03 October 2012

Five-star romances: The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton (Miranda Neville) & Ravishing the Heiress (Sherry Thomas)

I keep intending to branch out romance-wise--read some contemporaries or some classics of the genre (like, people say Nora Roberts is actually good? Who knew?)--but more often I just wanna read Miranda Neville and Sherry Thomas forever and ever. I fear they have spoiled me for all others, for very different reasons.

Exhibit the first: The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton, Miranda Neville: Third in the linked Burgundy Club series (after previous fave-raves The Wild Marquis and The Dangerous Viscount), this one takes up the amatory fate of Tarquin Compton, fashion plate and bringer of Regency snark to those who don't measure up to his sartorial standards. Celia Seaton once found herself the victim of his jibes, and blames him for the dashing of her chances with the London ton marriage market, which doomed her to life as a governess. So when they are thrown together by violent circumstance (and in deshabille) on the Yorkshire moors, and she discovers he's suffering Plot Device Amnesia, she can't resist telling him he's really her country-bumpkin fiancĂ©. Needless to say, things get complicated when she finds herself falling for this un-dandified version of Tarquin--especially when a naughty book she discovers in his belongings (a real example of 18th-century pornography--as Neville says in her research notes, "It's okay, you know, if it's historic, especially if it's in French")  gives her ideas she's never imagined.

For me, Neville's greatest strength is her humor, ranging from sly to slapstick, not just in her characterizations (I've read quite a few books where the hero/heroine were described as "witty," but she writes them telling actually funny jokes, which of course I would quote if I were a better reviewer, but alack), but in the goofy joy of eroticism itself. And, of course, her background in rare books is a constant delight.

Exhibit the second: Ravishing the Heiress, Sherry Thomas: And then we have Ms. Thomas, my greatest love for whom is reserved for her ability to be just gut-wrenching, my goodness. Ravishing is an example of perhaps my favorite romance subgenre, the Arranged or Unhappy Marriage Becoming a Passionate Meeting of True Minds (see also her Not Quite a Husband or Eloisa James's An Affair Before Christmas); this one's got even more unspoken despair to it, as tinned-goods heiress Millie fell head over heels for impoverished earl Fitz the moment they met, only to learn that their marriage requires him to leave behind the woman he loves. Eight years later, after an unconsummated union where they've become best friends and business partners, Fitz learns his lost love Isabelle is newly widowed--Millie, ever outwardly practical while she nurses her constantly broken  heart, grants him permission to pursue happiness with the other woman. But first, they need to conceive an heir.

Ravishing is so sad, you guys, all about making do with the life you have while trying to set aside what you really want, and then omigosh what if you had what you wanted all along? I just kept tearing up, and yelling at the characters about how their marriage is so perfect by modern standards--but they wouldn't know that, it's 1896! And they were married as teenagers, so goodness knows they were idiots! Oof. I teared up so many times reading this book--the last time with joy.

(FYI, Ravishing is the central entry in a trilogy about the Fitzhugh siblings. The first, Beguiling the Beauty, tells the story of Fitz's sister Venetia, who revenge-seduces a studious duke on an Atlantic crossing, never letting him see her face, as punishment for using her as an example of perfidious pulchritude. I liked it, especially the couple's shared interest in paleontology and its partial American setting, but it didn't resonate as deeply as this one. Still worth a read--and the third installment, Tempting the Bride, is coming with my on my imminent honeymoon!)

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