Reviewing Romain is a tricky proposition for me because her writing works so well on my brain, and on my emotions. I’ve talked about getting the “chest tingles” when a line or a piece of dialogue hits me dead center in the squishy feels, and this book had plenty of those. Romain excels at writing deliberate, careful moments between the characters so that a scene that seems unimportant at first later carries additional meaning and emotional weight. There were so many of those, and my file is excessively highlighted with the quarter-teaspoons of detail present in different conversations.
The problem is balancing that bit-by-bit development of emotional depth and character transition with the plot and the other people and all the details that surround the story. Sometimes the balance is terrific, and the conflicts, large and small, that push and pull the characters work in harmony. But in the larger story, too often the themes that drive the characters change and shift too late, and the characters, especially Cass, change their mindsets and have realizations that are required but for me happened too fast, too quickly, and in too compressed a timeframe.
Conversely, the development of the relationship between George and Cass went from growth by centimeters to massive jumps and leaps, then back to pining and wondering. Romain writes wonderful pining. So enjoyable. I highlighted most of it. But the more I thought about the plot as separate from the characters, the more the story began to fall apart. This is a case of my loving the individual characters and wanting them to find happiness, but not loving the plot that housed them, because it wasn’t as strong as they were.
Let me back up and summarize. Cassandra Benton is one of a pair of twins (her brother is Charles) who are undercover in the household of a Lord Deverell whose life might be in danger. Charles, her brother, is a Bow Street Runner, and while Cass works cases with him, often solving cases on her own because she’s terribly clever, she’s not a Runner in her own right.
Cass is disguised as a housemaid while Charles is undercover as a footman, both hired by George, Lord Northbrook, who believes that someone is trying to kill the members of a group investment, or tontine, one of whom is his father. George is funny, a little goofy, doesn’t seem to take much seriously, but beneath that is pretty steady and trying to do the right thing. His father is indifferent to his efforts (and is indifferent to everything except gambling), his mother is addicted to laudanum and spends her days in a drugged haze in her bedroom, and while George does have hobbies that bring him pleasure, he’s fixated on this case. The investigation into the tontine members and whether some of them have already died suspiciously instead of accidentally takes over his attention and brings him closer to Cass.
When the book opens, a LOT is happening, and I started off feeling very lost, as if I’d begun reading in the middle. I imagine the prior books in the series fill in a lot of the backstory, but I hadn’t read them, so I was initially confused. Cass is guarding Lord Deverell, Charles has fallen off a trellis while sneaking into Lady Deverell’s bedchamber, George is somehow there to talk to her, and all mayhem breaks lose when Lord Deverell is stabbed. Seems like it’s the end of the case for Cass and Charles, and George as well.
But then George has an idea: he needs someone to guard his father, so Cass will pose as a long lost married cousin, the illegitimate daughter of his grandfather, and she’ll live in the house and pretend to be a person on the fringes of the ton. Cue makeover! Cass experiences what life is like for him and the women in his circle, and the contrast to her own life working as a Runner and caring for herself. There’s a lot of symbolism contained in where the buttons on Cass’s gowns are: in the front? She can do for herself. In the back? She is contained and unable to dress or undress herself and must seek assistance. That’s both an opportunity and a problem for her. I loved the way in which the position of her buttons in whatever gown she was wearing signaled what world she was expecting to inhabit. It’s the kind of detail I love seeing woven (sorry) through a book, revealing much more than I initially suspected.
So Cass and George have to solve a mystery (yes please!) and protect his father, and mange their attraction to each other. George, it seems, has a habit of putting his foot in his mouth where Cass is concerned, and she’s wary of him as he insulted her at one point, possibly in a previous book. But he treats her with deference and respect, and refuses to act on any attraction while she’s in his employ. He works within a partial but firm awareness of power structures, but also learns how very different their lives are.
Cass also learns a lot about George while living in his household, and they discover each other’s secrets and true selves while hiding and pretending to be different in front of the other people around them (hellooooo, catnip). Their discovery of one another’s true selves, and the pieces of each other they learn in tiny conversations made for delicious reading. Like I said, mad skills in the tiny incremental development of character.
When I finished the book, I wasn’t as filled with anticipation and satisfaction as I had been while reading the first half. I was kind of let down. You know when you ride a roller coaster (if that’s a thing you do) and the cars get to the very very top of the long, slow ascent to the first drop? And it feels like you’re hanging there and about to stop altogether before the cars begin to fall and then everything happens really really fast? That’s how this book felt for me. There were massive leaps in development, scenes where everything happened at once and in a cacophony, and the quiet, infinitesimal development and careful pace was undone by chaos and mayhem.
Plus, Cass and George begin their working relationship in two very different, and very far apart places – not just in class position but in perspective and worldview. In order for them to align as romantic partners, they both have to change and shift in significant ways. In order for the characters around them to stop impeding their individual happiness, they have to change, but all those changes begin in one big collective showdown scene near the end, and so much happened at once. Too much, in fact.
I realize I’m being pretty vague, so here’s a spoiler example.
Cass realizes past the midpoint of the story that she’s a Runner because she had to look after her brother, who spent money too easily and wouldn’t look after himself. She did the physical, mental, and emotional work of keeping them housed, fed, and clothed while he had the official position of Bow Street Runner. As she contemplated what she wanted in her life, what she wanted for herself, she realized that she really, really didn’t like being an investigator at all. She felt terrible when she didn’t solve a case, or when something went wrong, when injustice persevered. All valid realizations! But I didn’t notice any signs of this change of perspective and change of heart until it was time for Cass to ruminate her way into a change of worldview so the story could have an ending where she’s with George. She can’t be who she was up to the point of the story and also be George’s wife and partner at the end. She can’t be a Bow Street Runner with her twin brother, and be a marquess’ wife at the same time. She has to change significantly, and while that’s not a problem, the late development of that shift and the lack of signs that she didn’t really enjoy her work made the realization seem contrived, convenient, and not as finely written as the emotional development she and George make otherwise.
As far as the resolution of their class differences, if you’re curious, the story and several characters within it make very astute observations about notoriety and acceptance, but I don’t want to spoil those because I enjoyed them immensely. There are some funny, sharp moments in this book.
I’ve spent a lot of time here writing about what didn’t hold up, and I think my brain is stuck on analyzing all of this because the first half, the deliberate and delicate construction of the subtle shift in the interior thoughts of two people moving from working partners to friends to lovers to romantic couple was so, so enjoyable.
Among my favorite highlights:
George in an awkward moment:
She looked as if she were ready to rise – and on impulse, George held out a staying hand. It landed rather long of its mark. Where he intended only to gesture wait, don’t go, he instead batted one of her knees.
It has the intended effect; she sank back into her seat. True, she also looked at him reproachfully, and she drew her knees in farther.
“Sorry about that,” George excused. “I flail sometimes when I’m having a brilliant realization.”
Cass’s twin brother does NOT like being stuck in bed with a broken leg:
Charles was never patient, and being unable to do what he wanted put him in a bad humor…. The room smelled of liniment; expensive, no doubt. The surgeon would have been expensive, too.
And now Charles couldn’t work; he could only keep to bed and loudly dislike things.
He did not deserve sisterly compassion.
George concocting Cass’s identity as an illegitimate cousin while trying not to reveal how much he is awestruck and admiring of her:
“All her tonnish friends will recognize her clothing, surely.” Cass twisted the ring, a delicately worked gold band set with a single emerald. “Ah, well. I will embrace the secondhand clothing cheerfully. I’ll be mad with gratitude that my cousin has loaned me her clothing, since everyone knows I own nothing to speak of. I fled with the clothes on my back and would be in nary a stitch without the kindness of family.”
“Er- yes. You don’t need to go on about your potential nudity to that degree, but that sounds fine. As for why anyone should care to know you, well…”
He fumbled for words. Look at you, was on the tip of his tongue. Listen to you.
He had paused too long, and she filled the silence herself.
In Romain’s books, in nearly every scene, there are details and angles of perspective that are fully immersive. Wherever the characters are, I’m there, too, physically and emotionally. It’s a wonderful experience. And I love the ways that the characters gain awareness of themselves in the story, the way they question the why of what they’re doing each day, the purpose behind their decisions and their lives – and how they each judge the lives of those around them a bit too harshly. The interior worlds of the characters are exquisite.
If you read this book, and I would recommend it with some reservations, you’ll get to know two characters who are lovely together, who fit together intellectually and emotionally, who make each other happy, and change the way they see the world in ways that are constructed of all the finest dialogue and chest-tingly feels-infused moments. I liked George and Cass so much, and liked that they want to improve their lives and the world around them in large and small ways. I wish the plot around them had been better constructed start to finish, but spending time with them both was a pleasure.