Re-reading it, though…damn, I love Sherry Thomas. Does anyone do painful separation between the two protagonists better? This woman has destroyed my heart and patched it back together as many times as I have read her work.
Normally I copy the summary of the book from another source but will try to sketch my own today (I know my own weaknesses and one of them is summary of plot).
Christian de Monfort, the Duke of Lexington, has loved the extremely beautiful Venetia Fitzhugh Townsend Easterbrook since they were both nineteen years old. He saw her from afar and loved her instantly. She was already married to Mr. Townsend, though. And when Mr. Townsend died and before Christian could swoop in, Venetia wed Mr. Easterbrook (and by the time of the story, she has been made a widow twice over). Christian continues, mainly in his dreams, loving and lusting after her during both her marriages and after. He comes to hate himself (and her) for it and these feelings work their way into his interests as a scientist and naturalist. He paints a story of her greed leading Mr. Townsend to kill himself and believes all the rumors that Mrs. Easterbrook cuckolded Mr. Easterbrook throughout their marriage. He determines in his own mind that this has to do with a shallowness and vanity borne from her remarkable beauty.
This is the background. The story, though, begins in Boston.
Venetia is in the US trying to distract her sister, Helena, whom the entire family suspects is having an affair with a married man. Christian is also there. At a talk at Harvard, in a moment of terrible judgment, Christian lets slip his beliefs about Venetia’s greed and shallowness and how it ties in with his ideas about beauty. He never says her name but Venetia and her family recognize instantly that he is talking about her.
Through a series of events, the most remarkable in the book and the ones which you just sort of have to roll with for the entire thing to work (and I was MORE than willing to do so), Venetia ends up traveling back across the Atlantic on the same ship as Christian. Her family in America is two days behind her. And Christian believes her to be a German-speaking baroness, the Baroness von Siedlitz-Hardenberg. And he has never seen her face as since the moment her first met her, she has worn a veiled hat. She has decided to use her mysterious new persona to draw Christian in and then break his heart in punishment for what he has thought and said publicly about her.
But, alas, these two are meant to be. Very quickly on the steamer, they begin an affair and in the week that it takes to cross the Atlantic, they fall in love.
Yet she fears revealing her identity to him as she fears that he will reject her since he seems to so vehemently hate Mrs. Easterbrook. And so they land in England and their mutual heartbreak begins. How they find each other again is a painful story that ends in a glorious moment, one that had me laughing out loud in glee. The pain that you experience in reading their story pays off tremendously in the end — this, by the way, is Sherry Thomas’ great narrative gift and I hope she keeps writing books like this forever and ever and ever because I will read them all.
Some of my most favorite parts of the book were the cracking, quick-paced conversations that Christian and Venetia had during their Atlantic sea voyage. Here they are as he walks her back to her room after the first time they had sex:
“Are you always this cheerful afterward?”
“No, not at all.” His mood usually turned somber, sometimes downright dark — the women he slept with were never the one he wanted, whose hold on him remained unbreakable. But tonight he’d thought not once of Mrs. Easterbrook. “Are you always this testy afterward?”
“Maybe. I can’t remember.”
“Was the late baron a clumsy lover?”
“You’d like him to be, wouldn’t you?”
He’d never known himself to care whether a woman had had better or worse lovers than he. But in this instance, he found that, yes, he did have a preference. “Indeed. I’d like him to be thoroughly useless — impotent, if possible.”
And a conversation they had one night while lying in bed:
“Tell me what it was like, being in a mariage blanc.”
“Nothing like this, to be sure — no young, hard-bodied lover to pleasure me nightly.”
He couldn’t help smiling. “Right. You must have sprained your own wrist to make up for the lack.”
She laughed and punched him on the arm. “I should be ashamed to confess this but oddly I’m not,” she said, rubbing the spot she’d hit. “I did come close to spraining my wrist a time or two.”
“My God, what a waste of such a juicy–”
She clamped her hand over his mouth, giggling.
He removed her hand, laughing. “What? I’ve said much worse and you’ve liked it.”
“It’s different when we are midcoitus.”
He rolled atop her. “Then I’ll say it midcoitus.”
He said that — and much worse. Judging by her reactions, she liked it all.
When I read this passage, I remember thinking to myself, “Well, I’m in love with these two characters now. I must know what happens to them.” Thomas’ descriptions leave no room for wondering who these characters are, what motivates them. It is such a reassuring feeling as a reader and it tethers you so completely to the narrative. You cannot, by this point, escape investing in them.
I want to write many more examples of Thomas’ writing from this book to prove resoundingly my praise for it. You really should just go buy it for yourself.
And this is the first book in a trilogy. The second, Ravishing the Heiress, is as good or better than this one. The final book in the series, Tempting the Bride, came out yesterday and as soon as I scrape pennies together, I’ll be buying and reading that one, too.
I give Beguiling the Beauty 4.5 out of 5 stars (and really, the .5 off is just because the veiled hat part of the story is hard to fathom actually happening – even I’m not sure that taking off for it is fair). A stellar read. A wonderful, wonderful book.