Between the contrived angst of the HP and the brilliant, genuine angst of Gaffney’s To Love and To Cherish, Miss Bates comfortably settled into the wit and light touch of Neville’s The Importance of Being Wicked. Reading Neville’s romance novel was like skimming the bubbly goodness off a milkshake on a summer day! Delicious, sweet, but not substantial. The writing is good, the hero is lovely, and the pacing of the narrative smooth and appealing. The heroine’s fey and childish ways grated about three-quarters of the way through and Miss Bates thought the yummy hero was overly indulgent and a tad doltish for being as devoted as he was. The mystery of what makes seemingly incompatible people happy together is not for Miss Bates to solve; nor is that the purpose of our beloved genre. Nevertheless, making this incompatible couple endearing is to Neville’s credit. Reading about Lord Stuffy and his irrepressible Caro was fun; if you’re looking for a read that doesn’t stint on good writing, interesting characters, many funny, farcical scenes, and a healthy dose of lust on the part of the hero and, refreshingly, heroine, then you’d enjoy The Importance of Being Wicked.
Miss Bates thinks that romance novels fall into either the Austen, or Brontë Camp. The Importance of Being Wicked is definitely housed in the Austen Bivouac. The hero, Thomas Fitzcharles, Duke of Castleton, is proper, stiff, duty-bound, honorable, and conservative. His sole responsibility is to make a good marriage, one to ensure the lineage and bring much-needed lucre to the depleted ducal coffers. The heroine, Caroline Townsend, is a widow in straitened circumstances, her reprobate husband having left her debt-ridden. She is carefree, bohemian, liberal, and a spendthrift. She is also chaperone to her cousin, Anne, a wealthy heiress and potential match for Thomas. At first meeting, Thomas is Darcy-stiff to Caro’s easy manners. Like Darcy, Thomas fights long and hard to resist Caro’s allure and do the proper thing. But he’s fallen hard for the fey, sexy, and carefree Caro. She’s everything he’s never had, never indulged, never encountered. She’s a bright and shiny penny he can’t help but pocket. For the first time in his life, he’s having fun. Thomas is a good man who’s honest with himself. When he admits his feelings for Caro and finds himself and her in a compromising situation, he proposes marriage. The proposal scene is one of the loveliest Miss Bates has read; Thomas is no I-love-you-though-everything-I-am-and-you-are-should-make-me-run-for-the-hills Darcy. He recognizes how circumscribed his life has been and what joy Caro brings to it and says to her, “I want you not because it suits the ambitions of the Fitzcharleses but because of my own needs. I want you for myself alone, not for any other reason.” Sigh.
Neville is too polished a writer to leave her story without tension and darkness. These come in the form of an unsavory family history for Thomas and a less-than-stellar first marriage for Caro. Unfortunately, once Thomas and Caro marry, they do not communicate their vulnerabilities. Misunderstandings ensue from secrets and the reader is left protesting, “Why don’t you two just talk to each other?” On the other hand, they marry in haste, and as the saying suggests, “repent” at leisure, though not so dark as that. When they finally talk, the scenes are sweet and mature. Thomas, however, reaches the sweet and mature stage way before Caro. Caro’s joie-de-vivre hides pain and disappointment: an indifferent mother, a failed marriage, loss and suffering. She hides it all behind a devil-may-care, I’ll-do-as-I-please, and rebellious facade, resistant to being told what to do and rightly so at times, but not in Thomas’s case. Thomas seems to pay for all the wrongs done to Caro and that makes for a mean, petty heroine. She ridicules Thomas, belittles Thomas, and he goes along with a patience and understanding and care for her that annoyed Miss Bates to no end. But it also doesn’t take Caro long to apologize and recognize her cruelty, though just barely.
Caro is a woman of excess: her home is filled with bohemian friends; she gives away money she doesn’t have, throws parties she can’t afford, and shops without a thought for creditors. She holds on to a valuable painting that can solve all her problems out of … she claims sentiment, but is really just pique. After she and Thomas marry, a day or evening does not go by when he is out and about conducting business that he does not come home to a full-on party, inebriated guests, empty pantries and cellar, wine bottles strewn everywhere and Caro in the midst of it all leading some puerile game. Thomas is Odysseus confronted by the wasteful suitors, except Penelope has joined the shindig! And yet there he is, tried and true Thomas; he sees Caro’s pain through her preposterous escapades and does all he can to assuage it. Her realization of his value comes a little too late for Miss Bates. But her shenanigans do provide chortles, as do some members of her entourage, like the starving artist, Oliver Bream.
Miss Bates enjoyed this meringue of a romance novel, for the most part, and calls it, “almost pretty,” Northanger Abbey, for the smooth writing, humour, and stolid, loveable hero.
Neville’s The Importance of Being Wicked was published by Avon HarperCollins in 2012 and purchased, in paper no less, by Miss Bates shortly thereafter. It is, she’s certain, available in all the usual formats and places.