I have been a fan of Sherry Thomas’ novels ever since reading Private Arrangements; she is one of my favourite authors of Historical Romance, even though I would classify her books as Wallpaper Historicals, as opposed to “deep” Historicals like Laura Kinsale’s. This is not due to any kind of sloppy research or glaring mistakes – while I am not an expert, I am quite confident that Sherry Thomas’ novels contain neither of those, that her research is extensive and immaculate and that she gets every detail right.
However, her characters never feel quite contemporary to their period to me, but rather like people from the twenty-first century placed in front of an authentic background, intricately painted down to the last, historically accurate detail into which the never really merge. Reading her novels, I’m always reminded of pop-up books for children, where when you turn a page the main actors of the scene would fold out as upright cut-out figures standing out vertically from the horizontal background. In fact, this analogy can be carried even further – in pop-up books, neither characters nor background have any real depth in thenselves, but both combined result in a kind of three-dimensional effect that is more than just the sum of its parts.
This hopefully makes clear that I’m not at all averse to Wallpaper Historicals, especially not when they are done with such irresistable charm and beauty as those by Sherry Thomas. That her characters appear more modern than Victorian (and I should probably point out, just in case that it is not already obvious, that this assessment is very much subjective, and your own mileage may vary considerably) does not keep them from being well-rounded, likeable and fascinating to read about (it might even help the “likeable” part), and Sherry Thomas’ strongest asset is not her historical accuracy but her wonderful writing – her prose style is both lush and elegant, and to watch her spin out several interrelated extended metaphors over the course of a novel is a sheer delight.
While there were recurring characters in all her previous novels, Beguiling the Beauty is much more emphatically the first part of a trilogy – there are a sister and a brother of our current heroine that are quite blatantly being set up for the sequels, and in consequence they get quite a bit of narrative attention without any of their stories coming even close to a resolution. I am not decided yet on whether I like this or not – it does give author a bigger canvas to paint on, but it also leaves parts of the picture in the dark. I suppose it won’t be until I’ve read all three volumes of the trilogies that I’ll make my mind up on that, but for now it definitely gives this novel the feeling of being unfinished even as the heroine gets her Happily Ever After, but I will just have to see how it works out in the long run.
A second minor niggle is that events in Beguiling the Beauty stretch the limits of plausibility almost to tearing point. Of course, nobody reads Romance novels for their realistic plots, but even so the strings the author pulls are getting a bit too blatantly obvious when not only the hero and heroine (with her sister and sister and law) but also London’s chief rumour-monger all come together during the same lecture in Harvard, and for added implausibility the heroine is also the hero’s childhood love which he tries to get out of his system by denouncing her at, of all times, that very lecture. But those (and some similar things later on) are effectively nothing but slight distractions in what is otherwise a highly enjoyable novel. While not quite Sherry Thomas’ best (that is to me her second novel, Delicious), Beguiling the Beauty charms with its prose and enchants with its wit, it is far enough from common Romance clichés to be fresh and entertaining but stays close enough to true and trusted formulas to not throw the reader off – it is a fine line that Sherry Thomas (like every Romance author) treads, but she treads it with illimitable grace and effortless elegance, making Beguiling the Beauty a joy to read and me look forward to the remaining two novels in the trilogy.