passion rating: warm
Have you ever met someone, listened to him introduce himself and talk for a while and then, suddenly, sadly, realize you’ve not registered a word he's said? I had the literary version of that experience with Ms. Hunter’s The Surrender of Miss Fairbourne. I read the novel — twice — and both times, as soon as I’d finished it, was hard-pressed to remember anything significant about it. When I think how I’d define this novel, the word that comes to mind is bland.
The heroine of this book is unsurprisingly a Miss Fairbourne, first name Emma. The Fairbourne family owns a famous and successful auction house in London which, until his recent death, was run by Emma’s father. Emma, despite the expectations of society, wishes to keep the auction house open. Emma has a brother, Robert, whom everyone but Emma believes is lost at sea and now dead. Emma is sure Robert is alive and is adamant the auction house be kept running until Robert returns to take its reins.
The auction house, however, is no longer owned solely by the Fairbourne family. Three years ago, unbeknownst to Emma, her father sold a half share to Darius Alfreton, the Earl of Southwaite. Darius is determined Emma will sell the auction house. Not only does he think a woman couldn’t possibly run such a business (this is, after all, 1798), he believes that her father was engaged in shady business practices involving smugglers and he does not want his name to be associated with anything that would besmirch his reputation.
Emma wants to keep the auction house. Darius wants her to sell it. Emma tries several different tactics to delay Darius from taking any action that would gainsay her wishes. As Darius battles with Emma for control, he realizes he’s exceedingly attracted to her and decides that rather than trying to control her through argument, he’d be more successful and vastly more pleasured if he used seduction to get his way. Emma, who has had very little experience with men, finds Darius difficult to resist and soon their relationship is about both the fate of the auction house and whether or not the two will become lovers.
Ms. Hunter is a very good technical writer and she invests this book with historical authenticity. She effortlessly explicates the conflict between England and France and showcases the role smuggling played during this era. The class distinctions between Darius, an earl, and Emma, a woman from a family in trade, are portrayed credibly. Ms. Hunter has her doctorate in art history and her book is filled with details about art, the auction world, and the artists of the time. It’s all very accurate and not very interesting.
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