Monday, February 21, 2011

Four Umbrellas for The Bartered Virgin by Chevon Gael

I think Red needs to consider checking this out, because it's set in 1902 in New York City. How could she resist? True there's no mystery, and there's lots of romance happening, but it's 1902. In New York City. She needs to read this!

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

3.5 stars. If you loved Downton Abbey on Masterpiece Theater this winter, you will want to give this book a try. It's 1902, it's New York City, and several of my favorite tropes are all in play here: secret "pillow book" scandalizing our heroine, an engagement of inconvenience where neither party really wants to be there, and big secret regarding the origin of money. David Knightsbridge doesn't particularly want a bride, and he certainly doesn't want one forced on him, but he's an Earl and he needs to save his crumbling estate. Winnifred "Winn" Percy doesn't wish to be married at all, so she plans to shock David into calling off the arrangement. Gael does an excellent job capturing the mood of the time, and I particularly liked her description of the view from David's hotel room. She shows a city poised on the brink between old and new, being rapidly changed and shaped by all the new advances. Winn herself stands on the brink between old traditions and new--she's a proper young lady with gowns and debut balls, french lessons, needlework, and calling cards. But she's also a modern woman, using a telephone to call a friend, sneaking to Coney Island to gape at the bathers, eating forbidden street food, and trying her brother's cigarettes. David finds this duality in her very appealing, and swiftly (the novel is only 133 pages, so he needs to move fast!) decides that the marriage won't be such a burden for him.

And, if only David were not such a pompous arse, this would be a five star read. Poor Winn is surrounded by men who act very inconsistently (As does she, but she's 18, and it seems much more in character for her). David very deliberately sets out to seduce Winn in a way that I found very off-putting and grating (For Downton Abbey fans, he was definitely the Turkish dude creeping into bedrooms and not Cousin Matthew waiting patiently at all). David's actions really took away from the love scenes for me, and the somewhat-funny mentions of incredible shrinking-growing-shrinking members took me further out of those scenes. True heroes don't shrink! Ever. I think I'm spoiled by the Regency formula where hero either accidentally or deliberately seduces heroine, and immediately goes with her to face the consequences of a quick marriage to cover up any scandal. David's cavalier attitude, made worse by sending Heroine home far after curfew by herself in a taxi, made me really dislike him.

Left alone to face the consequences, Winn has to face the other two inconsistent men in her life--her father and brother. With no dueling pistols laying around and facing scandal, her father abruptly shifts to opposing the marriage he so wanted. I think this was necessary to add conflict, but probably not what would have happened--nothing would have hushed up the scandal and saved the family name faster than a fast elopement and quick departure for England.

David does eventually redeem himself, but his decision to leave heroine in the dark about something very vital to her tempered his redemption in my eyes. But, a happy epilogue is had by all, and I ended the book with a smile on my face.

However, it's the mark of a good writer to inspire such strong feelings about their characters, and Gael is certainly a strong writer, with a gift for crafting unusual historical novellas that really capture the time and place. I've said before how difficult the short length stories really are--it's hard to deliver a fully-fleshed story in 133 pages, but Gael really does try here. I plan to look at her backlist, and I will also read more set in this time period. I hope both Kitty and Tippy get stories! I also salute Carina for taking a risk on a historical set at the turn of the century, and I would love to see more set in this time period.

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