July 2010, European Historical Romance (19th Century England)
St. Martin's, $7.99, 352 pages, Amazon ASIN 0312605390 Part of a series
Through the love stories of all of her siblings in Lisa Kleypas’ Hathaway series, I never stopped thinking of Beatrix as the ‘baby’ of the family, so much so that I hoped that Love in the Afternoon would be set at least five years after Married by Morning, the preceding story about Leo and Catherine. Because I figured by then, Beatrix would have grown up some. When this story opens, Beatrix Hathaway is still the Dr Doolittle of her family, but she’s most definitely no longer childlike in her relationship with Captain Christoper Phelan. From start to end, Kleypas portrays them as partners who contribute equally to the lives of each other.
I think Love in the Afternoon is the most pure and sweet of the Hathaway love stories. I believed fully in their compatibility and their love and I liked both characters individually. However, niggling issues kept me from a complete immersion in their romance.
Before the Crimean War, Christopher was a smooth-talking handsome devil who had life easy as a second son and was well above Beatrix in the social standing. He viewed her as a barely tolerable oddity in as much as he viewed or thought about her at all. At war however, Christopher was drawn into the Rifles due to superior shooting skills and over a year of battle changes him. All that keeps him going are the letters from Prudence, a girl in his village who surprises him with insight and wit which belie her flighty exterior.
Of course, it’s not Prudence who’s been writing those letters, but Prudence’s friend Beatrix. The letters, which take up the first quarter of the novel, are really touching. The events Christopher chose to write about in a few short paragraphs brought alive aspects of war beyond combat which resonated with me. Intertwined with these snapshots of a life at war is the growth of their relationship. I was totally engrossed in their love story and couldn’t wait for it to play out off of paper and into real life.
When Christopher returns home he is desperate for Prudence but it’s the odd Beatrix who occupies his thoughts despite his better judgment. She is beautiful and intelligent and there is an attraction there. Worse yet, when he finally meets Prudence it doesn’t take him long to realise she’s not the author of his love letters. He’s understandably angry, but still, this is where the story went slightly off the rails for me.
Christopher treasures those letters as they helped him through over a year of war. But now that he realises the flighty flirt Prudence is not the author, he feels betrayal rather than relief, and plans to wreak revenge on the letter writer. His plan (never explained to us, undoubtedly because there could be no rational explanation) is to court Prudence and make the real author of the letters (the self-admitted love of his life) pay. This sort of drama queen response is out of character for Christopher. Thankfully it didn’t last long but that it was there at all spoiled my (up to that point) complete enjoyment of the book.
In addition, though Prudence is described as shallow as a puddle, she didn’t deserve to be lead on by him as she did. He gained nothing but good from those letters and though she should not have deceived him, he’d already decided they wouldn’t suit. So in fact, her conspiring had done him a big favor. Also, I never understood why Beatrix and Prudence had ever been friends in the first place. I really pine after antagonists who aren’t meanies. If Prudence had been a good friend, but just not the love of Christopher’s life, to think of how much more emotional intricacies would have been played out under the pen of Lisa Kleypas, well I tingle. The story would have been meatier and better for it. Not that I’m telling Ms. Kleypas how to plot a story. I’m just sayin’...
Another issue I had with Love in the Afternoon was the issue of control and possession. In the early stages, Beatrix says that she “...wanted to be passionately loved... challenged... overtaken.” I wasn’t sure how to take the meaning of ‘overtaken’ but thought I would see it played out as the story progressed. What I did see was Christopher showing some questionable sexual gamesmanship over Beatrix. Since she’s aroused, not appalled, I’m thinking she got her ‘overtaken’ catered to but I didn’t appreciate it. Christopher, on the search for his letter writer kisses Beatrix and then demands:
“Tell me what you know...or I’ll do worse than this. I’ll take you here and now. Is that what you want?”
Beatrix’s response was to think, "As a matter of fact..."; my response was to think ‘Oh hell no”. It’s a line I always straddle with romance when there are dominant heroes. I know they either love or are soon going to love these women they play sexual games with, but did they know at the time? Or am I to accept that their subconscious knew and that’s why they do these things, only as a reason to get to do what they really want to do out of love, not as a power struggle? It was only when I resolved to believe that what Christopher was really saying was: “If you tell me what you know, that it was you who wrote those letters, I’ll take you here and now like you want and I want” that I settled in for a nice scene. But I had to come around to that frame of mind and again it jerked me out of the story.
But for all my complaints, when Christopher gets the truth out of Beatrix it’s a scene that is as pure and sweet as their entire relationship. In fact, there were so many great parts to the story that showed their love, that this book could have been short and sweet. But it kept on going. There were two occasions where I felt ‘The End’ was in order but I got more bang for the buck. The last extension of their story involved a side plot linked to Christopher’s time at war. The subplot aided in him resolving an issue that was affecting his relationship with Beatrix but – again, not telling Ms Kleypas how to do what she does well – it would have been nice if he could have resolved it with his own internal strength, Beatrix’s tender, loving care and the passage of time.
My issues with Love in the Afternoon are minor when set against the entire novel. However, they become more important if I were to reflect on this story’s place amongst my favourites – either from Kleypas or the romance canon as a whole. My verdict is that it wouldn’t make it into my rucksack were I headed for an extended stay on a desert island, but it’s a definite re-read and a high quality romance story.
-- Abi Bishop
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