As has become habit with these book club posts, let me start with a bit of background. I am not much of a romance novel reader (although I read Smart Bitches Trashy Books religiously, don’t even ask me why except that those ladies are the bomb). I’ve read them occasionally – and prefer the historical ones when I do – but I am by no means a connoisseur. I came across Georgette Heyer a long time ago thanks to a recommendation on an online forum (possibly on Jezebel, but it might have been TWoP back in the day), and read a couple of her books, but didn’t become a devoted fan until I stumbled across her detective novels. I love those; they’re got a similar period setting as Agatha Christie’s novels, but are usually a bit more tongue-in-cheek. I did acquire five or six Heyer romances in my home library at some point, most of which I haven’t yet read; as luck would have it, when I picked one for this book club (based on the back cover description), it ended up being one of the few I had previously read. To wit, Frederica. Obviously, I had at best a very vague recollection of the plot, so for all intents and purposes, it was actually more like a first reading.
I chose Frederica as the book club option because the back cover description intrigued me; it suggested that the heroine would be somewhat Lizzie Bennett-ish. The premise also had the potential for some cute set-ups. Here’s the summary:
Frederica only wants what’s best for her family, even if it means sacrificing her own happiness. When she brings her younger siblings to London, she may find the chance to give them everything-and find love along the way.
Determined to secure a brilliant marriage for her beautiful sister, Frederica seeks out their distant cousin the Marquis of Alverstoke. Lovely, competent, and refreshingly straightforward, Frederica makes such a strong impression that to his own amazement, the Marquis agrees to help launch them all into society.
Normally wary of his family, which includes two overbearing sisters and innumerable favor-seekers, Lord Alverstoke does his best to keep his distance. But with his enterprising – and altogether entertaining –country cousins getting into one scrape after another right on his doorstep, before he knows it the Marquis finds himself dangerously embroiled.
What I Liked
The main protagonists. The book delivered on my expectations regarding Frederica; she was definitely a heroine in the Lizzie Bennett mould, although I think she was probably less “prejudiced” and uptight. Both she and Alverstoke were enormously enjoyable characters, and I loved their back-and-forth. I also liked that, although nominally cousins, their familiar relationship was sufficiently distant to avoid the “keeping it in the family” trope that pops up in a lot of stories set in the 19th century (romance novels or otherwise). The age difference (Alverstoke is 37 to Frederica’s 24) wasn’t too egregious, and the novel did a good job of conveying the reasons why their maturity levels would be a close match.
The romance. I thought it had a rather modern vibe to it, despite the period setting. Frederica was an independent woman, with serious responsibilities, and didn’t spend any time sighing after Alverstoke. Although she came close to it, she was also no Mary Sue – probably because Heyer imbued her with enough humour to make her lovable without being insufferable. I liked that she wasn’t the most beautiful woman that Alverstoke had ever seen, and that he fell in love with her for her intelligence, wit, and pluck. I liked that he never doubted her suitability, only his own aptitude for marriage, and always treated her as an equal. And there were no stupid misunderstandings. God, I hate those!
The lack of villain. There was no mustache-twirling villain in the book, unless you count Alverstoke’s various meddling relatives. Don’t get me wrong, I like a good villain (provided he or she is judiciously used and not allowed to run rough-shod over the entire story — I’m looking at you, TV Ramsay Bolton). However, in this case, the absence of real obstacles to romance, beyond those existing in the protagonists’ own minds, made the book seem more realistic to me; there was little in the way of tension (other than some highly contrived episodes I’ll get to in a moment), but I didn’t mind it as it allowed me to enjoy the journey/growth of the characters, and their interactions with each other.
The family environment/supporting cast. I come from a very small family (no siblings, two cousins I rarely see), so I loved reading about all of the various siblings, cousins, and other distant relatives of the protagonists. I found Frederica’s relationship with her siblings to be heart-warming, though God knows, she had more patience than I would have had in her shoes.
What I Didn’t Like
The romance. I know what you’re thinking: that makes no sense, Adina – you just said you liked the romance. I did. But! While I loved that everyone behaved sensibly, the story lacked some “heat” because of it. I totally buy Frederica and Alverstoke loving each other, but I didn’t feel like I got to see them fall in love, and experience the attendant passion for each other. Obviously, since this is a Regency novel (written in the first half of the 20th century), I wouldn’t expect pre-marital fun times, but it might have been nice to read some internal POVs that showed they actually fancied each other. Plus, although we are made privy to Alverstoke’s progression of feeling towards Frederica, we don’t necessarily get the same from her. The way that Frederica describes her feelings for Alverstoke at the end sounds kind of … tepid.
“Is it like that? Being in love? You see, I never was in love, so I don’t know. And I made my mind up years and years ago that I wouldn’t marry anyone unless I was truly in love with him. Alverstoke, I don’t think I can be, because I don’t feel at all like Charis, and she does know! It has always seemed to me that if one falls in love with any gentleman one becomes instantly blind to his faults. But I am not blind to your faults, and I do not/em> think that everything you do or say is right! Only — Is it being — not very comfortable — and cross — and not quite happy, when you aren’t there?”
“That, my darling,” said his lordship, taking her ruthlessly into his arms, “is exactly what it is!”
Don’t get me wrong: that’s love, sure, but it doesn’t read like passion to me. Frederica and Alverstoke are like an old married couple before they’ve even kissed.
The sub-plots. By the end, I was just about ready to throttle Felix Merriville. He was the sort of precocious moppet who is only entertaining on the page, and in small doses. I hated that the big “cliffhanger” in the book revolved around yet another one of his stupid hijinks, although (as I said before), I liked that it was a personal adversity (and not some improbably-motivated villain) that ultimately made Alverstoke realize his feelings for Frederica. I kinda wish that Heyer had stopped at Jessamy, and not given us the youngest Merriville sibling. At least a third of the book could have been cut that way, which would have improved the flow a bit.
I also had very little interest in the Charis/Endymion B-plot romance, probably because it seemed like everyone else in the book felt the same way about it. It grated how often all the characters, including Frederica, commented on how dim-witted (but nice! and, of course, stunningly beautiful, sigh) Charis was. I know that similar comments were made about Endymion, but they were not nearly as prevalent, so by the end, I had my back up about poor Charis. Not enough to care about her, but enough to dislike the whole sub-plot. The last scene with Endymion’s mother, as described by Charles Trevor, was a piece of high comedy I did enjoy.
Speaking of Alverstoke’s secretary, I would have preferred if he had been the B-plot hero. He seemed like a far more interesting character, although his hinted-at romance with the underage (or barely of age) Chloe was probably a bit squicky.
The slang. OMG, the slang. I almost gave up on this book at one point because of all the slang. I certainly skipped or merely parsed chunks of dialogue because of it. It was definitely my least favourite thing about the book.
All in all, the book certainly provided some of my romance novel “catnip” (to the extent that I have any), but missed on other fronts. I enjoyed the overall feel of the story – the very definition of “delightful” – and it has renewed my interest in looking at some other Heyer titles.
If you are a romance novel reader, what is/are your “catnip” themes/characters/settings?
If you are not a romance novel reader, did you still enjoy Frederica? Has it sparked an interest in reading other romance novels?
What was your most/least favourite part(s) of the story?
Now, for next month’s BCRL Book Club selection. In the spirit of switching things up, I decided to go in a different direction once again. Next up: non-fiction! I was reading this month’s issue of Vanity Fair, which is all about (famous) sisters, when I got the idea for the next book. I love reading biographies of famous women. As an only child, I am fascinated by the relationships between siblings, especially sisters. There are some great biographies out there of famous sisters … perfect book club fodder. My first instinct was to go with Mary Lovell’s The Sisters about the Mitfords (who are referenced in the VF issue, if you’re interested in a taste). The book is excellent and so, so interesting (highly recommended) but it is on the rather long side (still worth it if you have time). So, in the end, I decided to go with another set of siblings, to wit the Lennox sisters (great grand-daughters of Charles II):
The Aristocrats by Stella Tillyard
Hope you’ll join me in reading it, and don’t forget to check back on Friday, June 24 for the next book club discussion!