Wednesday, May 20, 2020

#TBRChallenge 2020: The Lady's Companion

 Book Cover
The Book: The Lady's Companion by Carla Kelly

The Particulars: Traditional Regency, Signet, 1996, Out of print, available in digital edition

Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?: Back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and ebooks weren't "a thing," books went out of print - sometimes quickly. If you didn't buy a category romance or Trad Regency the month it was released you were then at the mercy of scouring used bookstores. Given how many trad fans rave about Kelly, I made it a point to always buy her books when I stumbled across them in used bookstores. So they then, of course, could languish in my TBR.

The Review: I fell for romance just as the Trad Regency was gasping it's last few breaths and it's not a sub genre I gravitate towards naturally.  In those early days I was drawn to westerns, got burnt out on the Regency era just as Light Historicals were glutting the market, got my head turned by erotic romance and my love of short, tight reads fixated on short contemporary category romance.  But I got in the habit of buying up Carla Kelly and Mary Balogh books as I stumbled across them during used bookstore jaunts.  It's been an indecent age since I've read a Trad and boy howdy - this one was a gem!

Miss Susan Hampton is an old maid of twenty-five who has been patiently waiting for her come out that her father has been promising for years upon years.  The problem is that Daddy is a degenerate gambler.  They're still in their London house by the skin of their teeth, with barely any servants left, not enough coal to keep them warm, and furniture being sold off bit by bit until, you guessed, Daddy loses the house in a turn of the cards.  They have no choice but to move in with her father's sister, a woman who in no uncertain terms says she has the futures of her own daughters to secure.  Susan sees her life stretching out before her.  Her father determined to keep them on this long, slow road to ruin, their name whispered about among the ton, a poor relation who will be her Aunt's fetch-and-carry girl.  What man will want a woman with no dowry and a father-in-law who would surely bleed him dry?  Her father is horrified when Susan suggests he might, oh, get a job (good Lord, their kind do NOT work!) and fed up with her destiny being left to the whims of others - she decides she's going to get a job.

She lands as a lady's companion to the Dowager Lady Bushnell, a hard-as-tack widow who followed her husband, a colonel, across the continent on various campaigns and raised two children.  Her husband, son and daughter all gone, she's living in the country determined to keep her independence much to the chagrin of her daughter-in-law who wants to see her cossetted and well cared for in her old age.  But the dowager is made of sterner stuff and has chased off a few companions already.  What Susan needs is an ally - who appears in the form of the bailiff, David Wiggins.  A former sergeant under Lord Bushnell's command, he owes the Bushnells his life.  He takes one look at Susan and inevitably, sparks fly.

Original cover art
What we have here is a romance novel for grown-ups.  Characters who have real problems and don't act like flibbertigibbets.  Coy verbal flirting between the hero and heroine.  And honest-to-goodness obstacles true to the time period and not swept under the rug.  Susan's family name is most definitely tattered but her blood is still blue and David?  Welsh, raised in an orphanage, a former poacher and thief who found himself on the continent fighting Napoleon and being disciplined at the end of a whip when the Dowager intervened.  Even if you disregard Susan's useless relations, the classism alone is enough worthy romantic conflict to propel a whole shelf full of novels, let alone a tightly plotted, song-worthy 200 page Regency.

It sagged a tiny bit in the middle for me, but Kelly pulls out all the stops with an emotionally gut-churning finish.  There's a moment at the final chapters when Susan's aunt does something so heartbreaking I wanted to shove my hands through the pages and happily throttle the woman.  And the *chef's kiss* Black Moment between Susan and David - when words are spoken in anger and the reader KNOWS by this point how perfect they are together, how deeply in love, and it was like Kelly ripped my heart from my chest and happily danced a jig on it before resuscitating me back to life with a swoony happy ending.

I'm not doing this book justice, but take my word for it - it's so, so good.  It's a minor miracle that cooler heads prevailed and I didn't stay up half the night to finish it (but only because I literally could no longer keep my eyes open).  Mature, lovely, wonderfully romantic with a pitch-perfect hero and a heroine with gumption in an era when that would not have been easy.  When I finished I wanted to turn back to Chapter One and fall back into this world all over again.

Final Grade = A


Jill said...

When Carla Kelly is "on" she is really on. My favorite of hers is "Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand" but this one is excellent as well.
Sadly, I dallied too long and when I finally picked something off the TBR pile, it was a stinker. Both the hero and heroine referred to his ex-girlfriends as "blonde bimbos." Yeah there was a time that wouldn't have bothered me, but now it does. Ah well.
Onward! Happy reading, everyone.

Wendy said...

This is a favorite. Then ending with the wheat especially kills me.
This book also reminds me a bit of my #1 favorite Kelly, which is Miss Chartley's Guided Tour. IIRC, there's a secondary character in Lady's Companion who is a version of Hugh in MCGT.

Phyl said...

I loved this book, too. I bet it's been a good 15 years since I read it though. I think I'll dig it out and read it again.

Dorine said...

Awwww! So glad you found a winner! Apologies for dropping the challenge the last couple of months. I'm in a rough spot with my attention-span, so my obligation reading has to come first. Hopefully, I'll find something in my TBR that won't shush for next month! Just wanted you to know I'm still here, even if not vocal. :)

Wendy said...

Jill: Bright side, it's out of your TBR now! And I so agree with you. I used to be more tolerant of that sort of thing but these days it often leads to a quick DNF.

Wendy: OMG THAT ENDING! I loved this book so much. I can't remember the last romance I read where I literally loved every single secondary character. Well, except for Susan's useless family. I wanted to set them on fire LOL

Phyl: Oh, you should reread it! This was, obviously, my first time and I thought it held up beautifully.

Dorine: I swear to you I was driving home from work thinking, "Huh, Dorine hasn't posted for the TBR Challenge in a little while - I hope she's doing OK." And I checked my email when I got home and there you were! And girl, same. I might have finished one book the entire month of March. Things picked up a bit for me in April because I went with some comfort reads and a bunch of library ebook holds all came in at once. But it's been rough for all of us I think. It's been so hard to focus with ::waves hands wildly:: all this going on. Hope you're doing well and I'm glad you checked in!

Bronwyn Parry said...

Wendy, thanks so much for this review and recommendation. I bought the books straight away, and have just finished reading it. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Such a refreshing change from Dukes and Rakes and the ton.

Wendy said...

Bronwyn: I'm so glad you liked it! And like me you must have torn through it straight away :)

Lil said...

One of the things I love about Kelly's books is that when her characters have problems, they're REAL problems, not stupid misunderstandings that anyone over the age of 13 should be able to deal with. And her characters are adults. There's lots more, but anyone who's read her knows that.

Wendy said...

Lil: That's one of the things I really loved about this book - that even though Susan's family name was getting a bit frayed around the edges she was still saddled with the expectations of her class. Kelly didn't toss that aside in the name of convenient conflict resolution. Her characters had to work for it and live with the consequences - which really, Susan's family was so horrible she's way better off.

Dorine said...

Awww - it's so nice to be missed! I was sick for a few weeks and feared the thing that shall not be named. I still don't know what it was because no doc would see me. BUT - I'm better now, 2 months later, and keeping my distance. We just spent a week in the woods social distancing in our self-contained camper. Good times, even though everything that could break, did. LOL Which is why I didn't get to read then, either. Life will get better. I have faith. :)