Thoughts on some historical romance novels #8

I wanted to put it off, to take it up at another time when I wouldn’t be as busy as I am now. To no avail. Rereading the love scenes and my favorite passages didn’t help. The book basically sang to me, caught my eye even with that dull purple cover no matter where I hid it in my room, as if it was luring me to lose myself in it again. I couldn’t have been more glad that I did.

Dear readers, it is my great pleasure to present you my review of my absolute favorite historical romance novel.

The Romantic by Madeline Hunter

The following review contains spoilers. Click here to read the spoiler-free version.

“I never hated you. My anger was never with you, but with the little hell my heart had put me in. The anger always passed. I never regretted loving you. If I had gone to my grave never kissing you or touching you, I still would not have thought it a wasted love.”

I have been hinting at this gem of a book in many of my previous reviews. And I’m finally reviewing it now. Oh, what a joy! Beware because it’s going to be a long one.

It is this book that started this latest wave of historical romance craze in me. I bought it in July last year and was instantly hooked. It left such a great impression on me that I rediscovered my great love for historical romances. After that I read 20 more historical romance novels and I can say for certain that Madeline Hunter’s The Romantic is unparalleled, as rereading it has proven.

So what can possibly be so great about it? Well, first of all, it has a good storyline with a strong plot. Madeline Hunter’s novels are usually too plot-intensive that I forget I’m reading a romance novel. There’s always a mystery to be solved or some sort of mission that the heroine sets about accomplishing. But in The Romantic, the plot didn’t bother me because this time it involved the main characters. But more than that, it set the scene for a great tragedy. Penelope, Countess of Glasbury, has been separated from her husband for more than a decade because the man is an immoral, perverted bastard who, as Penelope puts it implicitly, “he takes pleasure in giving punishment.” The person who negotiated the separation, and the only one who knows the reason for it, is the Laclere family solicitor, Julian Hampton. He has known Penelope and her brothers since they were teenagers and needless to say he has been in love with Penelope since forever. Now isn’t that just perfect?

This already sounds like my favorite kind of tragedy. However, it’s only the background story that is expertly revealed as the main storyline unfolds. That’s another thing that Madeline Hunter handled excellently. Through hints, and passages of memories written in italics, she gives you a whole life story to fill the gaps with your imagination as the characters grow on you. So here, Glasbury wants Penelope back to give him an heir. And Julian, to save his ‘incomparable beloved’, dons his armor once again and swears to slay this sleeping dragon for once and for all. Oh, my… I must have really gotten carried away this time.

All excerpts from the book © Madeline Hunter All rights reserved

“My love is with you, even when I am not.”

There is nothing special about this quote you might say. Well, not if Julian Hampton is the one who spoke it. Its meaning has so many layers that I cannot begin to describe them all. This man is something else all together. An enigma even to those who know him well. His quiet reserve is often mistaken for a cold nature. The first chapter does an excellent job in introducing this very private hero. He is at a banquet, making polite conversation with some highly eligible women that Viscountess Laclere is trying to throw at him to settle down with. But he doesn’t seem interested in any of them. In fact he is so bored out of his mind that he writes these delightfully letters in his head to the hostess (who is Bianca, the heroine of The Saint), politely pointing out he is aware of her mechanizations to find him a wife and that they are in vain. Were it another hero, the disinterest would stem from the hero’s rakish nature, but Julian is far from a rogue. So you suspect that something is amiss. That something is a woman he loves dearly, protects from within the shadows, but to whom he had never told his true feelings.

The closest he ever comes to confronting his true feelings is though countless letters he has written all these years and never sent. Oh my god, how romantic is that! His pen is his only confidant, the only window that opens to his soul. His soul is stripped bare in these letters. And he never shares them with anyone. Until they become vital in sparing Penelope a terrible fate. So Julian is the embodiment of a safe harbor. A calm, taciturn man who leads a quiet, steady life giving no hint of the storm of unrequited love churning inside. I suppose it is fitting that he likes watching thunderstorms *winks*

The best description of Julian comes from Vergil (the hero of The Saint) when he compares him with Witherby, another member of the Dueling Society from their childhood, who got Penelope to fall in love with him after her separation but then betrayed her in the most horrible manner.

“He was all talk and wit and charm. One assumed one knew what one had, but in fact saw nothing of the soul. You are the opposite. He was a long, rambling, self-indulgent novel with no moral theme. You are a slim book of poetry.”

It is this quality that separates Julian from other forever-besotted heroes. He never pursues her because he knows she would be the one to pay the cost. Even after all the troubles are left behind, he still intends to content himself with being her lover because he thinks she will never marry again after what she has been though. It is as if he has agreed to loving and protecting her forever, but never having her. And that certainly earns him the title of the book and being my favorite historical romance hero.

So one wonders why he didn’t make a move at her when she was still unmarried. I still do not know. That is one of the things Ms. Hunter leaves the reader to ponder about. But both Julian and Penelope were very young when the latter got engaged to the earl and during a conversation Vergil has with Julian towards the end, he reveals that he expected what was then a youthful tendre to pass with time. Little did he know that he would forever be the chivalrous knight and she would forever be the princess that needed to be rescued like in those medieval plays he wrote (which were so sweet to read, by the way!) back when they were young?

Such allusions to these metaphorical roles throughout the story were also a treat, I must say. Though, when I first read Penelope screaming, “I’m here Julian. Save me!” when she was stranded on the rocks on the beach near Julian’s cottage, I literally winced. But considering this another allusion, I can let it pass, I suppose.

Speaking of Penelope, she is a lovable damsel in distress. At first I didn’t like her much. Perhaps because she is obscured by Julian as he clearly owns the book. But on second read, I found her to be a flesh and bone woman. She is very real, similar to Gigi from Sherry Thomas’ Private Arrangements. Maybe I got that impression because they are both mature women.

“There was no friend whom you mourned leaving?”

She tried to assume a worldly, bored expression, but could not successfully hide a deeper sadness. “I will never mourn a man again, Mr. Hampton.”

Penelope is a courageous, self-sacrifing woman, as Julian describes her. She feels that she must marry the earl because her family’s finances have taken a wrong turn. When she discovers the monster that Glasbury is, she does not seek to divorce him because she doesn’t want her family to be tainted with scandal. So besides the hell she wasted youth and innocence in, she has to carry another burden, which is keeping this awful truth a secret. She only shares it with her childhood friend and the one person who she believes will act in a sensible manner with that knowledge. So she reveals the particulars of her marriage to Julian. She asks for help from him alone. Only she has no idea how much he suffers over her revelations and how much she burdens him with them. However, later when Julian is accused of murdering Glasbury, she reveals the horrors of her marriage to the whole London society. She risks everything because this time it’s her turn to save her knight in shining armor.

Normally, I can talk on and on about the things I like, but that’s not the case with this book. To describe the beauty I alluded above in more detail is harder in this case than most. So, the only way, the frustrated fan in me can express her great love is through quotes from my favorite scenes.

Towards the beginning of the book, Penelope is contemplating having an affair of convenience to force the earl’s hand to divorce her. For that she has even listed a couple of names as possible candidates to be her lover.

“It is very difficult to compile such a list, I will have you know. Especially since it will be no more than an affair of convenience. I will not want the complications of some man professing great love or, God forbid, wanting to marry after my divorce.”

“You appear to have planned it through in minute detail.”

“That part, yes. If I get free of this yoke I do not intend to become chattel again. I would be an idiot to remarry. As for that list, it is astonishing how very few names I could muster, without even subjecting them to due testing.”

Due testing?

It was the closest thing to a yell that Pen had ever heard from Julian. It caused her shoulders to press in retreat against the back of the sofa.

“Well, not actually testing

“Perhaps you should put an advertisement in the papers. You can have it listed under livestock. Stallion sought, something like that.”

Now, that was uncalled for, and outright rude. “What a splendid idea,” she responded. “Only why play with metaphors? The direct approach is always best. How does this sound? Gentleman required for a temporary affair of convenience. Unexceptionable references from previous lovers required. Must be willing to be named in criminal correspondence. Should be presentable, experienced, and have a strong back.”

On the second read, the love scenes seemed kind of bland. I like detail when it’s nice, and, as far as ratings go, I’m into Hot rather than Warm, as I point out often. But (of course there is a but) the beauty of the love scenes in this book is of a different kind. It’s not bland, it’s deep with rich and sizzling insinuations that reveal the wit of Ms. Hunter’s writing. I was surprised how cool Julian was about the first intimacy between him and Penelope. I expected to read about his emotions stripped bare to the reader, but instead he appeared almost as private about it as he was to Penelope.

In this scene, Penelope doesn’t know quite how to act after they first slept together the night before and actually asks him for help.

“I do not know how to behave with you now, Julian. It is all I can do not to giggle.”

“I have always thought that was a lovely sound.”

“I am astonished with myself. It appears I am more sophisticated than I thought. I suppose my long abstinence accounts for my losing my head last night.”

“One does not need a long drought to enjoy a summer rain.”

“I was not implying that it had nothing to do with how much with the rain. Still, I am having difficulty accommodating how bold I was. Are you? Have you ever had a sophisticated liaison before?”

“I have had nothing else except sophisticated liaisons, Pen.”

“Good. At least one of us knows what to do and what to say the next day.”

She waited. After a five count, a slightly bewildered expression passed over his face. Then an amused one, as he seemed to realize she was demanding guidance.

“Well, Pen, normally, at some point in the days ahead, some expression of gratitude is made.”

“Of course. I see. Well, then, thank you, Julian.”

He scratched his temple while a smile twitched the corners of his mouth.

“I am supposed to express the gratitude, Pen, not you.”

“I assumed we both—”

“Not normally.”

That did not help her situation much.

She was sure there were expectations of the woman, too. She probably should be clarifying matters, and reassuring him that there would be no scenes. She had known women who misunderstood and built huge expectations on what men thought were casual affairs.

“Julian, I want you to know that I will not become childish and demanding and insist on continued attendance. I will not start convincing myself it was other than it was.”

His subdued smile did not change, but his eyes assumed penetrating lights.

“And what was it, Pen?”

*sigh* That last question only might be enough to demonstrate why I love this guy so much.

As a final note, I was in constant need of a timeline for the whole Seducer series while I read this book. To make all the pieces fit, basically. I know that it was during her first season that Penelope was engaged to be married. So my experience with 19th century historical romances suggest that she must be 18 then. Later, it is mentioned in the book that she left the earl when she was 21, and during the events told in the book, she is “well past thirty.” Glasbury is 45 and I know that Vergil is 10 years his junior. But I am not sure if Vergil is older or younger than Penelope. As for Julian, he was 22-23 when he got established in his profession and, again, I don’t know if he’s older or younger than Vergil. Perhaps I can find out more if I read the whole series or peruse the book from cover to cover but that’s as far as I could find out with my weak math skills.

The Romantic defies the “rules” of historical romance novels in many ways. For one thing, neither of the characters describe each other’s perfection for pages at end, for which I am glad. Something I am much more glad about is that there are no ugly comparisons. Penelope never compares Witherby’s passion with Julian’s. Being the most beautiful/handsome, most irresistible or the first at everything is not of significance in this book. Julian isn’t the one who showed her that she wasn’t ruined because of what Glasbury did to her. Yet, this story is more moving than any mosts or firsts story I have read, and I believe that’s the real beauty of it.

As I read on, I discovered that the book (and especially this wonderful character) has many layers that requires the reader’s attention and love of the characters to truly enjoy both. So not everything is out in the open. And I really don’t like open-ended plots or untied storylines. But actually nothing is open-ended in this book. It’s just implied rather than told in the most detailed manner. And I guess most people will agree with me when I say that the latter spoils the fun sometimes. In The Romantic, this implicit quality really makes the story beautiful. I don’t think this story would be as good if it were written by Lisa Kleypas (no offense, she is a great historical romance author. Just on a different light). I would still love it to pieces probably, but not as much.

In short, The Romantic is more than your average historical romance novel. It has a solid, relevant plot, a down-to-earth heroine, an amazing hero and a love story so beautiful that it redefined romance in my eyes. I recommend it to romance fans who are looking for something deeper.

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