Friday, September 5, 2014

The Other Harlow Girl by Lynn Messina

Note:  I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review
My Experience:  A
Synopsis:  A woman in the British Horticultural Society! The very idea horrifies everyone, including ardent horticulturalist Lavinia Harlow, whose own name has been put forth for membership by the provoking Marquess of Huntly. He does it as a joke, of course, to get back at her for an imagined slight—well, to be fair, she had insulted his writing—and Vinnie, older sister to the infamous Harlow Hoyden, is far too sensible to rise to his ridiculous challenge.

Determined to head off further scandal (her name has already been recorded in the betting book at Brooks's!), Vinnie dashes off a polite note refusing the honor—which she has every intention of sending. Really. Only she can't help but chafe at the way everyone keeps demanding that she decline at once, even the marquess. Oh, especially the marquess, whose perfection she finds intolerable. Who ever heard of a gentleman being so handsome and so intelligent and so well informed about foreign flora? Clearly, the man needs to be taken down a peg, and somehow, despite all twenty-four years of faultless propriety, Vinnie is just the hoyden to do it.

I enthusiastically recommend this book both as a follow up to The Harlow Hoyden and even as a stand alone.  You do not need to read the first to appreciate the second but you’ll want to.  Definitely a Keeper.

But first, I must confess....

The first five chapters of this book drove me to despair. I needed to be revived with burnt feathers and extra strength coffee - the kind that melts plastic spoons and requires a hazmat warning to be issued.  My beloved Lavinia Harlow [who I was sure deserved the hero in the former book The Harlow Hoyden] had become one of those heroines I despise.

She was a self-absorbed, scatter-wit liar, full of self-righteousness masked as indignation over slights that had not actually occurred; unable to think straight because a man *looks* so beautiful and worst of all, petty. Oh woe, woe to my romantic heart that is frequently troubled by sequels.  I closed the book, disheartened, swooning from the injustices in a reader's life. [yeah, I had the blues over a character in a book - that says more about me than the book I fear]

Bewildered, I went back and re-read the first book wondering if I had been under the influence of weak coffee.... But no, there she was, Lavinia in all her splendor: practical, slightly distracted at times, able to see the humor in a scheme and to turn it to the schemers advantage while maintaining her dignity; earnestly committed to her family - flaws, faults and foibles included - yes, all in all a paragon worthy of her sister's devotion [except in that one regard, ole Windbag].  I still ached for her desires to be married, to have a family, to spend what time was her own on horticulture coming to nothing but tragedy, mixed with a bit of practical relief and resignation.

Battling the demons of despair, I distracted myself with a work crisis, computer emergency and automotive difficulties. However, I committed to reading and reviewing the book.  I am an honorable woman and will read to the end the books I agree to review.  I don't always post the reviews - would I waste a fellow reader's valuable time?  I think not - but I do read them.

I told myself to just *forget* the former book. I do enjoy Miss Messina’s writing style and with that for comfort, I would soldier on.  I re-opened the book and started over at the beginning, pretending I had no knowledge of Lavinia prior to this experience. I can’t say she won my admiration in the first five chapters as she had in the first book but as an unknown character she was more sympathetic. I still sighed over the foolishness of brain sucking love at first sight [I have been spared such an inconvenient, not to mention humiliating experience in this life and since I’m an old biddy, safe now from such an affliction].  Frankly, that’s *my* issue, and so common in romantic writing I have learned to overlook it as I do man boob covers.

This book has a lovely cover, by the way, and a Chapter Six that stole my breath, restored my confidence in both Ms. Messina and Lavinia and even made me like Huntly - the impeccably perfect hero that made Alexander Trent, hero of former book, seem like weak coffee that cooled off while you scrubbed the kitchen.  Okay, maybe not that extreme, but I found Felix Dryden, [what a wonderful name] Marquess Huntly nifty as espresso even when I wanted to warn him what was surely to come!

Good thing I can’t truly warn characters in a book. Ms. Messina toyed with me and how I enjoyed the adventure.  As with the first book, things did not go as romance readers would expect, maybe even dread [yeah, that's me admitting guilt].  The trope, scenario ... What-ehver was firmly in keeping with the genre but using the twists and turns and communication -omigod, characters that communicate, how utterly wonderful - she made everything seem fresh as 1975. [and that was me admitting how long I’ve been reading romance books and if you are mathematically inclined you can probably figure out I’m not just mature, I’m practically old]

Trent and The Hoyden were as much apart of this story as Vinnie had been of the former and gave this book a solid, traditional feel.  I adore books with characters that don’t exist in a vacuum of lurv with walk on caricatures coming and going.  We live involved with family, friends, acquaintances and bad days that can turn to good ones in an instant, if we allow that.  Ms. Messina’s characters are granted this privilege as well and it is why I enjoy her books.

And most importantly, Ms. Messina brushed away my despair with a moment of how Real People would behave when they've done incredibly goofy or thoughtless things. This is exceedingly difficult to pull off in a romance book:

Mortified anew but determined to behave in the correct manner regardless of how uncomfortable it was, she said with quiet dignity, “I am sorry, my lord, for the wrongs I have done you. What I said about your articles at Hatchard’s was meant only to tease you, not to provoke a response that—”

“I must insist that you stop apologizing, Miss Harlow,” Huntly interrupted with surprising vigor, “for either by design or by chance, you are making me feel more wretched. As much as I would like to disavow all responsibility for this contretemps, it’s entirely my fault. Your comments at Hatchard’s certainly provoked me—and please let me express my admiration for your skill with the sugarcoated insult—but they in no way warranted such a large and public retribution. That was never my intention. I hope you believe that.” He spoke so simply and with such sincerity, she had no choice but to nod.

Not only has Ms. Messina avoided the traps of the same ole thing, she stood same ole thing on its end and gave it a spin with a giggle of glee.  I swallowed the rest of the book in one gulp, thoroughly captivated by the prose and tale, while battling my own mortification over rashly judging and petty dependency on what *I want* versus what the author chooses to share with me.  [Yes, that is my bumbling apology for doubting and dawdling].

Huntly was a hero worthy of the title, Lavinia a heroine worth adoring and the cast of family and fiends completely fleshed out.  The writing lively and amusing, the topics handled deftly without ever preaching or demeaning the society or people that existed at that time.  Her attention to details was well-handled without overwhelming while filling in enough of the back story you could keep up.  Characters new and old were believable and three dimensional.  Tension of a sexual nature deftly handled and perfectly understated for these two characters and the one love scene tastefully done [even if it did involve a rug and implausible time alone - after the climactic moment of confrontation the physical seal of the deal was nice but the Afterglow was better - curse my fears of spoilers].  

In my opinion, Lavinia didn't really embrace her inner hoyden.  She embraced her commitment to honesty with herself, understanding for others, and acknowledged her personal integrity was worth standing up for, even if it is harder than confronting the Patronesses.  Lavinia Harlow is a character that has and will stick with me.  I found her admirable, believable for the time she lived in and frankly, endearing. She deserved her hero.  He certainly deserved Lavinia. I am most grateful to Ms. Messina for not making him "earn" her, only walk with her, faithfully, like a man that has both a heart and mind that works as satisfactorily as his libido.  

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