmed, now close the book and put on a big smile” thing for the happy ending. That one has been done many times before, and the chances of it working are usually low because this gimmick is actually a transparent equivalent of the author bashing me in the head and yelling in my ears, “See, he loves her, it’s true, so be a good girl and believe the happy ending. PS: thanks for buying my book!” I prefer to see a more realistic transition to the happy ending, which to me usually involves plenty of screaming, yelling, blood letting, and the heroine moving out as the hero runs after her and begs her not to go.
In this story, the happy ending seems like a horrible compromise on Iris’s part. When Iris claims that she’s happy, I can’t help wondering whether she’s trying to convince herself very hard that she’s telling the truth. She’s giving up everything and getting only the lying, cheating, cowardly douchebag’s “love” in return, and this “love” is given only after she’s conceded to everything he wants. Love of the century? This story is more like rotten century eggs on everyone’s face.
Anyway, Iris is a standard romance heroine by this author, and she is exceptional only in that she’s the first sacrificial lamb paired to Julia Quinn’s first ever douchebag dreamboat male lead character. Maybe that is why I’m not so worked up over the romance – despite her outbursts and tongue-lashing of Richard, she’s still tad too much on the saintly “understanding” side to be believable, and hence, the romance never feels real enough to get me really all fired up on her behalf. I hate that guy, but the fact that she chooses him… whatever.
And as I’ve said, it’s really fun hating on Richard, because he’s that adorable kind of villain that is so good to hate on – reviling him is a fabulous cathartic experience in itself. But the author needs to provide a believable reason to accept that he’s still the romance hero at the end of the day, and she doesn’t quite succeed here. She probably would if she had devoted more time on Richard’s redemption and less on the humorous but formulaic ha-ha moments. But if The Secrets of Sir Richard Kenworthy is anything to go by, the author can do a mean hateful hero to remember, and something tells me she really had fun in the process. I don’t know whether I should be thrilled by or be afraid of this.