by Tessa Dare, historical (2009)
Ballantine, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-345-50688-7
Tessa Dare's A Lady Of Persuasion reminds me of Amanda Quick's Scandal in the sense that if you have no patience with the heroine and write her off as a one-note dingbat early in the story, you will end up missing completely the layered nuances of her character growth. While Ms Dare didn't achieve the extent of success Ms Quick did in Scandal, she nonetheless managed to present a compelling story for me to enjoy.
Of course, that means this story has a pretty big obstacle for some readers: the heroine Isabel Grayson is far from perfect. She presents herself as a determined do-gooder, but her motives are actually very selfish and she will realize this as the story progresses. Meanwhile, the hero Sir Tobias Aldridge is an easygoing fellow who finds himself playing the paragon of virtue to please the wife he is besotted with, and in the process, discovers that he is actually capable of being a person of substance. But to get to these characters' growth, you have to stick through some of the more silly antics of these characters first.
A Lady Of Persuasion takes place shortly after Surrender Of A Siren. I personally think this story can stand alone pretty well, though. Anyway, Isabel, the sister of the hero of the previous book, finally makes her debut in London. She is determined not to enjoy herself, however. She has only one mission in mind: to marry a titled lord with solid political connections so that he can help her put in motion all kinds of social reform. Sir Tobias Alridge, who was jilted by her brother's recent wife in the previous book, at first decides to seduce Isabel as payback for his humiliation at Sophia's decampment, but he is soon infatuated with Bel enough that, when they are discovered in a compromising position because Bel is too stupid for words, he is more than happy to marry her.
He's confident that he can make her happy. He's certain that she can keep him entertained. But he will soon discover that Bel not only doesn't respond to his attempts to woo her - when he offers her ice cream, for example, he gets a mild rebuke from her about how the sugar used in the making of ice cream is made on the sweat and tears of slaves - he also realizes that she truly expects him to run for a seat in Parliament. Toby is considered a carefree not-very-responsible fellow by his family members as well as his peers, so he realizes that he may have to make some pretty big concessions to get adjusted to married life.
Bel is at the surface a very naïve dingbat who is also far less smart than she thinks she is, and we all know how painful such a combo of undeserved confidence and foolishness is in a romance heroine. However, if you manage to muster some patience and bear with Bel as she indulges in her nonsense in the first half or so of this book, you may soon realize that Bel is just using social reforms as an excuse to distract herself from her own insecurities about her sanity as well as her self-esteem. Unlike the heroine Emily of Scandal, Bel doesn't defiantly weave her fantasies around her to escape her reality, however. She doesn't know what she is doing until, eventually, she drives her husband over the edge and has to confront the consequences of her stubborn single-minded zeal that ended up driving away the man she loves. I find her epiphany satisfying enough to make up for the antics she has put me through earlier in the story, which is why you don't see me using this book for target practice.
I also like Toby. He is exactly what I imagine a realistic privileged romance hero would be: he's a little spoiled, always happy to enjoy the perks given to a man of his rank and seeing very little reason to become a do-gooder. He initially believes that Bel's zeal is just a phase and she will see things his way once they are truly wedded, and they will both live happily ever after in their life of luxury and comfort. Of course, he has underestimated the extent of his wife's, er, eccentricities. Deep inside, though, Toby is a nice fellow. He wouldn't have protected Sophia if he wasn't - something that Sophia and her husband don't seem to get in this story. Then again, both Sophia and Gray are pretty self-absorbed types in their own right in the last book, so I don't expect anything different from these people.
Of course, this story won't succeed if Toby and Bel didn't have chemistry. It is very easy for me to think of Amanda Quick's Scandal while reading this book because Ms Dare has created a most enjoyable friends-and-lovers vibe for her leading couple that come through via their scenes together, just like how Ms Quick always did for her most successful romantic couples.
I also enjoy how Ms Dare allows her characters time to focus on their relationship without cluttering up the story with some last-minute drama about French spies or other stuff. Also, I'm glad to actually read a historical romance set in England that, for once, allows the main characters to become imperfect and do their thing without trying too hard to punish them in an attempt to make some kind of moral statement. I don't believe that Bel and Toby need to be punished here, after all, as they are only guilty of being self-absorbed, if well meaning, types. I have a far greater time seeing them trying to make things right once they realize just how much they have made a mess out of their marriage!
One thing that disappoints me, however - in the epilogue, Ms Dare gives me this impression that Bel has given up on her social crusades completely. Bel instead enjoys a most happy life being a wife and a mother. Come on, Ms Dare, why not leave Bel with something that is entirely due to her own character instead of framing her happiness entirely in terms of how fecund she is? As much as I enjoy knowing that all the bits are in working order when it comes to making babies for Toby and Bel, I feel let down that Bel so easily abandons her mission to make England a better place for all. No matter what her excuses are to pick up the social reform mantle in the first place, trying to make the world a better place is always a worthy thing to do, no?
While I enjoyed Ms Dare's previous two books to varying degrees, A Lady Of Persuasion demonstrates to me that she is capable of adding some degree of complex and maturely handled character development to her story even if her attempts may not endear her to readers who prefer romance heroines to be perfect from the get go. If I wasn't sure before whether I buy the hype about this author, after reading this book I'm more than happy to get hyped about the next book.
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