by Connie Brockway, historical (2010)
Onyx, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-451-41283-6
If you have been following my reviews of Connie Brockway's last few books, you will know that while I enjoyed those books, they seemed to lack that special something that made her earlier books great. Reading The Golden Season makes me feel that old spark of excitement I used to feel while reading her earlier books. For a long time, I am convinced that this book would be it.
Lady Lydia Eastlake is an Incomparable who, despite having reached the age of 24 without having wed, is still considered a celebrated beauty. Wealthy and independent, Lydia believes that matrimony can wait until she finds a man with whom they will share a grand love, similar to the one her late parents shared. Unfortunately, when the story opens, she learns from her banker and financial adviser that she is at the brink of bankruptcy. Like that of many members of the Ton, her personal wealth has been severely drained by a constant string of bad investments, failed crops, and the like. Lydia has not been the most thrifty person around, so she realizes that she doesn't have much option at the moment other than to marry a wealthy man before the end of the Season. If she fails... well, as she tells her close friends, at least then this Season would her final "golden season" to savor and enjoy.
Ned Lockton, who has nothing but a titled brother and military dash to commend him to a lady of the Ton, is also in a similar situation. He needs to marry a wealthy woman whose fortune would help his brother, the Earl of Josten, extricate the family from their financial woes. Not only has the failing economy drained much of the family's wealth, Ned's two nephews are determined to decimate the remaining fortune with their reckless gambling. Ruination is imminent, unless Ned obliges to help his family by marrying some wealthy woman before the end of the Season.
Both Lydia and Ned decide to hide their financial woes as they scour the Ton, looking for appropriate candidates for matrimony and planning to reveal everything only at the right time. The matter of just when the right time is is naturally open to interpretation. As luck would have it, they have to find each other, and worse, fall madly in love. What will happen when they discover that they are both completely broke?
Don't worry about toxic screeching and angry recrimination when the truth is revealed - both characters are reasonable and mature so they are above childish theatrics. Lydia and Ned both have very believable chemistry here. It is too easy to become convinced that these two have become the best of friends as well as most compatible of lovers by the last page of the story. Watching them fall in love is enjoyable because Ms Brockway makes the whole process so believable and beautiful.
Lydia is an interesting heroine. She's truly a creature of the Ton, one who isn't afraid to enjoy the pleasures offered by her wealth and status, and she makes no apologies for her wealth or her willingness to enjoy her life as society's darling. However, she is also at the same time an intelligent woman who has a better understanding of the people around her than most people would believe. Her financial mess is caused not by her stupidity but by her belief that she can depend entirely on her bankers to keep her finances in order - a belief that is certainly shared by many members of the Ton.
As for Ned, at first I didn't know what to make of this guy. He reminds me of a typical hero by Jayne Ann Krentz or Amanda Quick because like those guys, Ned can often take his responsibilities to his family to a degree that can be rather extreme. In this story, Ned takes a while to realize that he can't save his family, not when his two nephews refuse to behave no matter what and are determined to undo his best efforts to keep them out of trouble. It's not his devotion to his family that perplexes me, it's the fact that he doesn't quickly realize that, unless something is done to rein in those nephews of his, he can marry ten wealthy heiresses and the situation will still not change much. Still, he does come to the appropriate conclusion in time and, throughout everything, he is a likable and dependable gentleman who makes a refreshing change from brooding emo heroes.
What I also like about this story is how the author doesn't make Lydia apologize or pay for being wealthy. Indeed, in this story, Lydia has good reasons to wait until the right man shows up in her life. Her friends are walking examples of how miserable a marriage can cause a woman. Lydia knows from her friends that the husband controls pretty much every aspect of the marriage and if he chooses to do so, he can deny the wife access to the children, her money, and more. Therefore, the story makes it very clear that when Lydia chooses Ned, she is doing so while knowing the risk she is taking. It can be romantic when Ned chooses Lydia despite the fact that she is broke, but the romanticism is more striking when Lydia chooses Ned because she has more to lose should things go wrong for her. Lydia's epiphany that leads her to choose Ned, her ultimate trust in him - all this makes the romance in this story resonate more with me.
But I can't give this book a keeper grade, alas. The reason is the last few "What the heck is this?" chapters of this book. Lydia and Ned are as good as golden by then, so for conflict, the author plops in a villain in a most abrupt and inelegant manner. It's like having someone pour the contents of a chamberpot onto my head most unexpectedly, because these chapters aren't just an obvious method for the author to prolong the story, these chapters see Lydia panicking and behaving in ways that make me cringe. I am quite understanding when it comes to her admittedly foolish actions, because Lydia is, after all, acting out of panic. But the whole conflict is introduced into the story in a manner that is too abrupt and too obvious as a means to extend the story by a few more chapters. These chapters are really, really awful compared to the parts of the story that lead up to them, so much so that I cannot in good conscience give this book a keeper grade as a result.
Still, The Golden Season almost recaptures the magic I felt when I read the author's earlier books. It is a relief to know that I have not somehow outgrown this author's storytelling style and that she can still bring a solid love story to the table.
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