This is my first Kate Noble book and there were so many utterly fabulous things about it: historically rich in detail; features a compelling, unique heroine and utterly sweet hero who really comes into his own; is well-written and fast-paced; has both funny scenes and great chemistry. However all this only made the two flaws that much more annoying to me - and one is practically a literary crime (in the romance genre)! Either way, she is a great writer, FOLLOW MY LEAD is a lovely must-read, and I will definitely be keeping an eye out for her next book.
(Apologies in advance for the obscene length of this review!)
Miss Winnifred Crane (30), known to her friends as Winn, is a brilliant woman and an expert on art history. Her father was a revered professor of that discipline at Oxford, so she's been studying art and history from a young age. Following his recent death, she decides that after spending her life in the library and recent years caring for her increasingly sick father, it is finally time for her to be independent, have an adventure, and be in control of her own life. The first thing she wants is recognition for her talent and expertise, which will come by finally unmasking herself as C. W. Marks, the pseudonym she used to publish several esteemed and greatly-admired papers.
When her claim comes into question, she is forced to strike a bargain: if she can prove that a painting widely accepted to be by Durer was in fact painted by someone else, the Society of Historical Art and Architecture of the Known World will be forced to acknowledge that she was in fact capable of having written the Marks papers herself. Along for the ride with her is George Bambridge, her cousin who is also an "expert" in the family field. He has been set on marrying Winn for many years, calculating that through her, he will be able to rise to great heights by capitalizing on - and basically plagiarizing - her own brilliance. When he forbids her from going to Europe to find the proof of her claims, they strike their own bargain: should she succeed, he will back off and will also give her inheritance, which he has been backhandedly withholding since her father's death; if she doesn't, they will marry.
Lord Jason Cummings, Duke of Rayne (30) becomes involved completely by chance. Jason has finally decided to marry, figuring that this is the next step: after his father's death, he took over the responsibilities of his dukedom as he should and now that that is under control, it's time for him to marry. Though the entire reasoning is pretty dispassionate, he is actually quite committed to this path, though finds it an increasing trial given all the debutantes he has met bore him to tears. Becoming accidentally entangled in Winn's quest, he finds himself assigned to be the escort for the first leg of her and George's journey, which is to travel to Dover to board a ship to Calais.
Nothing is ever that simple of course, and through twists and turns, Winn and Jason find themselves stuck together as they travel through Germany and Austria trying to find the much-sought after evidence to back Winn's claims. Having to battle both their growing attraction to one another and the pursuit by George whom they are only able to stay one step ahead of, they find themselves on the most unlikely - and exciting and thrilling and lovely! - adventure of their lives.
There were a lot; one of the things I loved is that to find all of these in one romance is very rare, so I admire Noble and her books all the more for this:
+ Romantic relationship is so believable; no instant lust, are really nothing to one another at the beginning, but develops and builds in an absolutely lovely manner
+ Both the hero and heroine have their own vulnerabilities, as well as their own strengths, and together they provide the other what he or she is missing; are wonderfully 3-dimensional characters and the hero is to die for
+ Historically rich - doesn't at all overwhelm the story, is integral to the plot, it's clear Noble did her research, and is actually very interesting
+ The subplot of the painting quest is well-crafted, necessary to the story, and not contrived (historically rich and etc. as previously mentioned)
+ The book is humorous/witty and a lot of the scenes/dialogue are cute, but the story maintains a great amount of depth; is not light and fluffy, but is still a truly plain-fun read
+ Chemistry was wonderful - not a super steamy read, but there is great tension and what is there is very well done; has a lot of physical affection, couple of kissing scenes, and two love scenes
***MAIN CHARACTERS, Winn and Jason***
Winn was terrific! She's 30, which is significantly older than most romance heroines, however she has no experience with society or the outside world and before traveling to London to assert her claim of being C. W. Marks had never even traveled outside of Oxford. She is determined, intelligent, resourceful, naive, funny, perceptive, self-deprecating, charming, and just all-around great. What she seeks to avoid at all costs is the need for anyone else - she doesn't want to have to depend on anyone but herself. Because of this, her attraction and developing relationship with Jason causes her endless internal turmoil.
Jason was so, so, so wonderful. I know from other readers and from mentions in this book that he was not as much of a charmer when in The Summer of You, however not having read the book myself I cannot really speak to the change except for what I know from this book. He apparently used to always run from his responsibilities and could never finish a thing he started, but he has undergone a change in the last 5 years and really tried to reform his ways. This transformation is also one of the reasons - though not the main one ;-) - he decides to stick it out with Winn and accompany her to the end of her adventure: he wants to see this completed start to finish, and doesn't want to abdicate his responsibilities.
With Winn, Jason is just dreamy and delicious. He's sweet, tender, protective, teasing, insightful, caring, selfless, *thoughtful,* and is so adorable blushing at some of the things he says or some of Winn's comments!! Love how he has a pet name for her and that he's a redhead ... though it's a book, so really what difference, lol :-). I honestly can't do anything but add him to my favorite heroes list! In many ways, his change is the more remarkable of the two, since Winn's is more halting and doesn't fully show through until the end (practically not even then! See flaw #2b). Jason, who at the beginning is more of a passive actor in his life, really takes charge of his own destiny, makes decisive choices, and jumps headlong into the unknown void (several times) earlier and more often than Winn.
***THE TWO FLAWS*** (could be considered slight spoilers)
I'm annoyed just thinking about them, because this would be nothing but a rave review if it weren't for them and would qualified as one of my top 10 HRs, if not #1. And had the rest of the book not been as fabulous as it was, the rating would have suffered far more than half a star.
(1) There is another love interest: Miss Sarah Forrester for Jason. Their relationship develops throughout the book much, much further than I would have liked. I am not alluding to anything naughty, I just mean the stages that their relationship reaches. At the end, I was practically having heart palpitations, while also trying to tell myself this was a romance = has a HEA = stop being such a complete and utter dimwit. IMO though, Jason wouldn't have reverted back so much to how he was before the trip; even had his actions been the same, I would have wanted more inner turmoil on his part.
(2a) If you counted up the times that either Winn or Jason went out on a limb for the other / hinted at their feelings / reached out to the other, Jason would definitely come out on top. So much so that I began to get very annoyed with Winn. She was such a strong woman, that I wish she had grown a backbone in this area a little earlier. Jason proves himself in so many ways and it left me feeling that Winn hadn't done enough to deserve him yet. Now I could have let all this slide if not for 2b ...
(2b) I'm sorry, but what was up with that last chapter and ending? Before you freak out, yes it's a HEA, but I really felt cheated. I actually thought for a second that maybe there was a page at the end missing or they had forgotten to include the Epilogue, because without one or the other how that ending is told is practically a crime! Jason gives the most amazing declaration and deserves an equivalent one in return. It's the ending for pity sake; how can you leave us with that?
I read Compromised right after this and what that clearly showed me is that Noble loves to twist her readers inside out and put them through the ringer! I hate Big Misunderstandings for that very reason, and while she doesn't have those, it's a *huge* case of Things Left Unsaid (in both books).
Read it, definitely! I cannot recommend any other action. But can someone maybe just rewrite the ending for me and I'll paste it over the last page of my book? ... Or maybe I will just do it myself, because this a sure reread, but honestly I cannot emotionally survive going through this again! Yes, yes, overly dramatic. All I can say is: the book was so fabulous and strong that the ending's weakness stuck out (and slapped me upside the head and tortured me) that much more.