Portrait of a Scandal by Annie Burrows may be the first time in my reading history where the middle of the story is the best part about the whole thing. This is a story that starts out slow, starts going gangbusters in the second half and then begins to wither on the vine towards the end.
Amethyst Dalby is a spinster. Discarded by her family, she begins living with an eccentric aunt, who it turns out had quite the head for business. When dear old Auntie dies, she bequeaths the whole lot to Amy, who follows lock-step in her aunt's footsteps - right down to her opinion on the male of the species. Which is to say they're basically useless. With Napoleon now soundly defeated, many English gentry are once again flocking to Paris - including Amy who wants to expand her newly acquired business holdings. Traveling with her are a paid companion, the companion's young daughter, and a Frenchman she hires to oversee her business transactions. Because after all, an English lady cannot just run around playing at business - I mean, it simply isn't done. What she doesn't expect is to arrive in Paris only to be confronted by her past.
Nathan Harcourt is the fourth son of an earl, and at one point had designs on Amy. They made eyes at each other during her first season and they both fancied themselves in love. However even if he is a fourth son, Nathan hitching his wagon to the daughter of a lowly vicar just will not do. Before you can say unrequited, Nathan and Amy are ripped apart thanks to the maneuverings of others. Nathan believes the worst in Amy and Amy has her poor wee heart trampled on when Nathan marries someone more "suitable." So naturally when they lock eyes on each other in Paris? It's heartbreak and loathing all over again.
Nathan believed lies told to him about Amy by a trusted friend, a friend who it turns out could be easily manipulated by Nathan's old man. See, Nathan has a path before him and that's politics and marriage to an ambitious woman who can set him on that path. Amy, a mere country vicar's daughter, will just not do. So while Nathan should know better, he's too young, foolhardy and stupid to logic things out. It is only after he sees her in Paris, concocts a plan for revenge (of sorts) and has all his supposed beliefs shattered that he realizes what an idiot he has been.
Amy was heartbroken when Nathan threw her over and married his, now-dead, wife. She thought for sure he loved her. Naturally she begins moping around the house, and confesses to her parents what has happened. They, predictably, place a lot of blame on her doorstep. She's a trollop, mourning the loss of a man who didn't even have the decency to speak with her father about offering for her. When her aunt arrives to whisk her away, it's a god-send, until of course Auntie decides to impart her wonderful advice about the male of species on to her already spurned niece. I don't throw the word "man-hating" around lightly (mostly because 99% of the time it's thrown about by insecure little boys), but Amy is essentially taught by her aunt that no man, anywhere, could possibly have any interest in her without it being totally nefarious.
It's Big Misunderstanding conflict all the way, until the second half, when Nathan realizes he's been a complete moron. He then goes about trying to apologize to Amy, make up for lost time, and these moments are really the meat and potatoes of the story. Amy continues to question everything, sometimes believing the very worst about him, but it's easy to see how she might. Nathan doesn't have a great track record, and the voice of her dead Aunt is whispering loudly in her ear. In fact the whole thing is going along swimmingly, until finally, we hit the finishing chapters. There's angst, there's heartache, there's enough emotionally charged dialogue to make my heart swoon. And then it's like someone told the author she was two chapters short of hitting word count and we get an annoying, tacked "argument" and another "big misunderstanding" to drag the whole thing past what was, a very natural conclusion. It flat-out didn't work for me.
So what do we end up with? I loved the setting, which the author paints with a loving brush. She ably conveys the excitement that Amy and Nathan would feel in a city like Paris, so full of possibilities, so full of opportunities to break out of their respective ruts. They don't have to pretend in Paris. They don't have to worry about what other people will think. They can be who they truly are. I liked that the author didn't whitewash the challenges that a businesswoman would face during this time period. In other words, Amy has to conduct a lot of business using the men in her employ as "fronts." I also liked that once the whole Big Misunderstanding from their youth dawns on Nathan, that he really goes about woo'ing Amy. It's just the ending. The tacked-on silly argument that felt like a cold bucket of ice-water at the end. What started out as a "second half, probably B- read" falls, depressingly, short. Oh what might have been.
Final Grade = C+