Elizabeth Hoyt: Miss Bates just can’t quit you. Thus Miss B. found herself reading Hoyt’s, yes, ninth Georgian-set, Maiden-Lane novel, Sweetest Scoundrel. And what a scoundrel Asa Makepeace was, paired with a plain-Jane heroine, his “harpy,” as he called her, Eve Dinwoody, sister to Valentine Napier, Duke of Montgomery (the previous novel‘s villain). As the old duke’s illegitimate daughter, Eve lives an introvert’s ideal life: Val provides her with a lovely home and servants, ample income to indulge her miniature painting hobby, keep her caged dove in fancy seeds, and a bodyguard, a great character in and of himself, Jean-Marie Pépin. Eve is the only person who genuinely loves her nefarious brother. Responsible for Val’s interests in his absence (his shenanigans sent him into “exile” on the continent), she ensures his investment in Asa Makepeace’s grand rebuilding project, the pleasure garden known as Harte’s Folly, is solid. Officious, book-keeping, and dignified Eve meets volatile, foul-mouthed, and crude “Mr. Harte”, Asa, when she confronts him about his cavalier spending of her brother’s money and then goes about controlling Asa’s purse-strings.
Though there are sundry reasons Miss Bates should’ve raised her nose to Sweetest Scoundrel, instead she stayed up late reading as it held her in thrall. Miss Bates is totally drawn to a romance convention Hoyt exploited. Truth be told, Miss Bates LOVES a romance narrative where the cool, collected, rational heroine is contrasted with an impassioned, irrational, impulsive hero. Sweetest Scoundrel‘s first third and its most original, witty, delightful, and entertaining, consisted of this romance conceit, pitting Eve’s cool reason against Asa’s temperamental outbursts and overreactions. Hoyt drew Miss Bates in by setting up Eve as an unassuming spinster, whose circumspect and circumscribed spinster-world was shaken by a huge, capricious, turbulent male force. Witness: “It took an extreme provocation to rouse Eve Dinwoody. For five years her life had been quiet … But Eve could, in fact, rouse herself from her quiet life, given enough provocation. And Lord knew Mr. Harte [Asa Makepeace], the owner and manager of Harte’s Folly, was very provoking indeed.” Miss B. loved Eve’s cool and Asa’s expansiveness. Asa sprawls on settees, drapes long, powerful arms over chairs, grins wickedly, watches Eve’s swaying skirts, peers at the floor trying to sneak a peek at her ankles, widens his green eyes in innocence when she catches him, slits his eyes in lust, lowers his brows, yells, gestures, throws punches, pulls his hair in frustration and, Miss B’s favourite, cracks walnuts in his bare fist … Miss B’s list is endless. Asa’s beauty lies in this unabashed physicality.
But there is trouble in paradise. What could keep these two opposites apart other than their sheer incompatibility? Romance readers aren’t going to buy the half-hearted cross-class divide Hoyt erects: after all, Eve’s illegitimate and Asa’s garden could bring him untold wealth. What keeps our lovers apart is darker. As Eve later confides to Asa, she is “broken,” unable to enjoy, nay, even bear, a man’s touch. There be things, things peopling Eve’s nightmares and illuminating Jean-Marie’s constant vigilance, unspeakable things done to her. In the midst of this, Hoyt throws this lion of a man, all growls and muscles, and endows him, despite himself, with care, gentleness, and fierce protective instincts. At first, Eve is aware of the dangers to Asa’s physicality, but her equal awareness of his attraction hint at what he’ll mean to her, what she’ll realize about his nature: “His face wasn’t pretty. The exact opposite, in fact: it was strong, lined, and fierce, and everything that was masculine. Everything that Eve most dreaded.” Despite his bluster and temper, Eve feels safe with Asa, maybe because she is competence to his impracticality, maybe because he listens to her and takes her advice, maybe because he has a soft spot for animals, maybe because he teases her without cruelty and challenges her without threat or domination – she likes him. He never mistakes her stillness for timidity. She has fun with him and she enjoys being everything competent and cool intellect to his outlandish imagination, his single-minded pursuit of his garden and, in time, her! Miss Bates loved this great moment when Asa challenged Eve’s preconceived spinsterish notions and she responded with wit: ” ‘Coward,’ he said fondly. ‘Scoundrel,’ she retorted … ” Miss Bates loved this instant of deep knowledge of the other. There’s a lot to be said for fond teasing and comfortable challenges. 😉
Romance readers familiar with Hoyt’s work will recognize her signature narrative techniques. Hoyt opens each chapter with a snippet of fairy-tale, “The Lion and the Dove,” the epigraphs paralleling Asa and Eve’s romance. Miss Bates loved the epigraphs’ whimsy in tandem with the narrative’s, especially Asa’s, earthiness. It needs be said, however, that one reader’s embrace of a writer’s quirks may be teeth-gritting annoyances to another. Certainly, Miss Bates had some of the latter moments in reading Sweetest Scoundrel. Inevitably, Hoyt will introduce a cardboard villain to ramp up the novel’s tension and offer an outlet for the hero’s hyperbolic protectiveness. [Warning: spoiler ahead, but also trigger warning.] Moreover, and in particular to Sweetest Scoundrel, Asa brings about Eve’s sexual healing, a conceit Miss Bates never enjoys, in this case especially because of Eve’s sexual trauma. And there was trauma: Eve’s nightmares and fears are believable and their source difficult to read about. Miss Bates isn’t sure that every reader would react as she did. It was an aspect of the novel she thought well done, but uncomfortable to envision. Despite Miss Bates’ misgivings, she was thoroughly immersed in Sweetest Scoundrel. Hoyt is one of the most emotionally satisfying romance writers working today. With her reading sidekick, Miss Austen, Miss Bates says of Hoyt’s Sweetest Scoundrel, here is “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Elizabeth Hoyt’s Sweetest Scoundrel is published by Grand Central Publishing. It was released on November 24th, 2016, and is available in e and paper formats at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates is grateful to Grand Central Publishing for an e-ARC, via Netgalley.
Do you enjoy that hero and heroine pairing, dear readers? The volatile, irrational hero to the cool, controlled, and rational heroine? What romances do you know of that feature these twosomes?