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Monday, June 24, 2013

'Beguiling the Beauty' Fitzhugh Trilogy #1 by Sherry Thomas

From the BLURB:

When the Duke of Lexington meets the mysterious Baroness von Seidlitz-Hardenberg on a transatlantic liner, he is fascinated. She’s exactly what he’s been searching for—a beautiful woman who interests and entices him. He falls hard and fast—and soon proposes marriage.

And then she disappears without a trace…

For in reality, the “baroness” is Venetia Easterbrook—a proper young widow who had her own vengeful reasons for instigating an affair with the duke. But the plan has backfired. Venetia has fallen in love with the man she despised—and there’s no telling what might happen when she is finally unmasked…

Christian, Duke of Lexington, fell in love with Venetia Easterbrook from afar, as many young men have done. But she was married at the time of his falling was for naught. But Christian still made a promise to himself that one day, no matter how long he’d have to wait, he would take a chance with the beautiful Mrs. Easterbrook. 

Christian harboured this thought close to his heart for years. Even after an unsettling conversation with Mr. Easterbrook about his downfall, thanks in part to his beguiling wife, Christian still wanted her. Even after he heard rumours that Venetia Easterbrook had been blazingly, openly unfaithful to her second husband until he passed away, even then, Christian wanted her. Desperately. Maddeningly … until he didn’t. Until the day, while giving a lecture in America, that he realized Venetia Easterbrook’s beauty was a biological lie that harboured a cruel woman behind a beautiful mask. 

Little did Christian know that Venetia was in the audience that day, and listening with a sinking heart to every cruel misconception he uttered about this ‘anonymous’ and evil beguiling woman. 

What happened next was almost out of Venetia’s control. When she found herself staying at the same hotel as the Duke of Lexington … when she wore a veil to hide her face, and called herself Baroness von Seidlitz-Hardenberg to avoid his detection.

And then somehow it all went horribly, damnably, wrong.

‘Beguiling the Beauty’ is the first book in a new historical romance series from Sherry Thomas, called the ‘Fitzhugh Trilogy’. 

I have very quickly become a big fan of Sherry Thomas. Having read two of her stand-alone romances and been wholly impressed, I was so happy to become ensconced in a romance series by this new favourite author. And the first book of the ‘Fitzhugh Trilogy’ certainly delivers.

We meet Christian, Duke of Lexington, on the day he falls in love with Venetia Easterbrook from afar. Yes, this is one of those abhorrent ‘love at first sight’ clichés … or is it? This is Sherry Thomas after all, the writer injecting a bit of literary spice into the historical romance genre. So what starts as a cliché quickly progresses into a damning obsession for Christian, and then into a horrible public embarrassment for Venetia Easterbrook when he unleashes years of pent-up frustrations and dashed dreams on an ‘anonymous’ (but undoubtedly her, with that marriage history) woman who bewitched him with her beauty, but masked a wretched woman underneath. 

What Christian didn’t see, couldn’t see, on that day when he fell for Venetia from afar was how horribly miserable she was. At the time she had a husband who blamed her for everything – from being unable to give him a son, to London society who forget about him in her presence. And then she agreed to a second marriage with a dear friend, a convenience for them both which society has since warped and misconstrued. 

When Venetia, veiled and hidden, bumps into Christian in the lobby of their hotel after hearing his tirade against her, she only thinks to avoid outright vitriol and so pretends to be the Baroness von Seidlitz-Hardenberg. But when he seeks her out again, this masked Baroness who has him so intrigued, their paths take a decidedly different turn … and a sea-voyage sinks them both deeper and deeper into a tangled web of lies.

Oh! This is such a delicious book with a horrendously messy romance at its centre. In theory, both Venetia and Christian could have been pretty awful characters. Venetia is that particular brand of heroine that can go so horribly wrong if not written with finesse – she’s beautiful but despising of her beauty (even as others fall all over themselves for her). Thomas saves Venetia though, by giving us glimpses into two unhappy marriages that have left their imprint on her and added to her disgruntlement with her own outward appearance. Likewise, Christian could have come across as a bit of a dimwit, easily swayed by a pretty face and not much else. But he has a lot of heart, and spends a good portion of the book making it up to himself (and, unknowingly, Venetia too) for the way he fell for her looks before getting to know the beauty. And then there’s the fact that Venetia and Christian click on more than just a physical level – they are both scientists, and his encouragement of her intellectual endeavours is enough to leave readers swooning for this forward-thinking man; 

“If memory serves,” he said, “some of the most significant finds in British paleontological history must be credited to a woman.”  
“Yes, Mary Anning, I've read about her. My husband said her finds were due to blind luck.” 
He snorted. “If God saw fit to give a woman that much blind luck, he can’t possibly object to such endeavours on a woman’s part.”

I loved that Sherry Thomas teased out the idea of ‘love at first sight’, and wrote against typical romantic clichés to explore real conundrum for both Venetia and Christian. Things become decidedly interesting when Venetia, back home in London, casts off her Baroness disguise and becomes reacquainted with Christian, this time as her beautiful self... 

She tilted her umbrella slightly away from her person. “There are those who like me for the way my nose sits on my face – a ridiculous reason to like someone. But it’s also a fairly ridiculous reason to not like someone – as it is in your case.” 
“I disapprove of your character, Mrs. Easterbrook.”  
“You don’t know my character, sir,” she said decisively. “The only thing you know is my face.” 

This is the ‘Fitzhugh Trilogy’, and the focus is on Venetia and her siblings, who will round out the series. There’s her older brother, Lord Fitzhugh ‘Fitz’, who is married to the young Millicent for initial reasons of monetary gains, but whose marriage has become a friendship. Then there’s youngest Fitzhugh, Helena, who is the reason behind Venetia’s American expedition in the first place, after it was discovered that Helena had begun an affair with a married Ton man. 

If I had any complaints about this book, it would be that the larger series context of the Fitzhugh family feels a little underwhelming. I like it if I can at least glimpse the stories for future books in a series, but I don’t think readers were given enough insight into the Fitzhugh sibling dynamic and for that reason ‘Beguiling the Beauty’ really could just be another stand-alone from Thomas … but I suppose time (and the next two books) will tell if this disjointedness lasts or a trilogy feel becomes apparent. For now, I am again bewitched by yet another Sherry Thomas novel, this time in her lengthy (and messy) examination of the old ‘love at first sight’ cliché, and all the drama that can entail. 


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