This month's TBR theme is virgin heroes. I wonder if Stephanie Laurens could even write a virgin hero. Probably not, but I won't hold it against her. Meanwhile it turns out that the only book I have in my TBR that would fit the theme is Outlander. That sucker scares the heck out of me. I wasn't even going to try. I think I'd need an entire month to finish it. But I digress.
It's been quite some time since I've read a Stephanie Laurens book. A Fine Passion is #4 in her Bastion Club series. I've been intrigued with her new series that stars heroes who've been in India. But being rather obsessive, I knew I wouldn't allow myself to start the new series without finishing the old series, so it was time to return to the Bastion Club.
I'll start off by saying I find myself rather ambivalent about this book. There was a lot to like here, but quite a bit that just did not ring true. Now granted, almost everything I know about Regency England comes from other romance novels. After awhile, you put it all together and hope you're forming an accurate picture of what life would have been like. I am also well aware that Laurens has been criticized frquently because her books seem anachronistic. I'm not sure I always agree. Certainly, for example, you can assume that an aristocratic woman would have had very little personal freedom. But that doesn't mean that that same woman couldn't have had a strong personality, a strong sense of personal worth, and a full understanding of her place in the world. E.g. Honoria in Devil's Bride (LOVE that book!).
First, the plot. Lady Clarice Altwood, heroine of AFP, is living quietly in the country with her older, unmarried cousin James, taking care of him and in general ordering the lives of those around her. That latter task would normally fall to Baron Jack Warnefleet, but he hasn't been home in over a decade. Jack finally comes home (having first served in the war and then taking care of his distant estates) and meets Clarice. He soon learns the extent to which she's been managing things and while at first he's upset, he quickly learns to appreciate all she's done and admire her character, intelligence, and personal strength. He's puzzled that Clarice is buried in the country, but he (and we) soon learn that Clarice left London in disgrace rather than marry the man who had compromised her in order to trap her into marriage. Her late father had banished her, and she's had no contact with any of her immediate family in 7 years.
Shortly after Jack returns an attempt at murder leaves a mystery to be solved. Someone is trying to frame James for treason. James is a scholar and not good at dealing with practicalities. So naturally Clarice has to go to London to clear James' name. James had been a mentor to Jack, so Jack also wants to help. Jack & Clarice go back to London, have an affair, solve the mystery, and earn their HEA. It's a pretty typical Laurens book.
Being typical means there's a fair bit to like here. I liked Jack alot. He was just a little bit arrogant, but also able to recognize his own mistakes and fix them. He decides early on that he wants to marry Clarice, but knows that she has to want to marry him in return. They seem to genuinely respect each other. The more modern term of marriage as a partnership isn't used here, but the idea is implied. Clarice is a fortunate woman--when she is banished from London she is able to go to a cousin and create a quiet life for herself. She is aware of the consequences of her actions and while it is painful that her family (her brothers in particular) turn their backs on her, she doesn't whine and moan about it. It is what it is.
OK. So here's what I did not like. From almost the beginning the book reads more like a military campaign. I didn't mind it at first. Mentally Jack thinks of Clarice as Boadicea, the Warrior Queen. But the theme was over-used when the action moves to London. All of the sudden this woman who had been banished in disgrace is welcomed back with open arms and is leading the campaign to restore her cousin's good name. Everything is described in terms of her campaign to fix things. I just found it impossible to believe that any woman, let alone one living in disgrace, would be able to waltz back into society and wield enough influence to fix her brothers' love lives, bend the Bishop of London to her will, and return to the ballrooms of London as if nothing had ever happened. Oh, and have this affair that no one would notice. There's an evil stepmother subplot that was sort of entertaining. But why did it take Clarice's return to cause her older brother to suddenly grow a spine and put the stepmother in her place? I just couldn't accept the London half of the story as it relates to my own understanding of "Regency world." The mystery wasn't even all that engaging and Laurens usually does a pretty good job at this one.
So in the end I don't think I can recommend this particular entry in the series. I'll persevere though and read more. Hopefully sooner rather than later.