Another five-star winner from Miss Duran! She’s having a great year.
This is my favorite of her books in a while, because it really shook up the usual Hero/Heroine formula. First, neither of the principals are titled (i.e., aristocracy). And she did what I’ve been clamoring for for ages: established the Heroine with more wealth and higher social class than the Hero.
I love how this was handled from the start, contrasting their wildly different childhoods. His lacked innocence, while hers was safe but bleak. It immediately set up the conflicts they would have, coming from worlds so far apart.
I also loved the letters Catherine first wrote to him, seeking to re-establish contact. The way her tactics changed in each one was delightful and a great demonstration of her character — as was his eventual reply to her, intended to scare her off. And it got more interesting later, when we learned the unsexy but wonderfully realistic fact that he’s barely literate.
I was fascinated by the class reversal, tracking how it affected the power dynamic and the first physical interactions. In the alley scene, when he moves in close and touches her face — the tone was sharply distinct from the first touch in other books, when the Hero clearly holds the power and can do anything he likes to the Heroine and get away with it, no questions asked. But in this book, Nick presented a different sort of threat, the same way any woman would experience when approached in an alley by a known criminal. Catherine’s surprise is that he smells good (first necessary trait for a Hero) and he treats her gently after all, and then she has to deal with her surprise!attraction to him.
Another observation: I kept picturing Nick as shorter than Catherine (who’s described as tall). That reveals my own prejudice, associating short stature with low class and height with upper class, as all her Heroes (and in nearly every other romance novel) have been before. But Miss Duran corrected me firmly a few times, establishing Nick as taller than Catherine (of course). Her other descriptions made it clear that Nick wasn’t that different in physical form from her other Heroes, aside from the crook in his nose.
To the story itself now. When I finished the last book (Lady Be Good, the events of which happen directly before this one), I expressed skepticism that Catherine and Nick could overcome their class gap to find their Happily Ever After. Miss Duran took an innovative approach to the problem, though: she motivated Catherine to jump straight to marriage (thinking it would be loveless, dictated by a bloodless contract with the single conjugal union to consummate it) as a way to outwit her brother and save her business, which is her one passion. Brilliant!
And then that one planned conjugal union, with the measures Catherine took for it! The sheet with a hole in it! Few scenes and books have torn me so between horror and hilarity. That “religious device” was completely new to me, and just — yikes.
(A quick aside that Catherine reminded me of so many feels for one of my all-time favorite female characters — another blonde Ice Queen utterly devoted to her family business and rightly mistrusting her relatives. Her name was Integra Hellsing. The comparison struck me first as Catherine steeled herself for the wedding night:
There was no use giving him the satisfaction of finding her pallid and cowering, like some frightened virgin.
She was a virgin, though.
She refused, however, to be frightened.
Oh my heart! The idea of a woman like her, whose self-identity was so wrapped in her dignity and composure and untouchable exterior, nerving herself to go through this, with the average Victorian understanding of sex — with a man she absolutely does not know or trust with anything intimate, let alone herself — and she’s resolved to use that dreadful sheet with a hole in it. She must have been expecting something gruesome, traumatizing, but determined all the same to see it through…. That just killed me.)
A little more on that terrible Victorian concept of marriage:
But Peter had made a remark at dinner that lingered with her afterward. …”It is only natural to fear husbandly attentions,” he’d told her. “But your disinterest in marriage is unnatural in the extreme. It suggests some disorder of the brain.”
OF COURSE HE’D GO THERE. And the use of “unnatural” made me sorely miss the lesbian angle that had actually first occurred to me in the previous book, when it was first made clear that Catherine had zero time for men’s charms.
Nick dealt with it fairly well, though, and managed to skillfully maneuver around using the sheet without physically overpowering her in a gross way. Well done.
As for the rest of the plot: I liked the suspense provided by her brother, what he would or wouldn’t do. Chucking her in an asylum was quite villainous, but it was wonderful to meet Stella (from Bound By Your Touch) again! I’m glad she’s decided she’s over this whole asylum business, and I look forward to seeing another book with her — maybe as the Heroine! I’d like to hear from her of what she went through with the awful first husband (I cannot bring myself to disapprove of her murdering his abusive ass).
I did feel that the angst factor between Catherine and Nick was drawn out a bit too long, with all those conversations as they called each other cowards. But Nick was that rarity of Victorian (or even modern-day) men, who did not berate or punish her as a “cocktease.” That is the glory of romance novels.
Oh, and I was relieved that Catherine didn’t have to start over from scratch with a new auction house. That would have been frustrating. The tidy wrap-up was a relief.
My only real criticism is that, while they discussed at length the impact of their scandalous marriage on Catherine’s brother’s future, they never discussed how it would affect their own social circles! Am I right in thinking it would damage Catherine’s business? i’m positive Nick is going to have to put out quite a few fires in his own district — mostly set by mothers outraged he chose an English lady over their own daughters. What about that Peggy Malloy, the matriarch who aggressively pressed Nick to marry sooner rather than later? I’m sure she has something to say about his choice.
I enjoy Miss Duran’s books so much, but each one leaves me more impatient for a sequel centered on any one of these disparate couples. Show us how they’re coping with the change in status or situation! There’s so much more to explore in the Happily Ever After, and I think plenty can be done with unforeseen struggles to adapt, especially since that material is rarely covered in romance novels.