Julia London's (real name Dinah Dinwiddie) The Year of Living Scandalously is the first book in her Secrets of Hadley Green series. It came up in my third Reading Roulette selection, and I read it with blazing speed. Warning: spoilers abound in this review.
The primary mystery of Hadley Green is the disappearance of the Ashwood jewels, for which a talented carpenter named Mr. Scott was tried and executed in 1793. Miss Lily Boudine, upon whose testimony the conviction largely rested, has felt troubled ever since, although she left Ashwood and England soon after to be raised by her Irish relations. The jewels were never recovered.
Now, the year is 1808. Lily has inherited Ashwood and its mysteries, but is unwilling to disrupt her Continental travel plans to assume her responsibilities, sending her cousin Keira in her stead to look after things. Lily and Keira look enough alike to be mistaken for one another, which is just what the Ashwood servants do upon her arrival. An impulsive Keira allows the misapprehension to continue in order to make herself useful around the estate, which is close to financial ruin and requires an active manager. In the process of auctioning off some of the estate's horseflesh, she encounters Declan O'Connor, Earl of Donnelly. Keira and Declan have their own history of attraction and heartache in Ireland; while he trusts Keira's judgment not at all, Declan also does not reveal her charade.
After some persuasion, Keira actively enlists Declan's help in solving the mystery of the missing jewels and clearing Mr. Scott's name, as she has uncovered evidence that he was the former Lady Ashwood's lover. At the same time, Keira finds herself weighed down more and more by her deception as she grows close to the people of Hadley Green and works with them to plan a gala event for the benefit of the orphanage. Questions abound: When will Lily return and bring everything crashing down on Keira's head? Who is the mysterious and threatening Lord Eberlin who seems bent on destroying the estate? Will Keira and Declan's growing intimacy overwhelm their good sense and plunge them into a sexual relationship? (Yes.) What happened to the missing jewels?
What The Year of Living Scandalously suffers from is a surfeit of everything. Not only is there a central mystery that is unresolved by the end of the book, but Keira and Declan have their own past to resolve and her current difficulties to untangle as best as possible. Since it's the first book of a romance series, characters are introduced who will clearly be featured in subsequent books, but in this one they don't have all that much to do. Scenes of Keira and Declan methodically investigating the mystery outweighed those with them giving in to desire, which was refreshing on one hand--but on the other, confusing. The payoff didn't seem to reward the investment.
Let's say that you're given a book which promises a mystery. The characters are all invested in solving that mystery, and it's the reason given by the heroine for involving the hero and for continuing to impersonate her cousin. All your energy as a reader is directed at two things: getting the hero and heroine together, and solving the mystery. But London leaves readers with a huge cliffhanger when she ends the book with Lily under threat from Lord Eberlin and the jewels still missing. While this made me request The Revenge of Lord Eberlin because I WANT TO KNOW what happened, it also left me grumpy.
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