Grand Central Publishing, $5.99, ISBN 978-1-4555-1332-1
Historical Romance, 2013
I’ve done very few things that make me hate myself, but leaving this book to languish in my pile of unread books for so long is going to be one of those things. I bought this book initially because the heroine Annabelle Honeycote is a seamstress, but eventually I forgot all about it because I am such a loathsome toad that way.
Anyway, the story. Annabelle, our heroine, is the eldest daughter of a woman who is confined to her room, apparently dying from consumption. The bulk of her income goes to the doctor and the landlady, with barely anything left for food and other necessities. Her job as a seamstress allows her to overhear all kinds of naughty gossip, however, and eventually she starts blackmailing the subjects of the more salacious ones for money. Alas, she then has to try to blackmail the very responsible Owen Sherbourne, the Duke of Huntford, and as you can imagine, he soon catches her in the act of collecting his money.
Fortunately, he asks her why she does her blackmailing thing, and believes her when she tells him about the sick mom and all. He then installs her as the personal dressmaker of his two sisters, who are going to get their debut soon. Owen knows that his beloved sisters are going to have a hard time fitting in with the rest of the Ton, and he hopes that Annabelle’s ability to make amazing dresses will make it easier for them to make a good impression. As you can imagine, he soon falls for Annabelle, and she he.
There is a class difference here, and it is actually nice that the author doesn’t shy away from the potentially negative repercussions of Owen marrying down. Normally it’d be the heroine wailing “No, we can’t! No, we can’t!” while the hero would go, “Yes, we can! Yes, we can!” but here, Owen recognizes that his sisters’ place in Society would be affected should he marry Annabelle. And he is a very responsible person, having rescued the family fortune and all after his parents did all they could to drive everything down to the ground, and he loves his sisters too much to risk their future. Or is he? Of course, the ending is all about true love overcoming everything, blah blah blah, and I believe readers who like historical authenticity would cringe at the last few chapters, when all semblance of class divide is thrown out the window with full approval by the good guys among the Ton because, you know, true love.
Also, the heroine is a classic nitwit who is chained by her own twisted sense of morals that she’d rather immolate herself and let all she care for die just to make a statement about what a virtuous martyr she is. Normally, this is a horrible thing, and I would soon be crying for someone to hand over a stake so that I can hammer it through the book. Here, however, the heroine’s Mary Balogh fan club card is cheerfully trampled on by the hero as he rightfully, accurately calls her on her crap each time she acts up. I love how he tells her that she is being all melodramatic due to her pride rather than any genuine need to be virtuous, and I love the way he delivers the burn each time. He’s not cruel, he’s just being adorably sane and calm each time he asks her why she’s being such a donkey. And to give Annabelle credit, she has some degree of awareness, and she isn’t stubborn or ridiculous to a toxic degree. I still cringe now and then at her antics, especially when her past catches up with her but the author gently keeps her from going out of control. In many ways, this story is also a gentle subversion of the “I’M GOING TO TAKE A VERY INCONVENIENT AND EVEN STUPID STANCE JUST TO PROVE THAT I AM AMAZING, EVEN IF A THOUSAND KITTENS HAVE TO DIE IN THE PROCESS!” kind of martyr heroine melodrama.
Oh, and Owen! I still don’t know whether he’s the biggest fool or the most romantic fellow around the place, because it’s not long after meeting a woman who tries to blackmail him that he is paying off her debts, cleaning up the mess in her life, and generally acting like the sweetest knight in shining armor, ever. Oh, he has his vulnerabilities – he is a proper and responsible fellow who sometimes feel trapped, et cetera – but on the whole, he’s a dream. He calls Annabelle “Belle”, and a part of me wonders whether this is some kind of take on the Walt Disney version of Beauty and the Beast on a superficial level, as it takes place in a big house, with the heroine isolated from her world, and in many ways the hero is trapped to the house and the life, waiting for a sweetheart to come set him free. It’s a very nice fantasy, and really, Owen is so adorable and sweet, I guess I can feel charitable about Annabelle since he likes her so much.
And to be fair, both of them have a pretty nice thing going, although it’s mostly all about Owen treating her like he is a fairy tale prince, which he of course is. I lap up everything, because I’m so easy like that.
And the icing on the cake is that the author has a very lovely voice. Her humor is gentle yet effective, and when she wants to lay on the tender moments, she can really get under the skin.
Anyway, When She Was Wicked has me thinking that it is time I catch up with the author and see what else she has up her sleeve.