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Liz Carlyle is an auto-buy for me, but this is one of her very best, reminiscent of some of her earliest in how character-driven it is.
It's a very simple, classic storyline -- girl gets herself into scandalous situation with a good friend, tries to make the best of it, but discovers she's being forced into marriage with the wrong brother. There are no gimmicks or big plot hooks, like an exotic background for the H/H or a sadistic villain or a terrible secret. No action/suspense or heroic rescues or Big Misunderstandings. No big external plot drivers or deus ex machina solutions.
Rather, it's all about the choices of a number of complex, flawed but attractive characters -- choices that have been impulsive or thoughtless or based on wishful thinking -- whether from immaturity or as a way of dealing with repressed anxieties, or overcompensating for unhappiness or constraints of early 19th century society. Even the external "villainess" of the piece is only in a position to do harm because of choices made by the hero. And then all of the main characters (not only the H/H) have to face the consequences of their choices -- consequences not just for one's self but others. In the process, each of the main characters learns about him or herself, about what's really important, and how to reconcile their fears and desires, come to terms with their internal contradictions, and make better choices.
Part of what makes Wicked All Day special is that much of it deals with how the families of Zoë and the brothers, Stuart and Robert, handle the situation. Key family members are as well-developed and important characters as the leads. Zoë and her parents, Evie and Rannoch, are from the very early novel, My False Heart (Sonnet Books). Carlyle readers also know the other family well -- they're Jonet and Cole Amherst, and Jonet's sons, from another early Carlyle, A Woman Scorned (Sonnet Books).
The boys in A Woman Scorned are two of my favorite child characters in romance fiction. We are now meeting them almost twenty years later (which places the new story in the mid 1830s). The adult Stuart and Robert are clearly recognizable personalities, both in behavior and speech patterns, as the boys from twenty years before. Carlyle has quite realistically made them into plausible adult characters, adjusted for the experiences each would have had after the end of A Woman Scorned, with Jonet as their brilliant, fiercely protective but demanding mother, and Cole as a beloved, intelligent, stabilizing step-father. Some of the scenes with Jonet, Cole, their butler Charlie Donaldson, their nurse Nanna, and the two sons are particularly amusing or poignant if you've read the earlier novel.
The centrality of the families in the story is one of the ways Carlyle deals with what is a frequent theme in her writing -- love in all its myriad forms, not just romantic love. Here, the possibility of true, deep, abiding friendship between a man and a woman is one of the central drivers of the story. But also the love and loyalty between two very different brothers; intense, passionate maternal (Jonet) and paternal (Rannoch) love; marriage as companionship and partnership; the acceptance of half-siblings and step-children and other forms of extended family; and the importance of clan.
It's all packaged with Carlyle's trademark dry comedy, entertaining dialogue, strongly evocative sense of place, and deep affection for her characters.