quick note about Not Quite a Lady, because, you know, that’s what I’m good for these days. Hah. Haaa. Aherm. Anyway, Loretta Chase’s novel is awesome. That’s a given here. And one of the things that make it awesome—aside from, hey, solidly written characters, their genuine motivations and vivid emotions—not to mention the rightness of the pairing of Darius Carsington and Lady Charlotte Hayward!—is the fluidity of the characters themselves.
Darius is the youngest of a brood of strong-willed males of equally strong characters, and he’s proudly set himself apart by being a scholar with strong undertones of coldness and not-so-weak vibes of rakishness. Charlotte is a nobleman’s daughter whose ten-year-old brush with scandal has enabled her to stand as a paragon, one who has developed a knack for fending off marriage proposals.
This simple, shorthand set-up allows Loretta Chase to tease us with the RomanceLandia archetypes: He’s the generally coldhearted rake, she’s the virtuous woman. But that’s it—it’s a tease. Because Chase goes around and soundly establish that these two roles our protagonists have taken up are facades. No grand revelations here, no shattering character shifts—in their private moments, you see these characters unencumbered by their roles. Later, once they’ve met and the romance beings to blossom, more of the roles’ facets shed off them.
Charlotte can be a touchstone. It’s revealed early on that she’s repelled suitors and their marriage proposals by taking on different personae. It’s not as schizophrenic as it sounds, haha—she simply finds the character trait she feels will most repel the suitor, and that’s how she acts the rest of the night.
She learned to be stupendously boring with one, bland to the point of invisibility with another. With some she’d talk incessantly. With others, she was silent. Sometimes she became absentminded and easily distracted. Sometimes she persisted in failing to recognize a man she’d met time and again. And more than once she’d led her suitor to another woman.
Of course Darius can see right through this. It helps that their first meeting caught her unawares—she tripped over him while he was belly-down in the middle of a field to watch grasshoppers mate. It also helps that his keen eye noticed her shift into Paragon from short-tempered once in polite company. He notices how she slips on her “placid cow face,” haha. Eventually, Charlotte learns how to stop pretending. As the novel moves, we see a Charlotte who’s kindhearted and emotional and strong and intelligent.
Darius, too, benefits from the fluidity of character. You expect him to be calculating; he’s simply rational. You expect him to be all sexy-fied and shit, but ya know, he’s just very sensual. And attuned to the, uhm, the mating habits of the animal kingdom, as evidenced by the aforementioned grasshoppers. Or, maybe, as with them Regency dorks, he could’ve been an automaton, or simply out-of-touch with social skillz. But he’s goddamned funny. And charming. Dude, there’s a scene where he encounters Charlotte in the aftermath of cleaning an apocalyptic dairy, and I was charmed witless, snorting in the middle of the night:
“What have you done to my dairy?” he said. “What happened to the Black Hole of Calcutta I was saving for the setting of the Gothic horror play I was going to write one of these days? Where are all my beautiful spiders? Where are my gloomy corners, where ghoulies might lurk? What have you done with the six inches of dirt on the floor? That was good dirt. I was saving it.”
Him being the so-called runt of the litter isn’t even a driving force to his personality, as we are at first led to believe. It’s not an obsession, to stand out. But it matters to him that he matters to his family, especially to his father. The handling’s fantastic, it’s all very natural, and there’s no trace of the author intruding on his, and Charlotte’s, character development.
Thankfully, two key secondary roles are accorded the same fluidity—the same privilege to break out of archetypal roles. We’ve got a young boy central to the maturing of the protagonists’ relationship, and we’ve got your token “villain” in the guise of a more-persistent-than-usual suitor. Pip, the young boy, was adorable and simply admirable with his tenacity—a pet peeve of mine, by the way, with romances involving children, is that they threaten to take over the love story; Pip never did that. Pip was Very Important Pip, and he was real.
And the rival? The rival is genius. When I first met him, digging into Charlotte’s past that he may better know how to protect her [because, ya know, she’s going to marry him, right?], I thought, Goddamn, in another book, this was classic Alpha hero right here. He’s arrogant, principled, protective, chivalrous, and a really nice guy. He’s a realistic rival and even his “villainy” deserves all the air quotes in the world.
This book is really, really great. I am so glad—and I just love—that Chase is wily enough to tease us with archetypes then bash us with them, and then play these solid characters against each other, against us. Goddamn, Miss Chase, you are a crazy-awesome writer.
While I was wrapping up the book, I was thinking how I could not wait to reread it. Net time around, linger even longer over the romance [even though, by then, it would feel like an intrusion], to watch characters more closely, and most, probably, pick up things I’d missed the first time around. Probably fall in love all over again with how Darius and Charlotte fell in love with each other. Probably go geeky once more with how impressively Loretta Chase accomplished this novel.