Review: Beauty and the Spy, Julie Ann Long

Cover Comment: You know how every so often that old debate flares up about how unrepresentative and diminishing romance covers are? Well, this should be exhibit A the next time around. Ugh.

Here’s Ms. Long’s balanced take on this issue: “Covers may have a lot to do with [the negative image romances have]; many remain quite beef-cakey and florid. LOL. Some readers and authors like this; others are less thrilled with it, as it frightens off some readers who might otherwise really enjoy very good storytelling. I once had an email from a 65-year-old man who out of desperation for something to read grabbed one of my books in an airport, then wrote to tell me he “actually really loved it.” LOL. “Actually” being the operative word—he never expected to, obviously, because of the cover. (It was BEAUTY AND THE SPY.) Then again, those covers are familiar signals to people looking for passionate stories with happy endings—they know to expect those kinds of stories between those covers. If those covers didn’t help sell books, they wouldn’t exist. But even the nature of covers is in a constant state of evolution and calibration. Publishing is stratified, and in order to sell your book effectively, a publisher needs to be able to position it and market it to its most likely audience.”

Series?: Yes. This is the first of the Holt sisters trilogy, with Ways to Be Wicked second and The Secret to Seduction last.

Heroine and Hero: In this Regency, she’s Susannah Makepeace, young virginal former belle of the ton, demoted to poor relative living with an aunt in Barnstable village. He’s Viscount Kit Whitelaw, His Majesty’s secret spy, whose father exiles him to their country home in Barnstable to shake him out of his rakishness and ennui.

Word on the Web:

Mrs. Giggles, 87

Ellen, AAR, A-

Shirley, The Romance Reader, 3 hearts

Natuschan: 3 out of 5

Author Rosina Lippi/Sara Donati offers a critique of dialogue in BATS (Hmmm. Not sure I have seen unsolicited author to author criticism before.), 4.5 stars after 23 reviews

Interviews with Ms. Long: A great recent one where Long talks craft and genre here, and an old one pre-BATS, at AAR here.

Harriet Klausner Falsoid (you know, like a factoid, only false): “His father has exiled him to Egypt … Instead of Egypt, he heads to the country following clues.”  Um, no. Just. No.

My Take in Brief: I get to use my new term for best of the best: I pronounce this book meg-worthy!

The Racy Romance Review:

This is the third of Long’s six books in print, and also the third Long book I have read, following The Secret to Seduction, which everyone lurved (I did like it, but the hero was a poet, and I have an irrational dread fear of bad poetry and no confidence that even someone as supremely talented as Ms. Long can write it. I confess that I read the entire book in a full body cringe, one eye shut.), and To Love a Thief, which I thought was fantastic.

I’m no expert literary critic, but what really struck me reading this book was its all around excellence. In all of the ways we evaluate fiction — characterization, voice, setting, language, plot — as well as in the genre-specific ways we evaluate romance — an emotionally satisfying and uplifting love story  — this book excels.

Before launching into the praise, I have to mention two slight niggles: (1) Kit’s relationship with his father, specifically the Earl’s disapproving banishment of his wayward son to the country (telling him it’s either that or Egypt) seems more appropriate for a man much less mature in age and experience than Kit. And (2) Kit and Susannah do quite a bit of traipsing around together unchaperoned, with nary a regard for her reputation.

I love the way Ms. Long writes. Here’s a passage from one of many pages I folded over:

“Mr. Avery-finch’s shop was ripe with the must of age, and stuffed and stacked full of dully gleaming, hopelessly breakable objects: vases and tea sets, plates and pillars, statues and paintings, trunks and chandeliers and plump stools, arranged, it seemed, for maximum precariousness. Some shopkeepers hang a bell upon their door, Kit thought, to alert them of entering customers; Mr. Avery-Finch probably just waited for a potential customer to send something crashing to smithereens.”

Early on, Susannah spies a naked Kit standing on a pier. In this scene, Long manages to convey Susannah’s nascent sexual awakening, her artistic eye, her boldness, and her inexperience all at once. Here are a few choice passages:

“The man’s beauty was, in fact, an assault, and a peculiar tangle of shock and delight and yearning began to beat inside her like a secret, second heart.”

But it’s not all awe and beauty. Long manages to capture the ordinariness of human nakedness at the same time:

“And then the man stretched his arms upward, arching his back indolently; exposing the dark fluffs under his arms, and this, somehow, seemed more erotic and intimate than the rest of his naked body combined. Susannah had seen paintings and statues of naked men, for heaven’s sake, but none of them had even sported fluffy hair beneath their arms.”

And, praise be, Susannah’s first look at a man’s unaroused penis does not rattle, melt, incinerate or otherwise make her lose her wits (honestly, I think sometimes romance authors are Freudians in disguise). No. She rather accurately, if charitably, describes it as “entirely benign.” And although I know we all get sick of the experienced hero/virgin set up, Susannah is a sexual agent: she’s never “overcome” and pulled along like a ragdoll by a traitorous body.

One last description as Kit emerges from the water:

“He shook himself like a great cheerful animal, diamond droplets flying from him…”

Kit catches Susannah, of course, and ends up hiring her to do sketches for the nature folio his father has ordered him to prepare. Their relationship unfolds slowly and compellingly, with many fun, touching, and revealing conversations and a lot of sexual tension. Susannah is attempting to remake her life and her very identity after realizing that she was adopted. I thought her reaction to her change in station was handled really well, and sometimes very amusingly. Here’s one passage, with Susannah wondering what she’s supposed to do at home every night with her aging aunt:

“She could stitch a sampler, she supposed. Her needlework was better than passable. What would the sampler say? I’M BORED! Perhaps, or: SAVE ME, PLEASE! The thought amused her darkly. she could create a whole gallery of frustration, hang it in frames across these bare walls to cover the fading wallpaper.”

For his part, Kit is working through some residual issues left over from a heartbreak and a duel at age seventeen, and he’s also busy pursuing the question of who may have murdered Susannah’s adoptive father. Kit is somewhat closed emotionally, and he is reluctant to allow his growing tenderness for Susannah to become anything serious. Why? Thankfully, Long doesn’t write it as a direct result of his teenage heartbreak, or the automatic result of being a spy, or insult the reader with any other oversimplistic monocausal explanation. Of course, those things helped make Kit who he is, but he’s also just got the kind of temperament he does.

The secondary characters are really well done. I especially liked Caroline, Kit’s old flame and the kind of “bad girl” even good girls want to sometimes be. She doesn’t secretly want a man’s love to save her from her own selfishness. No, she’s egoistic and unapologetic to her core. But she’s also recognizably human. She’s written in such a way that it’s really clear why good men like Kit would find her tempting.

And while we know from the prologue who the villain is (He spied for the French, and Susannah’s birth father was about to turn him in when he was killed), I could never have guessed the way everything would turn out. It’s very unusual for me to be genuinely interested for its own sake in a suspense subplot in a regency. It’s usually just an excuse to get the h/h together more than propriety would normally allow. But this was truly compelling in its own right, as was virtually everything about this book.

Published in: on October 6, 2008 at 4:52 am  Comments (8)  
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8 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hmmm – thanks for the review!!! After reading and really enjoying her first two books, I’ve picked up her other books to, but they disappeared somewhere in the huge TBR pile. I shall have to get this one out and read it. Damn but there are too many books out there! And may I say I Laughed Out Loud at your new way of awarding ratings to books read – Very Funny!!

  2. Thanks for posting this – I really like the way you have ‘organized’ the review – it’s very comprehensive! Also happy to be one of the people to see your first meg-worthy book.

    I’ve enjoyed Ms. Long’s books for a while now and Beauty and the Spy was no exception.

  3. I like the way you’ve drawn so many resources together to fill out your own response to this novel.

    For the sake of clarification: do you mean you are unsure about the validity of one author analyzing or commenting on another author’s work, unless it’s solicited? It seems to me that this happens all the time. Authors review and comment on other author’s work in the same way that an actor will comment about a movie or play she hasn’t been in. There’s a professional way to do this, of course.

    In my case I often post about language issues in novels, as this is where my professional and publishing backgrounds overlap. The intent is to provide some perspective for aspiring authors who are trying to establish their own approach and voice, and still struggle with basics. The author herself may or may not see it, the same way she may or may not see a review printed in a local paper.

    I do like this author’s work, and I agree she writes very well. My point (and it still stands) is that the short cuts she takes representing dialects detract from the otherwise high quality of her novels.

  4. Rosina,

    I hadn’t seen that before, and so I had thought there may have been a kind of unspoken tradition that authors don’t really critique each other outside of established channels (critique partners, etc.).

    [Of course, even if there was this kind of unspoken tradition, there might still be questions. Not all traditions are good ones.]

    If it happens all the time, then I was wrong to suggest otherwise (and the “hmmm”, was my way of remarking that it seemed unusual). My own academic field is similar: bloggers critique their peers’ published work all the time, regardless of whether they were ever solicited by the authors to review a draft, or by a journal or press editor to peer review it.

    Thanks very much for your visit and clarification.

    Kristie and Marisa — Thanks for the comments. Although my blogger friends tell me I am “bleeding page rank”, it’s not painful at all. Quite the contrary: even with these little book reviews, I’m absolutely compelled to put my own bit in context!

  5. Perhaps it’s time I tried JAL again. I didn’t lurve Secret to Seduction, but I thought she had something special here and there.

  6. I do love historical spy novels…will have to hunt this one out.

  7. RfP — Great review of StS: my reaction wasn’t all that positive, although I couldn’t have said why until I read your review. There is some unevenness there, even in BATS. Thank you for visiting!

    Victoria — I don’t mean to oversell the mystery: we know pretty much all along who the bad guy is and what he wants, but I did think the suspense piece was handled well.

  8. I loved Beauty and the Spy — wonderful, wonderful book — but I also loved The Secret to Seduction. I thought the middle book, Ways to be Wicked, was less successful, but I still liked it, and ditto her most recent book, The Perils of Pleasure.

    It is interesting that you mention Long’s use dialect, Rosina, because that was one of the things that felt a bit artificial to me in The Perils of Pleasure, but I didn’t feel knowledgeable enough to judge whether it was as inauthentic as it seemed to me, so I didn’t mention that in my review of the book.

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