The theme: Any kind of classic.
Why this one?: I’ve heard of it many times; in fact it was specifically recommended to me for a reason I’ll go into later. I put off reading it because I had accidentally read the last paragraph (my copy has a page torn out and I wanted to be sure I wasn’t missing anything) and it spoils the ending; I was trying to forget it.
Note: I don’t think I can write about this book without a major spoiler, though since it’s an old book, it’s likely a spoiler most people already know. But if you don’t want to be spoiled, leave now! Lady Wesley has an excellent spoiler-free review at GoodReads. The AAR review is also very good.
Libby’s London Merchant is a traditional Signet Regency from the days when sex scenes were quite rare. (Though I think Mary Balogh was writing them contemporaneously with this one.) One of the side benefits of this was the potential for stories in which there is genuine suspense about who the heroine will end up with. (I suppose it could also go the other way, but I haven’t encountered that plot.) These sorts of stories have almost disappeared.
Tangent — I used to be very annoyed by my old Heyer paperbacks, which had blurbs that were ludicrously inaccurate. However, when I later replaced them with modern editions with accurate blurbs… I hated those even more, because they gave all the surprises away! Signet’s blurb writers and book designers were very, very good at misdirection. My all-time favorite example is the inside quote of a Balogh novel which features a hot and heavy moment between the heroine and the book’s villain!
The cover blurb for Libby’s London Merchant manages to be fairly accurate while completely leading the reader down the garden path, and the inside quote continues that. Both focus on Nez, a tortured, injured, alcoholic duke in disguise, who is obviously the book’s hero.
Or is he? Libby, our heroine, isn’t quite sure. Because there’s also this doctor… a big, plump, glasses-wearing, laughably clumsy guy, who couldn’t possibly be a hero. Except that he’s also wise and caring and utterly dependable in an emergency… and unlike the duke, he’s happy to marry a penniless girl whose mother was a tobacconist’s daughter.
If you know me, you’ll know why this was recommended to me. Plump romance hero, the rarest of all unicorns! Dr. Cook does thin down a bit towards the end, but you just know that he’ll always be a big, cuddly marshmallow of a guy. (Fans self.) And he’s insightful, generous, and devoted and as Libby comes to realize, the kind of man who will wear well. (Nez is presumably not irredeemable though, because he does get his own story later.) Having such a character come out the winner against a romantic wounded duke just makes me happy.
I so, so wish this hadn’t been spoiled for me, because Kelly builds up the suspense and confusion beautifully. Even having a pretty strong notion how it would come out, I wasn’t quite certain for the longest time. The doctor was so laughable and Nez so romantic; to make it even trickier, we see Nez’s point of view, which naturally leads us to sympathize with him, and wonder who we should root for. (It’s sort of the inverse of The Duke’s Wager by Edith Layton, a fantastic book in which both potential heroes are dreadful.) Knowing what I do about Kelly’s background, I suspect there may have been a bit of an agenda here, but it doesn’t matter, because she completely pulls it off and makes me believe it. I am personally biased towards the good doctor, of course, but the raves at GoodReads and Desert Island Keeper rating at All About Romance show that the book works for a good many readers. I think it’s the first of my TBR challenge reads to wind up on my keeper shelf.