by syaffolee

Book Review: Julia Quinn – What Happens in London

During the long holiday weekend, I was bored. And I had already justified myself that I had made a dent in my to-be-read pile with the previous book. I wanted to read something new, but I didn’t want to spoil the weekend with anything particularly heavy or serious–so I picked up an author who I swore I would not pick up again. After reading some positive reviews, I figured it wouldn’t hurt (much) to give the author another try. So why the hesitancy in the first part? I previously read two Julia Quinn novels: How to Marry a Marquis and Romancing Mr. Bridgerton. Quinn has a certain light style encompassing “cute meets” for her main leads followed by witty banter and amusing situations. The writing itself is extremely polished, but I only have a tolerance for so many cute situations. It’s like gorging on too much cotton candy or having a particularly devious friend prank your house by wallpapering your rooms with Hello Kitty. You’d rather jam a pencil in your eye.

In What Happens in London, society belle Olivia Bevelstoke decides to spy on her neighbor, Sir Harry Valentine, after listening to her gossipy friends claim that he killed his fiancee. She’s pretty sure that he didn’t kill anyone, but she watches him from his window anyway–just in case. Despite Olivia thinking herself well camouflaged, Harry is well aware of her peeping Tom activities. Far from cooking up devious schemes, he is merely translating Russian correspondence for the War Office. Their first meeting does not go well–at first, they dislike each other. But after a few more chance meetings, they become friends, with Harry gifting Olivia with a gothic novel that she subsequently forces him to listen to while she reads particularly badly written passages. It is only with the arrival of a Russian prince who sets his sights on Olivia that Harry realizes that he loves her.

The middle of the book, unfortunately, was far more amusing than either the beginning or the ending. The prologue containing Harry’s childhood reminded me way too much of the beginning of Loretta Chase‘s Lord of Scoundrels (which I only managed to get halfway through and only picked up because a certain mathematics professor liked it). I usually do not read historical romances so I am curious–was this an homage to Chase or is beginning a book with the hero’s childhood a well established convention in the genre that I was not previously aware of? Or, I suppose, a coincidence? At any rate, I wasn’t very impressed. While it was a convenient device for the author to put in some character development, I’m not quite sure it was the best way to do it.

And as for the last seventy pages of the novel–it wasn’t particularly original or interesting. It was as if the author had run out of steam after making up all the witty dialogue in the earlier part of the book and had decided to paint by the numbers to finish out the story. While I can very well believe Olivia’s actions in this last section due to her fluff-brained antics previously, I could not reconcile Harry’s abrupt change from the reasonable and staid guy who still has enough self-control even when provoked to the typical romance hero who debauches the girl in the middle of a party behind some hidden alcove/room/potted plant without a thought of who else might barge in. And the additional suspense element was at best, tepid.

I liked, far better, the development of Olivia and Harry’s relationship through their inadvertent meetings at social gatherings, at the park, and at the windows facing each others’ homes. However, the best moment in the novel did not involve Harry or Olivia at all–rather one of the secondary characters, Harry’s cousin Sebastian. I will only say that the particular scene with Sebastian includes the badly written gothic novel and a disastrous acting performance. It had me laughing out loud–which for me is a rare response elicited from any book.

Verdict: I liked parts of the book but not enough to even say I would recommend with caveats to someone new to the genre. The plotting was seriously flawed, although not irrevocably so, but enough to make me second guess if there really was any story involved–whether it be external or internal conflicts. As I mentioned earlier, the suspense aspect of the novel, particularly involving espionage and the Russian prince, were tepid–more of an annoyance to the characters involved rather than a real obstacle. And as for character growth, I didn’t see any, unless you count the out-of-character behavior near the end. Would I read another Quinn book? Well, maybe the next book on Sebastian, but only if he stays in character.

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