Warner Forever, $6.50, ISBN 0-446-61687-7
Historical Romance, 2006
Ways to Be Wicked is the second book in Julie Anne Long’s The Three Sisters trilogy. The trilogy revolves around three separated sisters finding love even as they find each other again. I’ve talked about the events leading up to the separation in the review of the first book, Beauty and the Spy, so feel free to take a peek at that review if you are not familiar with this series.
In this one, Sylvie Lamoureux, the darling of the Paris ballet, realizes that she may have a sister in Samantha Makepiece, the heroine of the previous book. She discovers letters sent by Samantha to her foster mother, so she takes off to London, unaware that Samantha and her husband are on their way to Paris to look for her. In London, Sylvie realizes that Samantha has been besieged by pretenders claiming to be her sister so unless Samantha is here in person, she will not find any sympathetic audience among the people in London. Unfortunately, Sylvie, in the grand tradition of romance heroines traveling without a clue, has little funds left so she ends up taking up employment as a dancer in the White Lily. The White Lily is a very male establishment where the dances are a far cry from the dignified ballet Sylvie performed in the past so it’s a challenge for her to fit in with the other doves working in the White Lily. The owner of the White Lily, Tom Shaughnessy, has already met Sylvie in an unorthodox manner prior to her arrival in London so the seeds are already sown for the two of them to fall in love.
One unique feature of this book is that it is a love story between two members of the working class. Sure, Sylvie’s sister is married to a viscount, whoop-bee-doo, but Sylvie herself is a dancer while Tom is a working class fellow who has done very well for himself as he was born in the gutters. These two have the attention and momentary adoration of their betters but that’s because they amuse their betters, not because they are fully accepted by the Ton. Tom’s world crosses with the world of the demimondaine since the ladies he employs as dancers are inevitably mistresses of some earl, duke, or whatever, while Sylvie’s world is more acceptable but she is, nonetheless, a performer to amuse the Ton and she also has a lover – some kind of European prince who may be coming after her in England.
Ways to Be Wicked spends a lot of time on Sylvie’s acclimatization and her eventual becoming one of the family among the staff of the White Lily so in a way, this isn’t solely a love story. It’s more like Sylvie’s story of her adventures in London with her romance with Tom being only one of these adventures at the first half or so in this story while in the later half, Tom becomes the main character with his attempts to discover himself and to make peace with various demons in his past, again with the romance between him and Sylvie being only a part of this story. The romance develops slowly and gradually as the story progresses which, if you ask me, makes plenty of sense since both characters are realistically busy with their jobs in the White Lily and they aren’t exactly spending days and nights making eyes at each other across ballrooms. Tom has to come up with new inventive bawdy shows with his partner, the dwarven choreographer called simply the General, while planning an expansion of his business empire that will require funds from various (male) sponsors among the Ton.
Ah oh, I find myself intrigued and fascinated by the life behind the stage as depicted in this book. Ms Long always has a flair for evoking details so vividly that it’s as if I’m the one thrusting my bum up in the air and squealing “Whee!” on stage. Reading this one is like watching an IMAX movie where I’m sucked into the adventure. It also helps that Sylvie is every bit a Julie Anne Long heroine – smart, witty, and can always be counted on to hold her own in any situation – so Sylvie may be cowed at times by the atmosphere of the White Lily but she can face up against the most jealous rival and even win her over with style. Besides, Sylvie is no innocent, which makes sense given that she is, after all, a dancer on the stage. I like Sylvie. Unfortunately, Ms Long spends more time in the later half of the book developing Tom’s character that the romance as well as Sylvie as a character remain somewhat stagnant as a result. Sylvie doesn’t get the character growth in this story like Tom does, which is a pity since Sylvie is one of the very few romance heroines out there who are smart and capable. Also, I’m quite disappointed at the way Ms Long chooses to portray Sylvie’s lover as a villain and therefore turns Sylvie into a victim of her love affair rather than someone who merely had a love affair.
But Tom, oh, now that’s what I call a larger-than-life hero! He’s a man who has recently discovered that he has a responsibility he never dreamed of before: he realizes that he has a son with an old girlfriend so now he’s trying to decide what to do with that little boy. He believes that perhaps it is for the best that he quietly steps out of his son’s life and restricts his role in that kid’s life to that of a shadowy benefactor so that the boy’s more respectable grandparents can raise that kid and give him the respectability that Tom can’t. As he says in this story, he always thought that he couldn’t give a damn about respectability, but now that he has a son, he realizes that he wants the best the world has to offer for that kid. He wants to send his son to Eton, damn it! Yet when he quietly sneaks off to visit that boy in the country armed with toys and becomes increasingly – and often, comically, awkwardly – attached to that boy, he becomes more conflicted about his role in that boy’s life. Ms Long does an excellent job with Tom here. I find myself touched by Tom’s attempts to embrace fatherhood and moved by his confusions that understandably arise when a formerly happy-go-lucky man tries to adjust to a life of responsibility. And really, men like Tom make such devastatingly romantic heroes, don’t you think?
Oh, I suppose one can argue that the ending is too neat, although I have a good laugh over that part where Tom makes a shockingly respectable business decision. It’s outrageous and it’s so much like something Tom would do, bless him. While I can’t say that the romance is the strongest aspect of this story, Sylvie and especially Tom are marvelously written and developed characters and their chemistry is very nicely done indeed. This story is something different, which is already a plus, but it is also very nicely written and entertaining. Ways to Be Wicked is indeed just that – wicked, people, just wicked.