by Juliana Gray, historical (2012)
Berkley, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-25092-1
Lauren Willig describes Juliana Gray's debut effort A Never Lady Lies as "Shakespeare meets Enchanted April". Of course, given that she is Ms Gray's good friend, if the acknowledgements are anything to go by, we shouldn't be so hard on that rather... excessive hyperbolic comparison. Mind you, when it comes to Shakespeare, she isn't talking about Othello or King Lear. Love's Labour's Lost, actually.
Indeed, we have three men in 1890, who rent a castle in Tuscany to devote themselves to study instead of women. At least, that's what Phineas "Finn" Burke hopes, as he arranges to travel to Tuscany in order to devote himself to the creation of a horseless carriage while beating his Italian rival to the punch. No distractions, just him, the Tuscany scenery, and his work. He brings along his friends, the Duke of Wallingford and his brother Lord Roland, because he believes that those two could use some more wholesome pursuits instead of the constant wine, women, and song thing.
And then we have three ladies who also end up renting the same property. The heroine of this book, Alexandra Morley, the Dowager Marchioness of Morley, is a genteel widow who has fallen on hard times thanks to a truly bad investment made on her behalf by her useless brother. A failed horseless carriage venture, if you can believe it! Bringing along her bluestocking-type sister Abigail and her cousin Lady Somerset, Alexandra is in town hoping to be good friends with the guys working on perfecting a horseless carriage. All the better for her to obtain some kind of information that can be used by the company that her money has been sunk into. It is so nice that she manages to bump into Finn! It must be luck, no?
This book is part of a trilogy, one that revolves around three couples falling in love at about the same time once they end up renting a run-down castle from a swindler. This one focuses on Finn and Alexandra, and it's pretty obvious which of the other two men would end up with Alexandra's sister and her cousin.
Normally, this is where I talk about internal and external conflicts, but you know what? There isn't any deep or engaging conflict here. Sure, Alexandra could have stolen Finn's studies, but her heart isn't into it, so there's not much suspense there. And Finn doesn't really dwell too much on her possible betrayal - he's actually a nice guy. Indeed, both Alexandra and Finn are nice and likable sorts.
Finn is a nice change of pace for a hero, and he's scholarly and scientific and, well, different. Unlike most scientific heroes, he's not too socially inept, boorish, or robotic. He's quite inept at times, but realistically so, and really, he's a nice guy. I have to laugh when he reminisces about how he refused to be another cliché that lost his virginity to some dairymaid. Instead, he waited until his first year in Cambridge when he fell for a Girton bohemian who smoked and believed in sexual freedom.
Alexandra is a silly and frivolous lady at the surface, but then again, she was a belle of the ball until her financial ruination, so she doesn't have any impetus to become an unrealistically selfless and democratic saint like other more typical romance heroines. And it's not long before she reveals that she has a pretty good functioning brain. Sure, she gets flustered now and then, but while she's no femme fatale, she can hold her own very well when it comes to dueling barbs with Finn and his companions. Just like Finn, she's a fun change from the typical romance novel stereotype.
So yes, the main characters are fun, but back to the conflicts: there isn't any big or deep one here. Again, it goes to back to the comparison to Love's Labour's Lost: this one chugs to the finish line on scenes after scenes involving comedy of errors, bad timing, amusing coincidences, romantic kismet, and the occasional slapstick comedy. Ms Gray makes the whole thing work pretty well for a long time, and I have a good time laughing along. However, I find myself wishing that there is a bit more emotional resonance in this story. This story is fun, entertainingly wicked at times, but it will be nice if I get to sigh and shed a tear now and then too.
Anyway, A Lady Never Lies may not deliver the heavy-duty emotional stuff, but it manages to deliver some great comedy from a different type of lead characters. It's pretty impressive how Ms Gray pieces together what is basically a series of comedic scenes to give a coherent story that manages to reach the finish line without becoming too ridiculous or over the top. And I don't even like Shakespeare!
This book at Amazon.com
This book at Amazon UK
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