Warner Forever, $6.50, ISBN 0-446-61426-2
Historical Romance, 2005
Oh my. Julie Anne Long’s To Love a Thief is a pretty obvious take on the Pygmalion or My Fair Lady but this story is too fabulous for words.
The story is simple: Gideon Cole is a barrister whose lifelong dream – or some would say, obsession – is to rebuild his life to its former glory after his father happily brought them all crashing down with his wastrel ways. Gideon stands in line to inherit a title from an uncle, Edward, and he is also this close to be elected into a post with the Treasury. Now all he has to do is to get whom believes to be the perfect wife for the Respectable Gentleman he aims to be, Lady Constance Clary, to agree to be his wife.
Unfortunately, Constance seems to be currently swayed by the affections of a gentleman with more money than Gideon, so Gideon decides to exploit Constance’s possessive nature and her competitive streak to be the best at everything to agree to marry him. He’ll “create” a rival for Constance’s beauty and popularity and this rival will conveniently enough appear to be angling for Gideon’s affections as well. That will hopefully get Constance to stop playing so hard to get. This rival is Lily Masters, a pickpocket that Gideon rescues when she’s caught red-handed. He’ll put her and her sister Alice up at his uncle’s place and pass Lily off as a cousin. But first he has to polish her up of course. And when she does get polished up, I’m sure you can imagine what happens between the two of them.
The main characters make this book really wonderful to read. Gideon could have been a typical Prof Higgins wannabe but Ms Long gives him more depths beyond the superficial. I love how Ms Long gradually shows me Gideon’s vulnerabilities, strengths, and flaws as the story progresses. Gideon is a good man in some ways and a frustratingly obstinate fellow in other ways but overall, he’s a well-developed character. His love story with Lily is heartbreakingly beautiful in some of their scenes together. The only issue I have with Gideon is a rather far-fetched subplot involving his sister, which feels too much like a contrivance to give Gideon’s materialistic streak a “moral” justification.
Lily is, to my delight, not some brainless innocent trapped in a life on the streets waiting to be rescued by a knight in shining armor. Ms Long does a good thing here by not portraying Lily as an overly-tortured heroine. Instead, Lily lives by her wits to keep a roof over the heads of her and her sister. There’s an interesting dichotomy in Lily’s personality. She’s at once a woman who daydreams of a better life and spins her daydreams into beautiful escapist stories to comfort Alice and a pragmatic woman who follows her own code of honor without becoming a martyr in the process. Lily is clearly smart enough that her successful masquerade as the new jewel of the Ton is believable and throughout this story she earns my two thumbs up for her wit, constant display of brainpower, and adaptability to situations. Sure, she does the obligatory “Oh, I’m running away!” thing at the end but to me, what she does is understandable since Gideon on his part is stubborn enough to follow his goals and not realize that he’s in love with Lily until it’s nearly too late.
Also, I think this is the first book in a long, long time where the heroine seriously considers the possibility of being the hero’s mistress after he’s married Constance. I’m sure some readers find this unromantic but I find that the author only makes Lily a more realistic character of her time. Lily is aware of the realities of the marriages of her time as a result of this development. This cements my impression of her as a smart and pragmatic heroine. I’d take this kind of heroine over some idiotic bluestocking who’d sleep with hero out of “true love” without thinking of the consequences only to turn down his offer of marriage because he doesn’t say the “love” word, any day.
The secondary characters are fun. Alice is funny and manipulatively sweet without coming off too much like an obvious plot device – she really acts like a child her age, thinking about her comforts instead of being unrealistically obsessed with matchmaking adults by resorting to grown-up parodies of “kiddie-speak” or giving sappy matchmaking “Please, sister, have sex with that hero… for ME!” nonsense speech. Constance could have been better written in the sense that she is no Cordelia from the previous book by this author but she makes a nice foil to Lily, who spars so beautifully with her without embarrassing the both of them in the process.
Reading To Love a Thief is a most enjoyable experience. I experience so much emotions throughout: I laugh, I sigh, and I even wipe away at some tears so many times while reading this book. There is nothing more enjoyable than a cast of well-written and smart characters in a love story that works. Sure, the story isn’t something new but it’s better than that. It’s a story that works magic on me, stealing my attention, my heart, and my breath in one go, that sneaky thing, and I can only say more power to Julie Anne Long for that. Now, how about another book as good as this one?