by Julia London, historical (2010)
Pocket, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-4391-7545-3
The Year Of Living Scandalously is the first book in a series called Secrets Of Hadley Green. This book can be read as a standalone book, naturally, but I have my doubts about the future books in this series because it seems, from reading this book, that there will be a story arc - the secrets in question - that will span across those books.
Once upon a time, the jewels of Lady Ashwood went missing during a house party in Hadley Green. Her ward, a young girl named Lily Boudine, told everyone that she saw the woodcarver of Hadley Green, Joseph Scott, leaving the manor at night when he shouldn't even be there in the first place. Believing that she would make Lady Ashwood happy, she testified against Mr Scott... and sent the man to hang. Shortly after, Lady Ashwood would drown in a boating accident, and some said that she committed suicide. Lily was shortly after banished in all but name to her cousin Keira's family in Ireland.
History somewhat repeated itself a few years later, when she and her cousin Keira Hannigan abetted an infatuated friend Eve in rendezvousing with the man she had a crush on before he left for America. Eve turned up later that night, showing signs of being brutally raped by that man, and she shortly after committed suicide as well.
So there we have it, a history of guilt on the shoulders of the young women who are going to star in their stories. But this book is Keira's story, not Lily's. I know, you're probably confused, but that's how Ms London did things here.
So, when the story officially opens in Chapter 1, Keira is taking Lily's place as the new Lady Ashwood because... you know, I'm just going to say you should read the book yourself if you are interested. If I explain all the background details, you'll still be reading this review two hours later. Let's just say that, despite claiming to harbor guilt over Eve's death, Keira is still impetuous, reckless, and even thoughtless. She is mistaken as the new Lady Ashwood upon her arrival, and she decides to let the mistaken assumption continue because she decides to help put Hadley Green in order in anticipation of Lily's eventual arrival. She never really thinks as far as how the deception, when uncovered, may damage the locals' trust in Lily.
When she learns of Lady Ashwood's death and discovers evidence that Althea might be having an affair with Mr Scott right up to the day Lily sent the man to hang, she decides to discover answers to this mystery. Why? Because she claims that Lily will be devastated to learn that she had happily sent a man to hang and left the man's family to fend for themselves, so she should be the one to tell Lily instead of having Lily learn the news from someone else. Hey, that's Keira's logic - don't look at me.
Declan O'Connor was there on the night when the two girls sent Eve to her rape and subsequent suicide and he was blamed for Eve's death by others because he was older and therefore he should have investigated the matter further when he found Keira sulking around at night. Well, he was too busy kissing Keira and then hating her for making him kiss her, so his reaction after being pegged for being an irresponsible dolt is to keep blaming Keira for getting him into the mess. He shows up at Hadley Green to rusticate - the man is on a permanent trip of self-absorption - whining and hating everything, and when he realizes that the Countess is a fake, he decides to expose her. Because he hates her, et cetera, even as he lusts after her. Like Keira, he is not good thinking far. The fact that he will destroy both the reputations of Keira and Lily in doing so is not something he's worried about. Nothing matters to Declan but his own pleasures.
So, we have two very childish overgrown brats in The Year Of Living Scandalously running wild. And believe me, this story is a celebration of childish tomfoolery, because both characters never have to grow up or face the music for their immature antics here. In fact, I cringe when Lily is left to clean up the mess left by Keira in the last chapter, after Keira and Declan happily run off to settle down in nuptial bliss without a care. But I don't expect anything less from those two, honestly, because they behave like spoiled kids up to that point.
But at least Keira is behaving like a kid for what she believes to be a noble reason - improving the lot of the locals that have fallen into the pits due to neglect of the land by the previous Earl of Ashwood. I'm not excusing her constant bouts of reckless stupidity or childish stunts, mind you. I'm just saying that she's not that bad compared to Declan. Oh my goodness, Declan. That man spends his entire life refusing to accept any responsibility for his actions and, in the first half of the book, he treats Keira really badly because he blames her for the stunts that she pulled when she was sixteen. Never mind that Keira is behaving just as impulsively at 23 as when she was 16 - the thing is, we have a much older man blaming a teenage girl for his own nonsense. He treats Keira with outright contempt and tries to humiliate her in public, crossing the line many times by deliberately accusing her of causing Eve's death.
And worse, Ms London doesn't even show me any credible character growth in Declan's part. After being an asshole for the first half of the book, all of a sudden he morphs into Keira's ally in her quest to discover the truth about the missing jewels and the dead Lady Ashwood. The transformation takes place after a short conversation during which he agrees with Keira that she was too young to be held fully accountable for Eve's death back then. Simply unbelievable - do assholes really change their colors so easily?
Then again, romance doesn't seem to be the main priority in this story, especially in the later half of the story when the romantic elements are mostly reduced to love scenes and some painfully clichéd Avon Romantic Boyfriend Test moments while the two characters investigate the mystery of the missing jewels. Lily shows up as well, taking up space that could have been allocated to some much-needed character development.
I can't help feeling that the author put more effort in inventing the back story of Hadley Green than she did in writing The Year Of Living Scandalously, because that back story is actually the most interesting element in this book. Everything else is just painful tomfoolery indulged by characters who come off as much younger than they are supposed to be.
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