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It may strike you as strange but, the first thing that came to mind when I was trying to sum up my thoughts on this novel was creme brûlée. There's a surface, and there's the rest of the good stuff underneath. Everyone thinks they've figured out Louisa Stratton: she's flighty and flaky and too rich for her own good -- and everyone in her life has tried to reform her. When Captain Charles Cooper first meets her, he also sees Louisa is a silly little rich girl with a really crazy plan: for thirty days (over the Christmas holidays), Charles pretends to be Maximillian Norwich, a man Louisa had invented and said she had married.
But there's more to Louisa than her daydreams and her eccentric plans, crack through the surface and you discover that Louisa is a person yearning to break free from her Aunt's rigid rule. Her actions make Louisa seem frivolous but, considering the isolation of her childhood, I think she is entitled to make these decisions for herself. There seems to be a dialectic conversation happening inside Louisa, as she tries to figure out her own identity apart from the one her Aunt had created for her. It is a process of trial-and-error, and, unfortunately for Louisa, it's her errors that people pay attention to. I cannot imagine living my life in a fishbowl and Louisa suffered this for a very long time without breaking or losing her spark.
Not to say that our heroine is entirely loveable and perfect in her imperfection -- because I didn't like her lack of courage. Why couldn't she take control of Rosemont? Why couldn't she speak out against her aunt? Why didn't she stand up for herself?
Charles and Louisa's stay at Rosemont was agonising to read and Louisa's Aunt Grace is really quite a dragon. When strange things happen to the couple, their story takes on a sinister element. Who is responsible for this? And for what reason? I actually had my suspicions and kept looking for clues to support it, but Maggie Robinson is very clever and never really reveals her hand until the very end. (Did the culprit surprise me? Yes. Was the author able to justify her choice? Yes.) ^_^
I have to say, I applaud Robinson's decision NOT to turn this into an investigation. Yes, strange things were happening, but our hero and heroine don't really do much sleuthing in the story. Instead, they focus on their relationship and try to work their way around the situation they are in:
1. They aren't really married, but they are painfully attracted to each other.
2. Charles is, technically, in Louisa's employ. There are a lot of instances in the story where the topic of money comes in the way of their romance building up.
"Well, that's all right then. But I don't think I'd mind at all if you -- if we -- if -- you know."
"No, I bloody well don't!"
"Acted as man and wife. Just for tonight. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? We may be murdered in our sleep." Louisa gave him a dazzling smile, as if the prospect of future death was quite delightful.
"You should be locked up."
"I was. For years. It didn't really work. I am as hopeless as ever. If you agree to perform this extra duty, I will of course make it worthy your while financially."
Charles's mouth dropped open. "You will pay me to fuck you?"
- Chapter 13
3. Louisa may know a lot about Maximillian Norwich but, what does she know of Charles Cooper?
What happens is a gradual unfolding of lives as Louisa and Charles reveal more of themselves to each other. There's a lot of humour in the story, especially from Louisa and her crazy plans -- but there's also a lot of sadness and a lot of it is hinted upon: I wasn't sure what was happening to my heart when I read about Louisa and her corsets and how she isn't really able to eat much (because of her Aunt, read: Chapter 20). There really is irony in Louisa's life: it should've been a life of privilege and comfort, but it was not.
Louisa had wished for flags and flowers ad a little crowd at the train station. She'd read of such welcomes when heiresses arrived from their honeymoons, but Aunt Grace would not condone such frivolity. Just as well, really. If she ever came back from a real honeymoon, that greeting would be special.
- Chapter 6
* * *
Louisa had spent her whole life making up stories and changing them around to suit her. In them, her parents never died, her aunt was warm and loving, Hugh didn't pull her hair or put spiders in her bed.
- Chapter 35
Charles's story is also unsettled when Mary Evensong hires him. He was on the brink of despair and was actually thisclose to ending it all. He hadn't just lost his eye in Africa: he had lost himself. He's back, but there really isn't a life or a family for him to return to: Maggie Robinson hints that he doesn't really have a good relationship with his brothers. He's a hero who doesn't feel very heroic. Surprisingly, he and Louisa make a great team: Louisa has never lost the light inside of her, despite all that has happened to her -- and Charles desperately needs to find his way out of the darkness. It is Louisa who guides him out.
"I've told you what happened in Africa. I could not get it out of my mind. Couldn't sleep. Couldn't eat. Couldn't care about anything. But when I'm with you, I care. I think of nothing but you. You've invaded me."
- Chapter 30
I have one complaint: it's about Aunt Grace and Hugh -- they're built up as heartless and cruel and have said really terrible things to Louisa and Charles ... their trajectory is clear from the beginning. But, then, Maggie Robinson pulls back in the end, and this particular bit of the resolution left me dissatisfied. (And I still don't accept Aunt Grace's reason for treating Louisa so poorly.)
Finally, I have to say, I loved the Evensong Agency (Performing the Impossible Before Breakfast Since 1888)! Mary Evensong is such an interesting character, so I went ahead and read Book 2, In the Heart of the Highlander (which is Mary's story) after this one. ^_^
In the Arms of the Heiress is Book 1 in Maggie Robinson's Ladies Unlaced series. To find out more about Maggie and her books, click below: