Review – The Tutor’s Daughter by Julie Klassen

I have been eagerly awaiting the release of this book ever since I read and loved The Maid of Fairbourne Hall at the recommendation of Kim at Reflections of a Book Addict.  This is the third of Klassen’s novels that I have read, and she has become one of my favorite authors (admittedly a long list).  There are times when I long for an extra dose of wholesomeness in my romance reading, and Klassen never fails to deliver this along with remarkably complex characters and, at least in The Maid of Fairbourne Hall and The Tutor’s Daughter, a little mystery to unravel.

Cover image, The Tutor’s Daughter by Julie Klassen

The publisher’s blurb, courtesy of Goodreads:

Emma Smallwood, determined to help her widowed father regain his spirits when his academy fails, agrees to travel with him to the distant Cornwall coast, to the cliff-top manor of a baronet and his four sons. But after they arrive and begin teaching the younger boys, mysterious things begin to happen and danger mounts. Who does Emma hear playing the pianoforte, only to find the music room empty? Who sneaks into her room at night? Who rips a page from her journal, only to return it with a chilling illustration?

The baronet’s older sons, Phillip and Henry, wrestle with problems–and secrets–of their own. They both remember Emma Smallwood from their days at her father’s academy. She had been an awkward, studious girl. But now one of them finds himself unexpectedly drawn to her.

When the suspicious acts escalate, can the clever tutor’s daughter figure out which brother to blame… and which brother to trust with her heart?

There is an urgency to this book that I thoroughly enjoyed, though it surprised me (that it existed, not that I enjoyed it).  There are all sorts of adventures to be had in this book, from the discovery of a lost family member to the nefarious intrigues of a wrecker and his band of ne’er-do-wells, who profit from shipwrecks and the deaths of all on-board.  At the center of it all are Henry and Emma, who knew each other as youths and have the opportunity to get to know one another as adults.

Emma is a supremely reserved, self-contained character.  She’s a bit type-A, dusts her bedside table every morning (!!), and has a place for everything (and puts everything in its place).  When the story picks up, she is a young woman who has taken on increasing responsibility for her family’s financial well-being (her father having gone into a bit of a decline after her mother passed away two years before), a woman with no friends with which she might share confidences.  She has, instead, the fabulous Aunt Jane, her father’s younger sister.

I loved Aunt Jane.  She was my favorite of all the secondary characters, but they are all well-drawn and complex, a mix of good qualities and bad.  There are, from time to time, a number of characters who take up the mantle of villain, but excepting the aforementioned nefarious wrecker, these momentary villains are sympathetic characters who make mistakes but are not altogether bad.  With the book spending so much time in the gray matter between absolute good and evil, both Emma and Henry have an opportunity to examine some of their long-held but not quite right beliefs and to make some changes for the better.

Henry’s family dynamic was fascinating and the source of much of the novel’s mystery, so I’ll leave it at that.  While it might just be a symptom of my current reading choices, Henry himself seemed to me to be a bit of a hybrid between Jane Austen’s Fitzwilliam Darcy and Henry Tilney.  He has all the amiability of the latter tempered by some very serious regrets about the way he behaved towards Emma when he was a boy in her father’s school.  By contrast, Henry’s brother Phillip seemed to be a Wickham with better natural principles.

This book seemed slightly more preachy than the other two Klassen books I’ve read — Emma has a soul in need of saving, and Henry has an earnest desire to know that she has made peace with the Almighty — but it wasn’t overwhelming.  All told, I thoroughly enjoyed this story and think that anyone with a taste for a sweet romance with a dash of intrigue will likewise enjoy it.

The Tutor’s Daughter was released on January 1, 2013 by Bethany House Publishers as a paperback and e-book.  If you are interested in learning more about the book, please click on the cover image above to visit the book’s page on Goodreads.  You can also find information on Julie Klassen’s website.

*FTC disclosure – I received an e-galley of this book from Bethany House Publishers via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

The Apothecary’s Daughter and my ridiculous memory

I possess an uncertain memory.  In some situations, I have astonishingly accurate, detailed recall, and in other situations I have no ability to recall a situation, conversation, book, etc.  I suspect it comes down to focus: at work, I generally focus on the emails I receive and read, and it’s amazing what I can recall (and how quickly).  Years after I emailed someone once, I’ll still remember the content of that email.  My freaky brain latches onto codes, so a full decade after I worked for a telephone answering service, I still remember the switchboard line numbers for some of our clients.  In my private life, I’m known for being flaky, ditzy, and generally forgetful.  I forget to tell my husband about appointments I’ve made; I forget to call people back; I forget to respond to emails.  I forget 80% of what I read.  It’s astonishing that I can be known for my cleverness and exceptional memory in one area of my life and can be famous for my ditzy forgetfulness in all the others.

That’s why it’s funny that I read a book about a character with an inescapably good memory.  And do you know what’s even funnier?  I finished the book last Thursday (July 5) and started writing a blog post about it on Monday (July 9).  In four days, I had managed to forget the main character’s name.  (That’s not all that uncommon for me, and you might notice that a lot of the time when I’m talking about the characters of a romance novel, I just call them the hero and the heroine, usually because I can’t remember the character’s names.  I guess I just don’t pay attention to names.)

Cover image, The Apothecary’s Daughter by Julie Klassen

I enjoyed this story, although I had an understandably difficult time relating to the main character (Lilly… I finally remembered her name this afternoon).  Lilly has fantastic recall for anything she’s read or anything she’s experienced/witnessed.  She remembers dialogue from conversations.  She remembers all the apothecary recipes she’s ever learned.  She longs to forget some things, but she doesn’t get her wish.  Lilly also has a taste for adventure and an ability to attract a horde of suitors.

It is typical for a romance novel to have two main characters, but this book really doesn’t.  It’s about Lilly, and there are a bunch of dudes twirling around her, trying to gain her favor, but none of them is treated as another main character.  In a way, that’s one of the strengths of the book.  Part of what drives the plot is the question of whom Lilly will choose (if anyone) at the end.  But by the time I reached the end of the book, I felt sort of manipulated, as though Klassen had lured me into caring about several characters who ended up having little importance by dangling the carroty chance that there would be a turnaround or a reveal and Lilly would end up loving them.  I felt that this story was a nearly-executed (very nearly… it almost made it) attempt to take a straightforward love story and make it more mysterious.

I suspect I’m being slightly unfair to the book because I could not relate to the main character.  I know that taste in reading is completely subjective, and a character that draws me in and seems to speak to my soul will be completely off-putting to another person.  I know that there is a lot to like about The Apothecary’s Daughter, but none of that likable stuff quite makes up for my not being able to connect to the main character (although I recognize that the disconnect is personal and has nothing to do with the book).  I just happen to be a not-very-adventurous homebody with a poor memory, and stories about people who yearn for new locales and who have problems adjusting to the horror of not ever forgetting anything just don’t appeal to me.

Ready for a horrifically abrupt subject change?  Here it is.  I don’t know how many times I’ve read Pride and Prejudice, but I have certainly read it at least once a year for the past fifteen years.  I was in high school when the Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle P&P movie came out (thank you BBC/A&E!), and I got a trifle obsessed and watched it daily for months on end.  I can spot a snatched line from P&P at a hundred paces, so, naturally, a few lines from The Apothecary’s Daughter really stood out to me.

From page 100 of The Apothecary’s Daughter, Nook version

“I am ashamed to think of what I said then.”

Line from section 6 of the 1995 P&P miniseries

“I am ashamed to remember what I said then.”

From page 185 of The Apothecary’s Daughter, Nook version

“Mary Helen Mimpurse!  That is the first nearly unkind thing I believe I’ve ever heard you say about anyone.”

From page 815 of Pride and Prejudice, Nook version (the freebie)

“That is the most unforgiving speech,” said Elizabeth, “that I ever heard you utter.  Good girl!  It would vex me, indeed, to see you again the dupe of Miss Bingley’s pretended regard.”

From page 314 of The Apothecary’s Daughter, Nook version

“I hope you will dance, especially should gentlemen be scarce and ladies be in want of a partner.”

From page 454 of Pride and Prejudice, Nook version (the freebie)

“He danced only four dances, though gentlemen were scarce; and, to my certain knowledge, more than one young lady was sitting down in want of a partner.”

I should really start bookmarking while I read, because there was a fourth eerily familiar line, but I just can’t remember it now, and I don’t feel like skimming through the entire book just to find it.  I’m not trying to start some sort of odd Jane Austen plagiarism brigade (because a hell of a lot of authors would get rounded up in that one, including every author who ever wrote any JA fanfic), but I personally found these lines very jarring.  I’d be trucking along in the story, and then all of a sudden there would be this random P&P reference… and, to me, it was as jarring as a random Rocky Horror Picture Show reference would have been.  Every time I discovered a reference, I felt like I had gotten a joke that the author didn’t intend to make.  I was this guy:

Bottom line… for all that I’ve complained about not connecting with the main character, being irritated by the P&P references, and feeling slightly manipulated by the author, I did enjoy this book.  There are all of these lovely little bits of history woven into the story (history of medicine, apothecary’s lore, etc.), and these details added depth to the characters and explained a lot of the character’s motivations.  I loved Klassen’s descriptions of life in that little village whose name I’ve forgotten.  I loved the scene on Apothecary Row in London…  This book has all these delightful little facets (and a mystery or two!) that make it well worth the read, even if you don’t particularly enjoy the main character.

My favorite thing about The Apothecary’s Daughter is that Lilly learns a very important lesson.  She’s got this crazy-good memory, but that doesn’t always mean that she remembers things accurately.  She remembers all the dialogue of every conversation, but that doesn’t mean that she always perfectly understood the context.  Lilly has the opportunity to learn that things often aren’t what they seem, and that even the smartest of us can be surprised by things that were under our noses the whole time.  Lilly also has a difficulty noticing changes in people over time because her habit is to rely on her memory, using information from the past to inform the present.  The way Klassen allows Lilly to discover the other characters, those that she thought she knew so well (her father, Mary, Mrs. Mimpurse, Francis, etc.), is just lovely.  For this reason alone, you should  read The Apothecary’s Daughter, but, of course, there are many reasons to do so.

I felt betrayed by this book (dramatic, much?)

Let me start out by saying that however betrayed I feel by this book, it only cost me $0.99, so I should really stop bitching and moaning about it (but I won’t).

Cover image, Tempted at Every Turn by Robyn DeHart

I love covers like this one, where the characters seem to be on the world’s most giant bed.  Anyway.

I learned a valuable lesson about myself while reading this book: the angrier a book makes me, the less likely I am to stop reading it.  If a book is just boring, I’ll probably set it aside in favor of something more interesting, but nothing will stop me from finishing a book that offends me deeply.  Weird, huh?

This is the third book in a series, and I should admit that I haven’t read any of the others.   A few months ago, I downloaded a sample of the second book, but it didn’t catch my attention enough to make me want to buy it.  I really should have been paying better attention when I purchased Tempted at Every Turn, but I just didn’t notice that it was by the same author.

There were really three things that I strongly disliked about this book:

1.  “Intelligent” characters did not behave intelligently.

Both the male and female leads in this one are set up as intelligent characters.  Willow is described as being very clever and excellent at solving puzzles and mysteries.  She is a member of the Ladies Amateur Sleuth Society (although the four members pretty much just gather to talk about boys, because that’s what women do when we get together, right?), and all of the expositional indications of her character focus on her intelligence, so you assume that she will act with intelligence throughout the book.  James, meanwhile, is set up as an intelligent man and a stellar Investigator with Scotland Yard, so you assume, going into it, that he will act intelligently and that he will be good at his job (you know, as a stellar investigator).  While it should be safe to assume that supposedly intelligent characters will use their noggins when making decisions, that’s not what happens in this book.  Willow’s decisions have no logical basis at all (frankly, I can’t even figure them out from an emotional perspective), and I can’t think of a single instance of her intelligence in action throughout the book (even the two “Willow is so smart” snippets I highlight below (item # 3) aren’t examples of Willow actually being intelligent…).  James approaches investigating the same way a person would if his entire occupational experience of investigation consisted of his having watched a few episodes of Columbo or Murder, She Wrote when he was a kid.  So what was the point of describing them as intelligent people?

2.  Characters’ decisions (and characters’ character traits) did not make sense

This one is sort of an elaboration on the first point.  In general, the characters in this book did not make sense.  Willow’s mom suffers from some sort of mental illness, so Willow decided, when she was about eighteen or nineteen years old, that she would never marry because it was her duty to take care of her mother.  To that end, she discouraged all male attention and made it to age 29 without a single suitor.  Then, she meets James, and it all kind of goes to hell.  She still doesn’t want to marry, but her reasoning doesn’t really make sense in light of other, much more obvious reasons to avoid marrying.  I mean, if your mom is all kinds of crazy, it makes sense to avoid marrying because you are afraid of passing mental illness on to your children.  With that reason–perfectly logical–just hanging out there like an unacknowledged elephant in the room, it seems really bizarre that Willow is so hooked, so focused on the idea that she can’t marry because it would be impossible for her to care for both her mother and her family.  If she’s so damn intelligent, why doesn’t it occur to her (until a man points it out) that a lot of folks end up caring for both their families and their ailing parents, and they manage to make it work just fine.  Her decision just doesn’t make sense.

James has spent his entire life bucking convention, and we’re given a reason for it, but it doesn’t really make sense.  So his uncle got away with a crime because he was a peer (of the realm)… and that unfairness prompts James to turn his back on society and all of its stupid rules… OK, what does his uncle’s crime have to do with etiquette and polite behavior?  And is James’ haircut (or lack thereof) seriously connected to his uncle’s perfidy?  Really, like that’s his big character motivation?!  And–I love it–he can’t even consider marrying Willow (until after they bump fuzzies) because she’s someone his mom would like, and his most compelling character trait is that he never does anything that would make his mom happy.  Isn’t that romantic?  I’ve always dreamed of marrying a man who still acts like a 13-year-old.

3.  She’s a clever girl, which means she’s almost as smart as a man of average intelligence

I could have ignored the other things that irritated me about this book, but this one just pissed me off.  Willow only really demonstrates her cleverness twice in the book (the rest of the time the author just tells you that she’s clever rather than showing you), and this is how it goes:

“His studio,” she said.  “Not the easiest room to find, yet the killer found it without alerting the servants.”  She paused.  “He’d been there before.”
James watched her eyes light up.  She loved this.  Perhaps as much as he did.  The clues and puzzles, the chase.  And she was good; he couldn’t deny that.  He’d come to the very same conclusion, had even written it in his notes yesterday.
“I noticed the same thing,” he said.  “Quite clever, Willow.”

And again:

James nodded, curious to where she was going with this.  Willow was clever and more than likely was coming to the same conclusion he’d already made.  “Go on,” he encouraged her.
“Yes, well, I remembered that statement and then the box of photographs we found at Drummond’s house.  It seems highly likely that among those images are some wealthy aristocratic ladies.”
And there she had done it.  “I believe you might be right.”
“Really?” she asked, seeming surprised.
“I had already come to this conclusion, and am in the process of wading through those images trying to locate anyone I recognize.”

My reaction was pretty much:

Honestly…  At the first “Wow, you’re pretty smart–you just figured out a concept that I understood instantly–that’s pretty smart–for a girl” mention, I was annoyed, and at the second one, I was angry-cat livid.  What the hell.  So I’m going back to reading a Julie Klassen book next (The Apothecary’s Daughter), because I want a book that isn’t going to make me angry.

I’ve looked at romance from both sides, now

There are all sorts of sub-genres that with within the romance genre.  I primarily stick to historical romances, but even among that sub-genre, there are different varieties according to time period (regency, Georgian, Victorian, medieval, etc.).  There are also different levels of ‘sensuality,’ and I’m not entirely certain that I understand the differences between a historical romance, a sensual historical romance, and an erotic historical romance.  There are also inspirational historical romances, and normally I would give these a wide berth (religion and romance seeming, to me, to be an odd combination), but I’ve discovered that, as with anything, with the right author, they can be wonderful.

Cover image, The Maid of Fairbourne Hall by Julie Klassen

In any book, isn’t it sometimes a lot of fun to read about a character who has a lot of growing to do? (Assuming that the character doesn’t piss you off so much that you can’t get through the book, of course…)  Authors really take a risk when they commit to the page a character who is so much like the rest of us–bratty, flawed, snarky, arrogant, selfish, etc.–because we readers (as humans) often want to forget that we possess all those qualities, and it’s always incredibly annoying to encounter one’s hated bad qualities in another person.  It’s like a judgment.  And I don’t know about you, but I don’t like feeling judgment when I’m reading for pleasure.  But when it’s done well, it can be magical to witness a character’s journey from spoiled jerk to sympathetic wonderfulness.  The heroine of The Maid of Fairbourne Hall goes on just that sort of journey, and it’s just one of the many things that I liked about the novel.

As the title would suggest, The Maid of Fairbourne Hall involves an upstairs/downstairs storyline.  I don’t actually know why I didn’t get annoyed by all the descriptions of Margaret’s duties as a downstairs maid–I mean, (over)description is often the death of a novel–but I suspect that it’s due entirely to Julie Klassen’s superior storytelling.  She never once lost her focus: even when she was describing all of Margaret’s daily chores, the focus remained on Margaret’s response to the work, on her discovery of the life of a maid, of her own insignificance (as Mr. Bennet would say), and of the hero’s worthiness.  In the end, this story really is all about discovery and realization.  Margaret discovers herself and her true feelings for Nathaniel.  Nathaniel similarly discovers Margaret (in a few ways) and recovers himself.  And the theme also connects some of the secondary characters in the story.  The end result is a lovely, deeply romantic story that is emotionally satisfying and (dare I say it) nourishing.

All right… I want to talk about romance for a bit.  I know that word doesn’t mean anything concrete… after all, Walter Scott wrote romances that satisfy the requirements of the term (as far as the heroic romance or medieval romance are concerned) but manage to be remarkably unsatisfying (Bride of Lammermoor, I’m looking right at you with angry eyes). So when we talk about romance in the modern age, what do we mean?  Are we still telling heroic romance stories about knights imbued with all the good qualities the world has to offer who go out on quests of some sort and end up winning the favors of their various ladies?  In our post-ERA age, do we really want to read stories where all the action and adventure are given to the hero while the heroine (always a Rowena) passively waits to be claimed?  Or do we even think about the origins of romance when we sit down to read?  Has romance as a type of story become merely a vehicle for sex?  Don’t get me wrong–sex is a-OK in my book (ha ha), but it isn’t exactly a substitute for romance.

I don’t really know what romance means to the general population, but I know what it means to me.  I want an emotional story about the connection or relationship between the main characters.  Other elements from romance are welcome (action/adventure/quest/magic/etc.), but I’m in it for emotional catharsis.  Sex scenes are not required for good romance, and sometimes they get in the way.  The Maid of Fairbourne Hall is a romance in all the best ways–its focus is on the emotional development of the two main characters as individuals and on the emotional development of their relationship–and it’s fantastic.  And there’s no sex at all, and I didn’t miss it.  I can’t wait to read more books by Julie Klassen.