I’ve had to sit on my review of A Thing of Beauty as I worked to gather my thoughts about the book. I really enjoyed it, but have difficulty expressing why. At first glance, A Thing of Beauty is a historical romantic suspense, but it’s not your typical historical, romantic or suspenseful novel.
My first challenge was to get rid of My Fair Lady’s Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison in my mind as the characters Eliza and Henry. It wasn’t too difficult as the Eliza and Henry of Schwarz’s world are younger and a bit grittier.
In the beginning, Eliza escapes from a brutal step-father who has sold her to another man. She was found beaten and barely alive by Henry, who takes her home and nurses her to health. These two should be complete opposites; Eliza from a poor, barely educated family and Henry, from wealth and privilege. However, the two forge a friendship over books and a curiosity about the world. They also become embroiled a mystery involving sadism and sex trafficking.
Two things really struck me about the book. One was the contrasts. The world outside of Eliza and Henry is dark, violent, heinous, but the world between Eliza and Henry is wonderfully sweet and pure. Both of them have reasons to be bitter, jaded and untrusting (especially Eliza), and yet, they’ve retained enough of themselves to forge an incredible bond. And while Eliza is in the inferior position, her friendship and love do as much to heal Henry as his help healed her.
The second thing that stood out was the untraditional ending. It made me think of Jane Eyre and how I’ve always wondered if Bronte considered not having Mrs. Rochester die at the end, and if she hadn’t, would Jane have accepted Edward’s invite to be his mistress, now that Jane had her own source of financial security. In A Thing of Beauty, Eliza is faced with the same societal constraints as Jane. She needs marriage to provide a secure future, and a good marriage won’t come her way if she isn’t a virgin. But she tosses that aside for Henry. While she’s young and naive about some things, she knows exactly what she’s risking. Of course, this risk is lessened a bit through Henry’s help in security her family’s property (an inn), which provides her with income, but still, her choice to be his mistress will caste her in a low light in society.
In a traditional romance, Henry would find a way to marry her and they’d have their HEA. However, at least in this installment, that’s not what happens. While Henry is no hurry to marry, in order to introduce his illegitimate daughter into proper society when she’s of age, he needs to marry well, and that would not be the case with Eliza. Eliza knows and accepts this. So while you don’t get the love and marriage HEA, you do get two people who love and care for each other, who are together because they want to be, and that is romantic.
Of course, the die-hard romantic in me hopes that will change in further installments, but so far Schwarz is remaining true to the times in which the book is set, which adds more realism.
It should be noted that many parts of the book are violent and gritty, and that the love scenes between Eliza and Henry are detailed. I enjoyed all of it, but some readers who might not be expecting it might be be surprised by it.
I’m looking forward to future installments of the series and have my fingers crossed that Eliza and Henry will eventually have their HEA!