Theresa Romain writes despondent romances. Her characters are noble and good; her prose is elegant. Her hero and heroine are in a bad place when we meet them. Miss Bates likes that Romain doesn’t lay the angst on thick, however. Her characters’ sadness is perniciously persistent, like a low-grade fever. Things are wrong somewhere, but the appearance of things seems all right. Every time Miss Bates reads one of Romain’s romances, she frequently doubts she’ll finish it. And yet, each time, she does and is quite satisfied and rewarded by Romain’s HEA.
Romain’s latest, Fortune Favors the Wicked is typical of the author. In 1817, retired, blind Royal Navy Lieutenant Benedict Frost arrives in London, from on board “The Argent,” to sell his sailing memoir to publisher George Pitman. His minimal pension means he can’t offer Georgette, his sister, anything but a pittance. He hopes his soon-to-be-best-selling memoir will save the day when Georgette leaves their cousins’ home upon reaching her majority. He also learns that 50 000 pounds-worth of the king’s gold was stolen. When his manuscript is rejected, Benedict realizes the reward money may serve to help Georgette. He sets off for Derbyshire to recover the gold and win the reward money. Meanwhile in Strawfield, Derbyshire, we meet heroine Miss Charlotte Perry, vicar’s daughter. She too aims to ensure a young relation’s welfare: her ten-year-old niece, Maggie, named after Charlotte’s deceased sister, Margaret. Charlotte is also in search of the gold. Benedict and Charlotte’s meet-cute is inevitable.
Miss Bates’s main critique of Romain and Fortune is a tendency for a meandering plot and lacklustre development of it. Convolutions abound: Benedict and Charlotte meet and Benedict ends up living at the vicarage with Charlotte, Maggie, and the Reverend and Mrs. Perry. The gentle, laughing, roguishly attractive Benedict soon realizes that Maggie is Charlotte’s daughter and not her niece. Charlotte has an alias and significant backstory. For ten years, she was Charlotte Pearl, La Perle, a much-sought London courtesan. How did a vicar’s daughter come to be “ruined”? There’s an aristocratic artist neighbour, a notorious nude painting, a naïve Charlotte … you get the picture, dear reader. In the present action, there is a murdered barmaid, a Bow Street runner and the mystery of the stolen gold. Charlotte returns to her parents’ home to ensure Maggie’s future; not as simple as that, a sadistic, aristocratic lover makes an appearance, from whom Charlotte bears scars. Add suspense to the suspense plot. And what of Benedict: his development is static. He became ill, was blinded, and now lives, by rights, on a meagre pension. Should he rescind his lieutenantship, he loses pension and board.
While the plot rambles, there are sympathetic thematic threads to Charlotte and Benedict. Firstly, Romain centres her hero and heroine in states of disquiet and estrangement from their families. The Perries are pale, pained figures who care for Maggie and are gently disappointed and loving with Charlotte. But this isn’t a happy home. Maggie is a sullen child. As for Benedict, he loves his sister, but won’t visit her. His parents owned a bookshop which he sold to cousins with the proviso Georgette will be able to live with them till she’s 21. Benedict disappointed his parents because he had difficulty reading. (It’s obvious to the modern reader that Benedict has a dyslexia.) Returning to the bookshop is too painful for Benedict, but the result is that he doesn’t have a relationship with his only living relative. How families reconcile and forgive is a strong theme in Romain’s romance. Romain also doesn’t people Fortune with aristocrats, except villainous ones. Miss Bates enjoyed Romain’s portrayal of people with, if not poverty-stricken, straitened financial circumstances:
Who would vote that a blind explorer and a lapsed courtesan would be able to make a go of … anything? He would have liked to, for a while. But he wasn’t a landowner, and she was a woman, and neither of them had a vote. The question fell dead to the floor.
Benedict and Charlotte must navigate the financial sacrifices necessary to being together and it makes the novel all the better for it.
Benedict and Charlotte’s romance is lovely and sad. Benedict is a deeply idealized figure: protective but not overbearing, indifferent to Charlotte’s former “profession” and a generous lover. Charlotte is independent, loving, strong, and smart, without one moment of being strident. Miss Bates liked them both. Their romance, however, is more of the working-together kind than the antagonistic-fiery kind. This was, Miss Bates sheepishly admits, sometimes, a teensy bit tedious. When the betrayal came, as it inevitably does, Miss Bates was surprised how hurtful it was. She’s not even certain it’s forgivable. It’s not a huge nasty gesture, but a quiet rejection, a pushing-away and abandonment that speaks of the fear of commitment. It’s understandable, but not easy to love and respect the character in the same way afterwards. It’s no wonder Romain had to write a halcyon epilogue for Charlotte and Benedict.
Reading Fortune Favors the Wicked, Miss Bates’s page-turning was impatient. She would occasionally pause, however, to appreciate Romain’s lovely figures:
He grinned, a sliver of sunshine.
A sunrise smile always made her want to open like a flower – a response that had led more than once to her plucking.
The silence drew out long and soft, a woolen yarn of quiet.
Benedict folded his hands, and his voice poured out slow and soothing as morning chocolate.
Miss Bates’s blogging friend, Valancy, recently wrote about litfic’s claim to better writing, true-to-life plotting and characterization, and thematic nuances that nourish in a way genre fiction’s pulpy prose, cardboard characters, and simplistic themes cannot. Miss Bates offers Romain’s samplings as proof to the contrary.
Theresa Romain’s Fortune Favors the Wicked isn’t riveting, but it’s considered and moving. With her reading accomplice, Miss Austen, Miss Bates says Fortune Favors the Wicked offers “real comfort,” Emma. (Moreover, the tiny glimpse we have of the next book’s hero and heroine, Benedict’s sister, Georgette, and friend, Sir Hugo Sterling, looks most promising.)
Theresa Romain’s Fortune Favors the Wicked is published by Zebra Books (Kensington Publishing). It was released on March 29th and is available at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates is grateful to the publisher for an e-ARC, via Netgalley.