From the desk of Katie Patchell
Recently, I discovered the joy that comes from not reading the description on the back of a book prior to opening page one. When I was asked to review The Work of Art, I heard “Regency” and “Laurel Ann recommends” and I was all for it. After downloading this novel, I opened my Kindle edition to a story as beautiful, atmospheric, and arresting as its haunting cover—one that captured me from the very first line…
“Captain Arthur Heywood had never seen such an ill-mannered assortment of canines in his life.”
…to the very last line, with its soul-satisfying conclusion.
When Phyllida Satterthwaite’s grandfather dies, she is plucked from her freedom in the Devonshire countryside and sent to Town to the constrained, shallow world that her vile aunt and uncle and odious cousins bask in. She lives for the few nature-filled walks she can take, with her dogs as her only companions. When she meets the solemn but kind Captain Heywood, Philly discovers that she’s not the only one yearning to be free from London society’s iron rules.
Captain Arthur Heywood, ex-Corinthian and ex-soldier, is facing his own bleak future. His life is ruled by the terms set by his injuries. His memories of the Napoleonic Wars and what gave him his scars haunt his dreams, as do the visions of the carefree life he’s lost. When Arthur meets Philly by chance he finds someone who quietly treats him with the same intuitive kindness she treats her dogs—which he quickly finds is a compliment of the highest sort.
As circumstances throw them together more often, Philly believes that their friendship alone can make life bearable. Soon she discovers that there’s an obstacle even she can’t face alone namely, the Duke of Moreland—The Collector—a man who always gets whatever he wants, even if it’s a replacement for his previous wife, the woman who died by accidental drowning. Or was it an accident? Arthur’s surprising solution, a marriage of convenience, brings danger and potential awkwardness…but could it also bring love and healing for them both?
Philly is a remarkable heroine, one who is idolized for her unique eyes—one brown, one blue. One of the main crises early in the novel—and an interesting beginning to the plot—is her realization that there’s a very short distance between intense admiration and exploitation. What I loved about her is that she is always quietly confident in who she is and the innate goodness to be found in people. This optimism was refreshing, as was her view that beauty goes beneath the fad of the moment or physical perfection. And no matter how many scars or snarls, a person (or dog!) is always worth saving. The Work of Art muses on the meaning of art and the value of perfection. It asks: Must beauty always stem from perfection? This novel resoundingly answers “No,” and it is this process of answering the question of what is a true ‘work of art’ that Matthews makes so fascinating.
“Unbidden, an image of Captain Heywood sprang to her mind. With it came a distinct pang of sadness. Those brief moments with him had been the closest thing to companionship she’d had since coming to London. The way he’d looked at her. The way he’d listened. But it was more than that. She’d felt something when she was with him. A kinship. A shared sense of…something.” (58)
Arthur’s journey to fight his own demons coincides with Philly’s inner and outer struggles, and I loved that they shared their individual ‘fights’ as a team. He takes the role that many heroines have in books nowadays (i.e. finding his confidence in his abilities and appearance), and this in no way emasculates him. His quest is as relatable as Philly’s. They both exemplify living with courage despite physical, emotional, and mental scars, and this universality raises them above being two-dimensional characters on a page.
Regarding the romance, I’ve never seen a marriage of convenience written so well. To write this kind of relationship is a delicate business, and Matthews turns this trope upside down to make a beautiful friendship-turned-romance. There’s humor aplenty, but also seriousness, sweetness, and the awkwardness innate to this type of relationship. It’s also refreshing to see characters communicate clearly with each other; in one of my favorite examples, they resolved a potential marriage-shattering subplot with only one conversation. As a reader frustrated by the drama that hinges on miscommunication, I was so relieved to see this quick resolution. My only negative is that towards the 50-70% range of the novel, the workings of Philly and Arthur’s marriage (especially emotional and physical intimacy) took center stage. While they still had sweet/amusing/important encounters, I wish this section had been shortened. However, towards the 70% range, the plot picked up speed again.
The Work of Art is a book that keeps you guessing until the very last chapter. I appreciated that, as with life, there were many different subplots and threads, villains and almost-villains, heroes and semi-heroes, that made the story so vivid. In its pages are romance, adventure, bravery, and humor…and my absolute favorite—the universal themes of courage, loss, and restoration. I highly recommend this enchanting and thought-provoking novel for your Summer 2019 to-read list.
5 out of 5 Stars
- The Work of Art: A Regency Romance, by Mimi Matthews
- Perfectly Proper Press (2019)
- Trade paperback and eBook (390) pages
- ISBN: 978-1733056915
- Genre: Regency Romance, Historical Romance
We received a review copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Austenprose is an Amazon affiliate. Cover image courtesy of Perfectly Proper Press © 2019; text Katie Patchell © 2019, austenprose.com.