Historical Historical: Lisa Kleypas's Dreaming of You
Okay, so, of course, I loved this one. I ADORE a wounded hero—physically or emotionally, either way, I’m sorry, I’m sick!!—and I love a hero who is straight up obsessed with his love interest, so Derek Craven (unsurprisingly) really worked for me. I love when she ~heals~ him and, boy, this book is PEAK she heals him. Before I get into all of that, though, I feel that it needs to be highlighted just how good Lisa Kleypas’s writing is in this book. In the broader literary community, historical romance doesn’t tend to get a lot of love for the quality of its writing (to understate the case LOL), but I would challenge anyone not to admire the writing in this book. The prose never calls attention to itself or takes up too much space but nevertheless I found myself stopping occasionally to admire a particularly deft turn of phrase or a little detail that hints at but does not outright explain deeper dynamics—Kleypas can do so much work with just a few words and that, to me, is the mark of great writing.
There are a few other aspects of Dreaming of You which I see as Lisa Kleypas hallmarks. First, I love the complexity of her characters—in all the Lisa Kleypas books that I have read, she always creates characters who feel real and behave in ways that feel deeply human. While her heroines—like Sara Fielding—are often sweet, smart, and have strong moral compasses, they always avoid the Perfect Angel syndrome that can be hard to shake in historical romances. So often in historicals, the heroine might feel like she is a bad person or flawed, etc., but she comes off to the reader as almost too perfect—it is a particularly pernicious problem in historicals became often the time period constraints on women inhibit their experiences and stigmatize transgressions that, to us, are no longer taboo. Lisa Kleypas avoids this issue with the most grace I have ever seen from a historical author—and without changing the essential nature of her heroines. For instance, in this book, Sara Fielding is this virginal, innocent heroine, but she is also a person with tangible, palpable flaws. For instance, she gets engaged to her milquetoast suitor from back home after meeting Derek---or, alternatively, when she feels rejected by Derek, she decides to alight into the night with his gaming hell rival, Ivo Jenner.
I also love how Kleypas’s books tend not to end with the marriage of the main couple but show their early married life and the conflicts therein. I always love it so much and think it does great things for the book. I wish more authors made this move outside of marriage of convenience narratives.
Anyway, Dreaming of You is really phenomenal for a variety of reasons, but chief among them, I think, is how, in this book, Kleypas has the ratio of conflict and harmony between her main characters down to a science. Very seldom did I feel annoyed with what the characters were doing and I almost never felt like they were being separated unnecessarily. I also thought that neither Sara nor Derek had annoying emotional hang ups—like even though their marriage was sort of brought about by circumstances, Sara doesn’t doubt Derek’s love for her. She knows that he is obsessed with her and she isn’t constantly doubting that fact, which made his attachment to her feel all the more real.
Is Derek Craven my favorite romance hero of all time? While I am not quite ready to bestow this laurel upon him, I am struggling to think of a hero I like MORE. Derek Craven is great because he melds alpha traits and softer characteristics in a pretty appealing medley—also, his reasons for having emotional issues are much more sympathetic than your typical alpha aristocrat with daddy issues. Furthermore, I was impressed by how Kleypas makes his experience and her innocence feel fresh—because he has been forced to be sexually experienced by circumstance (and much of that experience was complicated or even traumatic) his scruples about sullying Sara by association felt much more understandable. Their dynamic felt much more authentic than when the hero has been engaging in a bacchanalia of sensual delights for the past decade and then falls in love with a virginal girl ashamed of her own desires. Because of the lack of affection in Derek's life experiences, they felt on equal footing---it felt like Derek had sexual experience but little love in his life, whereas Sara had a loving family but little sexual experience.
When I listened to the Fated Mates episode about Dreaming of You, they noted that the depiction of Derek’s former mistress, Joyce, engages in the evil-other-woman trope and felt problematic because she is so demonized. I usually hate this trope, too, so I had girded myself for a characterization that I would find irritating. However, I have to say that I didn’t really mind! I think a big reason why I felt this way was because Joyce being evil was a main part of the plot from the beginning. I really don’t like it when the former mistress or lover is evil and it is revealed that she is evil/she becomes a problem in the third act—not only is it predictable in this capacity, but it is often used as a way to highlight the heroine’s goodness and make clear why the hero chooses her, etc. I didn’t mind this depiction of Joyce as much, though, because she is a problem from the beginning of the book; she is literally the reason Sara and Derek meet. Sara saves him from the men that Joyce sent to attack him. Therefore, it felt easier to categorize her as a particular woman and not a type of woman. Also, the fact that she was an aristocratic woman and an in-group member of the ton—a group that has both excluded Derek and given rise to his success—meant she embodied his love/hate relationship with the aristocracy. While I don’t generally love an evil ex-mistress, I don’t think it would have been as satisfying if Derek was being stalked by Ivo Jenner instead. You perhaps could take out the antagonist all together, but the book wouldn’t be as dramatic or angsty, I don’t think. Overall, in this one instance at least, the evil ex-mistress didn't really bother me.
Overall, I LOVED Dreaming of You. It is an amazing gaming hell book and a stellar historical romance. One of my new all-time favorites, for sure!