Hamlet: “My excellent good friends! How dost thou?” …
… Guildenstern: ” … On Fortune’s cap we are not the very button.”
Hamlet: “Nor the soles of her shoes?”
Rosencrantz: “Neither, my lord.”
Hamlet: “Then you live about her waist, or in the middle of her favours?”
This exemplifies how Miss Bates considers most of the romance novels she reads, neither the “very button,” nor the “soles” of goodness, but somewhere about the middle and somewhere about the middle of Miss Bates’ favours is where most lie. This may be said about Louise Allen’s Unlacing Lady Thea, the first half of which Miss Bates slogged through, annoyed with much of it. Nevertheless, competent, smooth prose kept her reading. The second half proved much better: with atmosphere, thanks to lovely descriptions of France and Venice, and a hero and heroine who grew on her. The result is a romance that started out “meh” and ended up fairly good, a lot like our hero and heroine’s journey from solid friends to glorious lovers, from gently green and misty England to the magnificence of canals, gondolas, and the Piazza San Marco.
Allen’s Unlacing Lady Thea opens with a great scene: in 1814, Rhys Denham, Earl of Palgrave, soused and surly, converses with a kitty in the kitchen of his London townhouse. Enter a boy? Do his eyes deceive him? Yes. “He” is Lady Althea Curtiss, the Earl of Wellingstone’s daughter and ” … the plain little brat who had dogged his heels throughout his boyhood, the loyal friend he had scarcely seen since the day his world fell apart.” Who are these people, thought Miss B.? Where will this go? It was intriguing and funny. And, she really wanted to know why Rhys’s world had fallen apart.
Unlacing Lady Thea, unfortunately, went from quirky to prosaic in no time. Althea sheds her boy’s garb and confesses to Rhys, ” ‘ … I have left home, I am not running away.’ ” Rhys sobers up and Althea convinces him to take her along on his continental trip to deliver her to their god-mother, Lady Hughson, in Venice. Rhys is reluctant, but relents to her pleas. She is his dear friend and, since the incident that rendered his world in shambles, he’s neglected her. Here’s an opportunity to make amends. She, in turn, in love with Rhys since turning 16, has given up all hope of ever being more than a friend to him, “Some things were better left as dreams and memories. Some things were safer as girlhood follies.” You see, folks, she’s … well … plain and bound for the shelf. He’s gorgeous and jaded about love. She “left home” when her father and a mercenary suitor made a deal for her hand. He’s having a last hurrah on the continent before settling for a staid wife and an indifferent but cool marriage. It’s time he produced an heir and his marriage plans will save him from emotional pain, such as he experienced when his fiancée left him at the alter, eloping with his best friend.
Rhys and Thea embark on a voyage which turns the novel into as much travelogue as romance. They’re not in any particular danger, nor do they have any outstanding adventures. They enjoy the view and … lo and behold … when thrown together thanks to a little swell at sea, Rhys finds himself turned on by Thea. She returns the lust, but always remembers that she’s too plain for his taste and gorgeousness. He, in turn, confuses sexual attraction with something akin to indigestion. For an intelligent and man-about-town, Miss Bates was amazed how many times Rhys dismissed his physical reactions to Thea as mere not-to-be-believed disturbances. So many that Miss Bates doubted Thea’s avowals of his intelligence. That was one problem with Rhys’s characterization. The other was one that Miss Bates experiences with annoying frequency in the rake romances that make up so much of historical romance. The rake goes so easily from superficial to hidden yet great depths, from you-wouldn’t-want-to-bring-him-home (except he’s rich as Croesus) to paragon. Rhys has been working for social reform in Parliament for years, as Thea discovers, but he never discusses it, or seems interested in it throughout their long voyage in a country ravaged by war.
Rhys also spends the first good chunk of the novel being utterly paternalistic, treating a robust woman to comments such as, ” ‘Give me your arm, these stones will turn your ankle.’ ” Miss Bates thought that was hysterical. He also persistently asks Thea if she’s cold and is annoyed when she is, as if she’s cold on purpose. Miss Bates thinks this is because Rhys is already a goner for Thea, but love and lust are transformed into concern for her comfort? She, of course, is shivery with lust because of his manly nearness. Even though he treats her like an over-indulged baby sister, he’s incensed when she mentions other men, ” ‘You are under my protection. The man’s a bastard to trifle with you. I will deal with him when I get back to England.’ ” She titters and loves it, ” … this possessive aggression, this physical confidence, was new” and obviously attractive.
Nothing much else happens, but things do get better. Thea does A LOT of shopping and acquires style if not looks, as Rhys and others note. They enjoy each others’ company and have lovely conversations and pic-nics and swim in rolling French streams amid hills and flowers. Indeed, they’re perfect for each other, but the obvious solution to both their dilemmas, a great marriage between two friends who care for each other and have hot sex never occurs to Rhys, “What would be heaven … would be a wife for duty and Thea for fun. And passion. And something else he could not quite put his finger on. Friendship, he supposed.” Sounds to Miss Bates like a pretty good marriage, but it takes Rhys many many chapters to come to this conclusion. So, they do work things out. A nice enough couple in a nice enough romance novel that doesn’t break any molds, but would provide a few hours of mild pleasure if you pick it up. Therein Miss Bates found a romance narrative much like its heroine, “almost pretty,” Northanger Abbey.
Louise Allen’s Unlacing Lady Thea is published by Harlequin and has been available since March 18th, in e and paper, at the usual vendors.
Miss Bates is grateful to Harlequin Books for an e-ARC, via Netgalley, in exchange for this honest review.