After almost falling prey to a fortune hunter during her first season, Lucy Percy flees to the country-side to escape the scandal. To secure her anonymity, she trades names with her aunt and companion. Now known as “Mrs. Percy,” who tragically lost her husband in the war, Lucy is ready for her peaceful, cottage retreat. Unfortunately, she attracts the ire of her neighbor, Lord Avedon. He suspects her of being a low-bred schemer bent on ensnaring his ward, a witless, wealthy young nephew and Lucy’s landlord. Thus begins a furious campaign: Avedon swears to evict Lucy Percy by any means necessary, and Lucy is equally determined to remain in her cottage and defy her tormentor.
As I wrote in my review of The Scandalous Wager, I have a strong dislike of books that are constructed around the hero being convinced that the heroine is a light-skirt. Usually, this concept leads to a dull, repetitive formula of hero-tests-heroine by kissing her, damns her for being turned on, and then gets convinced that heroine is a good girl for real. Rinse and repeat until the final pages.
However, Joan Smith handles this dynamic so well in The Waltzing Widow that it remains one of my favorite books of the year. I’ve read it twice! Smith accomplishes this feat by having Lucy–once she figures out Avedon’s game–actively encourage his misconception. In this way, she punishes him in return. At the same time, there is just enough misinformation about Lucy’s past and her marital status that Avedon is entirely justified in his conviction that Lucy is misrepresenting her social status (which, of course, she is).
Avedon’s foolish ward, Baron Bigelow, helps the plot because he has a personal history that justifies Avedon’s fears. The boy has already caused one scandal by almost marrying a different “widow,” many years his senior, with two children in tow.
The resulting war between Lucy and Avedon is delicious. They move their chess pieces, each trying to outwit the other. Their exchanges crackle. I could practically see the steam coming out of their ears. By the time they realize their growing attraction, Avedon has made such a fool of himself (I won’t say how!) that their union seems impossible.
As in Cousin Cecilia, Smith creates a cast of detailed, intriguing characters. Bigelow is the strongest, witless, stubborn, and chaffing under his guardian’s thumb. Cousin Morton, in a bit part, serves as a useful contrast to the other men in the book. Bishop Norris, in his brief appearances, is more than a stereotypical, stiff man of god.
Of course, other characters are pushed aside, and as usual it is the women. Two relatives of Avedon’s are broad caricatures, while Lucy’s aunt is mostly defined by her affinity for gardening. I wish that Smith had treated her female cast with as much sensitivity as she did in Cousin Cecilia.
But then, when a book is as excellent as The Waltzing Widow, I am prepared to accept a few shortcomings. Highly recommended.