And Pandora’s Box is back again! This time around, Blythe Barnhill and Jean Wan are taking on a European historical by debut author Juliana Grey. In A Lady Never Lies, Lady Morley has fled to Italy to escape creditors and there she meets inventor Phineas “Finn” Burke. Each of the two, and their traveling companions, are staying in a remote castle in Tuscany. With an unusual setting and a backstory involving the invention of motorcars, this book stood out among recent historical romance offerings.
Blythe: I chose A Lady Never Lies by debut author Juliana Gray for two reasons: 1) she was a brand new European Historical author I’d never tried and 2) I happened to have two copies on hand. Well, from my end, it was a happy accident. I really loved the book. I had no idea that it was set in 1890 – in Italy, no less – and featured a hero who designed electric cars. I am predisposed to like novelty, so this suited me down to the ground. Then I ended up liking the hero and heroine as well. But what did you think?
Jean: I knew even less than you did going into the book, so the surprise of both historical novelty and quality was even stronger. I’d argue that the Italian setting isn’t wallpaper so much as irrelevant, until the very end when there’s a car race through Rome (yes, in a historical – but it works!). Unless there really was a race in Rome at that time, the story could have happened most anywhere in Western Europe.
In my opinion, the tone of A Lady Never Lies is pretty indicative of what has become the norm in historicals, in some ways – putting the history back into historical, with setting and event immersion, yet using prose that is clearly, undeniably 21st century. We have our cake, and we eat it too. While a part of me still gripes, the other, larger part whacks it on the head and tell it to shut up and go along with it. What do you think?
Blythe: I hadn’t thought about it that way. While I agree that it probably could have been set elsewhere, the castle is full of Italians, and it starts with a journey and an argument over a room at an inn, both better accomplished on foreign shores.
As to having our cake and eating it too, you are likely right. There are some modern notions and speech patterns in there. But I learned stuff. Granted, I had not given the origins of the automobile a whole lot of thought (likely because not enough romances are set in the 1890s). But I had no idea that different types of engines were in contention. Finn and Alexandra spend time together in the workshop; it’s key to their romance. And I guess I can forgive a bit of modern attitude or dialogue if it occurs in a novel environment.
An unusual problem I had, though: Finn is my son’s name. That always weirds me out a little (though it happens more often in Scottish romances with my other son’s name – Duncan).
Jean: Oh, I definitely liked it, and learned stuff as well. I’m not really quibbling with the historical setting because it is unique, and well-integrated and interesting. I liked the characters, both primary and secondary, as well, but not as much as the setting or the writing. I confess I found the initial setup extremely contrived and abandoned the book for two weeks, despite the promising prose. But credit where it’s due – Ms. Grey makes it work, and I think a large part of it is that she pulls very few punches in her characters. Alex needs money and Finn is a recluse. Finn’s ducal friend is a complete boor (and how he manages to be paired with Alex’s smart sister is beyond me). But give me boors and mercenary widows any day over honey pies.
Blythe: Okay…what’s a honey pie?
I agree that the set-up was a little contrived, but I was willing to buy into it, mostly because I liked the characters. My confession: I kept confusing the two women who were not Alex. Lilibet and Abigail. I’m not sure why. I kind of liked the boorish duke, though I agree he’s boorish.
I did have one fear: The dreaded Big Secret. I guess it wasn’t that big, but I’ve been burned before. Alexandra owns stock in a rival motor car company, and initially enters Finn’s lab with the vague idea that she might pick up something that will be useful to her (failing) company. She quickly moves beyond that, but I was dreading the moment Finn found out. Happily, the situation was resolved to my satisfaction.
Jean: Mmmm, a honey pie, to me, is a sickly, sticky sweet heroine whom I usually want to pitch out the window. Can’t stand ‘em.
I think it’s testament to the author’s skill, and immense promise, that a contrived setup can pay such big dividends. There’s something very fresh about this book, although I’m not sure if I can pinpoint it exactly. But I kind of see it like eating a croissant for the first time in Paris, or pizza in Naples. You love croissants and pizza, and you’ve been eating them your whole life. But once you’ve had that Parisian croissant, you don’t know how you ever stood any other kind.
That being said, I did have one issue, and that was in the middle, when Finn mysteriously (to me) turns a heated kiss into the Love of His Love, and acts accordingly. Um, okay. Seemed too romantic and flighty for a guy who is extremely grounded.
Blythe: I found it very fresh as well, and I have to admit that freshness is if not my number one priority in reading, then very close to the top right now. I’m not sure whether that’s a function of reviewing for so many years, or if others really feel that way too, but I crave novelty like I crave caffeine. This book filled that craving nicely.
I didn’t really have the issue you did with the heated kiss/look of love – I just figured he was twitterpated.
What are your thoughts on reading the other books in the series? I am definitely interested to see where this goes, but my towering TBR pile is a force of nature. I intend to read a lot of books that I never get to.
Jean: I’m actually not super enthusiastic about the long-lost lovers rediscovered. Never my favourite plot in the first place, and there are some other bits (the husband, probably a misunderstanding or two, long-suffering martyrish heroine) that add up to trouble. The relationship between the duke and Abigail, on the other hand, is nothing short of bizarre and perverse, which I adore. So I might check back in for their book (third in the trilogy).
All in all, I’d give this book a B+. You?
Blythe: I can’t help it; I LOVE a good love triangle. Sometimes I even love a bad love triangle. And a heroine married to the wrong man? I love that too. So I’m in if I can squeeze it in my schedule.
My grade is, oddly enough, the same as yours. So it’s a double B+ for Juliana Gray’s debut…and not a particularly contentious Pandora.
– Blythe Barnhill and Jean Wan