Friday, 26 May 2017
#CBR9 Book 52: "Dreaming of You" by Lisa Kleypas
Audio book length: 11hrs 34mins
Rating: 4 stars
Sara Fielding and Derek Craven have a hell of a "meet-cute". While researching her future novel in one of the seedier corners of the East End, Sara comes across Craven being held down and attacked by two thugs. They've slashed his face open, and she intends only to fire a warning shot from her pistol (which sh obviously keeps in her reticule for defencive purposes), when she instead ends up killing one of the assailants. She discovers that the man whose life she saved is the legendary gambling club owner Derek Craven, and takes him back to his club to be patched up by his staff and a doctor. While Craven thinks Sara is a great fool to risk her life wandering about the East End unaccompanied, his staff are deeply grateful to her for saving their boss, and Worthy, Craven's factotum invites Sara to return whenever she pleases to visit the club for her research.
While Craven isn't happy about it, Worthy and the rest of the staff at Craven's worship Sara and let her roam wherever she pleases to do her research and even set aside space for her to work on her novel in the club. Derek wants nothing to do with the infuriating female, but can't stop watching her either. Sara, on the other hand, doesn't lie to herself and admits that she's attracted to the bitter (and now literally scarred) man. She tries to get him to kiss her (her overly proper suitor back home doesn't think such things are appropriate outside of marriage) and when he refuses, she conspires with Worthy and Derek's friend, the Countess of Raiford, to get dressed up as a proper temptress and attends one of Craven's one night wearing a mask. She manages to thoroughly enchant Craven then, and gets kisses and then some, but he is angry with her when he discovers her deception and forbids her to return to the club. Sara goes back home to Greenwood Corners and pretty much delivers an ultimatum to her suitor of four (!) long chaste years, Mr. Kingswood. If he doesn't propose very soon, their courtship is over.
Lily Raiford can tell that her old friend is falling for Ms. Fielding and fighting it all the while. She invites both of them to a house party at her husband's country estate in the hopes of furthering their romance. She had not counted on the nefarious spite of Joyce, Lady Ashby, Derek's former lover who is still furious that he broke things off with her (she's the one who ordered Derek attacked and mutilated in an alley). Joyce is determined that if she can't have Craven, no one else will either, and she's going to destroy anyone and anything he holds dear. Ironically, her evil plot is what actually compromises Sara to the point that Craven feels he has to marry her and Sara finally gets her man.
Craven's not one for romantic sentiments and declarations, though. While Sara has admitted to herself that she loves him, and it's clear to everyone around him that Derek is completely smitten with his new wife, he's led a hard life lacking in warmer sentiments and still holds himself back in the relationship. That is until Joyce Ashby strikes again, determined to get her revenge once and for all.
This is one of those romances that keeps popping up on "Best of" lists, even now, more than 20 years after it was written. I own the book in paperback and know that I read it back in 2008, also known as the year I rediscovered romance (and I haven't looked back since). Unlike those other books that I read back then, several of Julia Quinn's Bridgerton books, Loretta Chase's Carsington and Scoundrels books, as well as others, I seriously did not remember a single detail of this plot. Beyond remembering that I read it back then, this book felt like I was reading it for the very first time. I know this is a fan favourite of Kleypas', but the fact that I'd so utterly forgotten everything about it doesn't count in its favour to me.
I was also surprised to realise that of the two books in The Gamblers of Craven's series, I really preferred Then Came You, which while it had a completely bonkers plot, also had a couple whose romance affected me more. As a bonus, both Alex and Lily play quite prominent supporting roles in this book, so that was fun.
I can't really even put my finger on what it is that didn't really work for me and why I seem to have entirely excised it from my memory from the first time I read it. Sara and Derek are both memorable and interesting characters.
Sara has written two acclaimed novels, the second, Mathilda, being especially well-known. It's a recurring theme in the book that the people Sara meets believes that the prostitute she wrote about was in fact real, and many claim to know people who have met her, despite Sara's attempts to explain what a fictional character is. Sara was the late in life only child of a couple from the rural village of Greenwood Corners, where Sara's lived a fairly sheltered life until she started writing and travelled to London to interview street urchins, prostitutes and gamblers as research for her novels. As she explains to Craven as he is being patched up by the doctor, she has been courted by a young man, Mr. Perry Kingswood, for four years, and is pretty sure that his mother will relent and let him propose to her soon.
Derek Craven is a legend, not just in London, but in all of England. The son of a prostitute, he doesn't know his exact birth date or exactly how old he was. Abandoned in the gutter by his mother, he was raised by other prostitutes and made his way up through the London underworld with ambitions. Becoming the lover of wealthy noblewomen, he eventually acquired enough "patronage" that he got enough money to open his spectacular gambling club, where he has made enough money to rival the richest and most powerful men in England. He has more money than he knows what to do with, but doesn't let himself get overly attached to anyone. He had to become hard and ruthless to survive to adulthood and he certainly can't allow himself to fall for a mousy almost-spinster from the country.
While they are an interesting couple, Derek's complete reluctance to admit his affection for Sara grated on me. The biggest problem I had with this book, however, was the antagonist, Lady Ashby. While women can absolutely be as villainous as men and Kleypas could just as easily have cast Sara's village suitor, Perry Kingswood as some sort of obstacle to the couple. Instead she has this dangerously unstable noblewoman, who everyone apparently knows is completely ruthless (they certainly talk about her that way when she's mentioned) and who it's implied has done some pretty awful things in the past, but she's protected by her title and the wealth of her husband. She got more histrionic with each appearance, until her final act just went into implausibly mad. I get that it might have been necessary for Kleypas to separate Sara and Derek for a while, so Derek would finally admit his love for his wife, but it all became a bit much for me. Also, when SPOILER the heroine has to be rescued just seconds away from rape, it doesn't exactly set the most romantic mood.
I listened to this in audiobook, narrated by Rosalyn Landor (she does all of Kleypas' classic audios, as far as I can tell), who is very good. I'm still slightly puzzled as to how I could completely forget having read this back in 2008, but my meticulous reading records claim that I did. I can also see why it's become somewhat of a popular classic and especially why Derek Craven is a beloved romance hero, but I really felt a bit let down, probably because my expectations were so high in the first place.
Judging a book by its cover: My paperback copy of this has the classic Kleypas covers, where most of the book is in one colour, usually a delicate pastel (this book is in a creamy yellow). A band across the middle of the book shows some pastoral image, in this case some fancy country house, with a horse and carriage pulling away from it. I really don't think that's very representative of a book set mainly in London, in a gambling club. So the re-issues have this cover, with a lady in a fancy gown, skirts once again long enough to go on to eternity. I forget if Sara wears a red gown at any point in this, I know she wears a blue velvet one in a very memorable scene, but I can only assume the cover model is meant to be her. They should have given the model glasses.
Crossposted on Cannonball Read.