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Charis Michaels' debut novel, The Earl Next Door unfolds in three acts: the first act establishes the quiet neighborhood of Henrietta Place, which is a character in itself, and is staunchly protected by Lady Stroud, the Marchioness of Frinfrock, who is my favorite character in the book.
We first see our hero and heroine through Lady Frinfrock's eyes, as she observes from the window of her own home the arrivals of Trevor Rheese, and then the arrival of Piety Grey -- who, coincidentally, moved to houses beside each other on the block across from Lady Frinfrock's.
Trevor Rheese is the new Earl of Falcondale, and he doesn't have time to celebrate, at leisure, his newly-given status in society because he is busy trying to repay all of the previous Earl's debts. He has sold all the furniture, and has let go of all the staff at his new home, and now resides there with only one young man in his employ. He has spent his entire childhood and early adulthood living abroad, caring for his fragile mother. They knew they were connected to the aristocracy, but it was a connection that hadn't helped either Trevor or his mother. Trevor had to survive on his own, and ended up working for disreputable men while he was in Greece. When he inherited the title from his uncle, his first instinct is to sell off everything, and leaving.
I understand why Trevor is hesitant to form relationships -- he is tired of depending on people and having people depend on him. He is tired of being responsible for the welfare of others, and he is tired of having little or no control over his life. Trevor is tired, and, he thought the earldom would finally free him from his current situation, but, it turns out to be yet another ball to which Trevor finds himself chained to.
He is in the process of selling off the London townhouse located on Henrietta Place, and he hopes that it will fund his travels to elsewhere -- to anywhere. But he meets Piety Grey, who moved in next door -- and whose house is oddly connected to his house through a secret tunnel.
Piety had intended to move in quietly, repair the house quietly, install a staff quietly, and settle in quietly in her new home on Henrietta Place, but, it seems the dilapidation that her solicitors informed her were sadly understated. She needs to access the second floor of her house through Trevor's house, and she had been told that the Earl would not be at home while she was constructing. But Trevor, the new Earl, is at home, and very unhappy with the interruptions to his anti-social life.
Charis Michaels hooks you with main characters whose initial actions and perceived motivations are curious, and makes you want to know more about them. Then there's the cranky, but lovable old lady who possesses a razor-sharp mind and keen observation. When the author later reveals the very complicated histories of her characters, it just makes this book an even more compelling read. The first part of the book does a great job of establishing the personalities and hang-ups of the characters.
The Earl Next Door becomes more interesting in the second act of the book, when Trevor and Piety get to know each other better. It's with grudging reluctance that Trevor opens his door (and a bit of his heart) to Piety, who charms you with her guilelessness and convinces you with her relentlessness. I love the mix of strength and fragility in Piety. I love her resolve, but I also love that she falters sometimes.
The second act also introduces Piety's mother and her stepbrothers -- the reason for her escape to England. I would credit the author for writing Piety's mother so well -- Idelle Grey-Limpett is really a dangerous mix of veiled insults and open antagonism -- and she frames it all as motherly concern for Piety's well-being and reputation. The author's decision to portray the brothers as a herd -- just giving them names, and making them move and react as a single entity just adds to what Piety has said of them -- that they are oafs, but that they are dangerous oafs with a dangerous pack leader in the form of Eli Limpett.
I wondered at Lady Frinfrock's decision to move the story to her country estate in Berkshire, and opening her doors to Piety's "family" -- but it did provide a lot of entertainment for the old lady, and emphasized the terrible situation that Piety was in when she was in New York -- and added to the urgency of why Piety needed to get away from them.
What I couldn't understand, though, is why her mother and her stepbrothers continue to pursue her despite Piety's willingness to already give them money. In this I could see that, at the core of Piety's mother, is not a heart, but a hollow space of terrible, hurtful intentions. It isn't just money that she is after, but also revenge. But, for what reason?
The author could have ended her story with Trevor arriving at the Marchioness's estate, offering marriage to Piety, and telling her American family to all go to the devil, and it would make for an excellent ending. But Charis Michaels does one better, by writing a third act, where she integrates everything she's presented so far in the first two acts: things happen that challenge Trevor's dreams of living an unfettered life, and the same things happen that challenge Piety's desire to finally be free from her family, and to live an independent life. Our hero and heroine's worlds are agitated, and nothing is going according to the well-laid plans they both made. So now they must sort through their thoughts and feelings, and decide on a new plan -- a new life, one that, hopefully, allows them to live happily together.
I truly, truly enjoyed this story -- this is the sort of book you can't leave behind, but would want to take with you, because you want to read the next chapter, and then the next. I'm so glad that the second book, The Virgin and the Viscount, is finally out, Viscount Rainsleigh was introduced in the latter part of The Earl Next Door, and he has a very interesting backstory.
The Earl Next Door is the stunning debut novel of Charis Michaels and the first book in her The Bachelor Lords of London series. To find out more about Charis Michaels and her books, click below: