2000, European Historical Romance (1830s England)
Avon, $7.50, 384 pages, Amazon ASIN 0380802317
Where Dreams Begin is the best historical romance I have read this year. This book really has it all - wonderful, vivid characters, an ambitious conflict, an engaging plot, and a tear-jerker of an ending. And it's all written in a style that is absolutely flawless.
Lady Holly Taylor is a widow just coming out of three years of mourning for her deceased husband George, a man she loved dearly. At her first society appearance, she begins to feel ill and seeks a quiet corner to wait for her carriage. When she stumbles into a darkened room, a man embraces her, thinking she is someone else. He kisses her, and to her complete shame and horror she finds herself responding. Quickly she tears herself away and runs into the night, hoping that the stranger will never find out her identity.
Zachary Bronson, the stranger in question, discovers her identity almost immediately. The host of the ball takes one look at him while he is staring at Holly and tells him bluntly that Lady Holly Taylor is not for him. Not only is she an absolute paragon of breeding and propriety; she truly loves her dead husband and lives for his memory. And although Zachary is obscenely rich and successful, he is a commoner by birth and considered vulgar by most members of the ton. But Zachary invites her to his home and makes her an offer she can't refuse: if she will tutor him and his mother and sister in the ways of society for one year, he will give her thirty thousand pounds for her daughter Rose. Although Holly has been living comfortably with George's family, she has no real means to support herself or her daughter, and George's family is loving but also stifling. To the amazement of all her acquaintances, Holly accepts Zachary's offer.
Zachary doesn't intend to fall in love with Holly. Ever since he was a young boy trying desperately to escape poverty, he has been able to set goals for himself and attain them. When he first brings Holly to his home, he has vague plans to seduce her. That quickly changes as he sees what a fine, gentle person she is. Although he comes to love her deeply, he knows that they come from different worlds; he is sure he will never be good enough for her. Holly is also completely surprised by her growing love for Zachary. She loved George deeply, and promised herself that she would live as he would have wanted. Zachary is almost nothing like George, and her attraction to him seems both immoral and disloyal.
This is not a book with an easy solution, and you'll have to read it yourself to see how it all works out. The star-crossed lovers have many obstacles to overcome and the emotional ending had me in tears (which is a true rarity for me). Zachary and Holly are wonderful, noble characters, and they both approach their problems with uncommon honor and courage. Zachary is truly a self-made man. He began as a prizefighter, became a ship captain, and eventually invested widely and developed a fortune. His spirit is valiant, but his approach to life is completely different than that of the average bored aristocrat. He is so sure that Holly would have a better life without him that he almost lets her go. Holly is a devoted widow whose feelings for Zachary make her feel like a traitor to her husband and family - until she falls in love and begins to see the world in an entirely different way. They are the type of believable characters that you just have to care about and root for. The secondary characters are also well-drawn; there are no cartoonish villains or scheming other women in this bunch. My favorite was the little seen but very intriguing Lord Blake, Earl of Ravenhill. (Note to Lisa Kleypas: Please write his story!)
When I began reading the book I truly had no idea how these two could ever come together, and I really liked not being able to predict how the story would unfold. Lisa Kleypas never stoops to using hackneyed plot devices as a way out. Zachary remains a commoner when many books would announce that he was actually a long-lost aristocrat, and Holly doesn't blithely abandon her virtue or declare that George was actually an evil ogre who beat her. Instead they examine their feelings and come to fall in love in a way that is both credible and touching.
I had two very minor quibbles with the book. Zachary is a reformer who is ahead of his time, but to me he seemed a little too ahead of his time. The book is set in 1830, but if it had been moved forward by fifty years Zachary's reforming zeal would have made a lot more sense. Also there was an aspect to Holly and George's marriage which I found a little hard to believe. However, both these quibbles are extremely minor and in no way hampered my enjoyment of the book.
I just have to comment on Kleypas's writing style, which is just superb. I have read only one other book by her (Someone to Watch Over Me) and I noticed the terrific writing in that one as well, although I didn't enjoy the book quite as much. In Where Dreams Begin, the beautiful writing is matched by admirable characters and a challenging, satisfying conflict. The result is a terrific story which will stay with the reader long after the final page is read.
-- Blythe Barnhill
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Don't miss Lisa Kleypas's DIK review of The Shadow and the Star by Laura Kinsale