Zebra, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-4201-3226-7
Historical Romance, 2014
Jackson Quincy Graham Channing is the son and heir of one of the wealthiest bankers in 19th century New York City. At 30, he is poised to take over his grandfather’s banking empire, marry a well-pedigreed lady who also happens to be like a dear friend to him, and spend the rest of his life being just like his grandfather. All according to plan. Still, there is some part of him that feels ambivalent about the whole thing.
When the story opens, his mother drops a surprise on him: his father, whom Jackson thought was dead all this while, is alive. Basil, his father, and Jackson’s mother were briefly married until her father stepped in and “persuaded” the couple that the whole married-young thing was a bad idea. He was a soldier, after all, while Elizabeth was the daughter of a well-moneyed man. The thing is, Elizabeth found herself carrying Jackson before the marriage could be annulled, and eventually she gave birth to our hero and conspired with her father to keep Jackson’s existence quiet from Basil. Well, the cat is out of the bag now.
Basil drops another surprise on Jackson: Basil’s family is part of the British aristocracy, and Jackson would one day inherit the title and properties of his uncle, the Earl of Briston. Naturally, Basil wants Jackson to accompany him to London, where Jackson would be introduced to his hitherto unknown family members over there as well as to Society. Faced with the prospect of being away from the life he has known all this while – which does seem like an exciting, if scary, prospect to a man like him – Jackson decides to head over for some soul searching. What does he want in life?
Well, helping him to discover the finer side of London is Theodosia Winslow, a well-pedigreed if somewhat financially challenged lady whose “hobby” – organizing parties and ballroom events for a fee – is actually a way for her to make some money while preserving the illusion that she’s not in trade. She is the one who organized the party in which he is introduced for the first time to London’s finest people, and even better, she’s a close friend of the family, and it’s not long before the more matchmaking-inclined members of the family start to entertain ideas that Theodosia and Jackson are a perfect couple.
The Shocking Secret of a Guest at the Wedding is more of a romance of manners than the more typical “romance with a plot” kind of stories that are more prevalent these days: the focus is more on the humorous dialogues and courtship shenanigans. If I take away the sex scenes, what is left is a tale that would fit just well in some of the more old school traditional regency stories out there. If you prefer something faster moving, therefore, with more action than babble, this one may have a hard time capturing your interest if you do not enjoy the author’s brand of romantic comedy.
There is a fantasy here that has to be swallowed and accepted in order to enjoy the story – being a nobleman means Jackson has more liberties and opportunities than being a banker. Being the heir of an Earldom means Jackson can drop everything, go see and enjoy the world like he’s Indiana Jones, la di da, free as a bird, woo-hoo, that kind of thing. Where does the money come from to finance his activities? Ah, the joys of being born with a silver spoon in the mouth. This is a libertarian fantasy that only the wealthy can cling to, as Jackson’s true calling in life requires somebody else to work and pay off his bills. How convenient that Theodosia is very good at doing what she does and making lots of money in the process, heh.
Also, this story requires the reader to accept that the lives of the wealthy Americans are so different from those of the privileged members of the Ton that Jackson is completely stumped once he is in London. Oh, I can understand that he needs time to remember all the names, titles, what not. But is it likely that he, as part of the upper crust society of New York City, has only passing familiarity to concepts such as propriety and decorum of the upper crust society in London? He is very familiar with the women he meets here – running after Theodosia in broad daylight and in open view of other people to demand that she talk to him when she barely knows him, for example – and his manners are often that of a contemporary man rather than a man of the 20th century.
Once I move past the basic “Well, let’s pretend that things are like this back in those days!” premise of this story, I have a vastly entertaining story featuring a couple whose exchanges make me chuckle and even laugh out loud. As I’ve mentioned, the story is more about what these people do when they are in certain situations, so there is no overarching plot. Things happen as these two know each other better – there’s a fake engagement tossed in somewhere too – and there is hardly any surprises when it comes to plot developments. As a result, there is a greater focus here on the characters’ interactions, behavior, and wit. Victoria Alexander is on a roll here, fortunately, so the story is still full of fun despite the lack of a major villain or something like that. The characters’ banters and retorts can often feel too much like something from a present day sitcom script, but they perform their function well. I smile, chuckle, and laugh.
I also like how, despite the plot developments sometimes being straight out of the handbook of overplayed tropes (fake engagement, anyone?), I never feel like I’m reading another one of those paint-by-number books. The author injects some sly playful humorous elements that pokes fun at her characters now and then, and the characters often give their otherwise familiar circumstances a little twist via amusing observations or self-effacing exasperated reactions. And while I would have preferred the author wrap up her story in a different way, I appreciate that she allows the hero and the heroine to both have their cakes and eat them too. I never get this feeling that the heroine has to sacrifice her dream to be with the hero or vice-versa, which only adds to my appreciation of this couple’s relationship. They are funny together, they have some good chemistry, and they seem to move into a more permanent form of relationship with both eyes open. I think they’d be just fine, no, probably great together for the long run.
So yes, The Shocking Secret of a Guest at the Wedding is a pretty fun book after all.