Warning! Spoilers ahead.
This book has some issues. It’s a shame because I respect Eloisa James as a writer, plus the story has its moments.
For example, she’s created these two marvelously eccentric children. (And a pet rat.) It’s so easy to fall in love with these kids:
“I hope to return tomorrow with a new governess.”
“Lumpy was good-hearted,” Lizzie said, as if she were discussing a newly deceased acquaintance. It’s just that she had a tendency to overlook the big things for the small ones… She was very upset by Otis’s betting scheme, whereas she might have seen it as an example of ingenuity, or even resourcefulness.”
“Miss Lumley considered it an ethical lapse.”
“That’s the small thing. She could have looked at the bigger part of it, and seen that Otis is afraid and that’s why he’s hoarding money under his mattress.”
Then there’s the moment when the cook–friends with the recently and unhappily departed heroine–sends the hero dry chicken for his supper. And burnt cake.
The main problems stem from a saggy middle and a “blooming idiot” of a hero.
Let’s start with the saggy middle.
First and foremost, this is a story that was stretched too thin. It could have easily lost 50 to 100 pages and been the better for it. I have a feeling this was caused by an effort to reach a minimum word count. This is understandable, if lamentable.
The dip in suspense begins around p. 230. A lot of the conflict Eugenia has been dealing with is internal. She’s getting over the fear of her reputation and she is still adamant about not marrying the hero, so the fear of losing power over her business hasn’t set in yet. They’ve just had sex. She’s getting along great with the kids and the staff. All that looms is the custody battle, which is still a ways off.
Solution: I liked the progression of her letting go of Andrew and her previous marriage. It’s done in beautiful, poignant stages. For example, on p. 144:
“May I kiss you?” Ward asked.
“Yes.” Her head turned to the perfect angle for his kiss, making it clear to him, but also to herself. She was going to do this, this…
This step away from Andrew. This step away from death and into life. It was only a small step, but she knew it would change everything.
Another beat similar to this would have been great. Now, there’s only so much emotion you can wring out of a reader for a dead character when all they have is their loved ones’ nostalgia. We are given very few memories and no flashbacks, which are the main ways writers connect us to characters important to the book but not present. More of these could have heightened the tension and provided fodder for this extra beat.
Or maybe either the mayor chain/clergyman drama could extend a bit longer to fill in this dip in the tension. Both were very short blips on the map that did their duty to illustrate the quirkiness of the kids and the challenges in raising them. But making them somehow pull double duty would have made for a tighter story.
Now let’s turn our attention to the second problem: the willful and ridiculous blindness of the male protagonist. His main obstacle to marrying Eugenia is that he doesn’t believe her to be nobility by birth. This is in spite of the fact that she explicitly tells him this is not the case… TWICE! I can (grudgingly) find it in my heart to forgive him of the first misinterpretation, but the second one was such a blatant case of delusion that I just couldn’t swallow it.
Add to that the fact that, to win her back, he promises to not use her in his custody battle. This is a sound solution, except he turns around and does the exact opposite! Not only that, but he announces in front of the House of Lords that he intends to marry her, essentially pressuring her into accepting. When she walked out of the hall I thought she was pissed, and rightfully so! I was honestly confused how they would reach a happy ending with the number of pages remaining. When she wasn’t angry I was a bit disappointed and it undermined the beautifully done conclusion with his crumbly little cake.
I don’t have a solution for his idiocy other than to make it more a part of his character. Providing some other example of him sticking so hard to a set narrative only to be proven wrong–if cast in a sympathetic light–could perhaps make it more bearable.
Ultimately I would only recommend this book to avid Eloisa James fans. For those looking for a historical, family-oriented romance, I’d point them to the Hathaway series by Lisa Kleypas.