Thoughts After Reading:
When I first saw the varied reviews for Manda Collins' How to Entice an Earl, I knew it was going to be an interesting read... one way or another. The novel turned out to be enjoyable in many respects. The writing itself is well done, with a gradually unfolding backstory, a fast-paced plot, and the occasional bit of intelligent humor infused in the narration. The protagonists are also fully fleshed out as multi-dimensional characters. There were several times when their decisions annoyed or exasperated me, but their behavior was always true to their personality and life experiences. With all that being said, I quickly understood why some of reviews found the romance in the book to be somewhat tepid. It wasn't that the romantic development was nonexistent - there are any number of endearing scenes in which the characters enjoy each other's company, bicker with each other, or enter into passionate embraces. The issue seems to stem from the fact that the characters are so close to each other before the first chapter. They are already friends, already attracted to each other, and - even if they refuse to admit to themselves or their friends - are already more than half in love with each other. As a result, there is little to change about the relationship except to give them more time together and let them open their eyes. The story has no choice but to focus on the lengthy mystery plot, and use it as the only real obstacle keeping the couple apart almost from the very beginning.
With her two cousins having found love in previous novels, the heroine is the last "wallflower" of the group that is still single. She would like to find the same marital bliss as her cousins, but her immediate priority is writing a novel set in the less respectable areas of London. The heroine is a very headstrong woman, someone who doesn't take no for an answer and who becomes defensive easily. Growing up, her parents belittled her about being a woman... so she reacts strongly to any perceived slight due to her gender or short stature. She is also a very loyal woman, particularly to her younger brother. The reader finds out that the main reason she wishes to include gambling hells and the like in her book is because she hopes it will help her understand her wastrel brother. The hero, meanwhile, is a rather honorable man who has served a number of years in the military. He is quite attracted to the heroine, but has no plans to marry anytime soon. The hero suffers a significant amount of guilt that he wasn't home to prevent his sister from committing suicide, and - as a result of being another woman who he cares about - often tries to shelter the heroine. The plot starts out with the heroine attending a gambling hell in the interest of research. While there, she comes across a gentleman who was recently murdered. The hero is also at the hell on the behalf of the Home Office, investigating a possible connection between that man and the heroine's brother to a traitorous organization. He hopes the heroine's brother is not involved, for her sake. As the heroine uncovers more about the murder and possible suspicions that her brother was involved, she abandons her plans for a novel and delves headfirst into trying to solve the mystery. The hero and heroine frequently butt heads, with the heroine trying to stay at the forefront of the investigation and the hero trying to protect her. Complications ensue as the hero and heroine gradually fail to resist their attraction to each other, and eventually realize what they feel is truly love. The final resolution to the conflicts was moderately enjoyable, although the awkward brothel scene towards the end ruined any chance of me giving the novel a higher rating.
I am not nearly as much of a fan of friends-to-lovers plotlines as I once was, and Manda Collins' How to Entice an Earl exemplifies why. The novel was a perfectly well-written mystery novel that included excellent characterizations and meaningful interactions. And yet the romance aspect of the book seemed to be lacking in some respects, because there just wasn't that much that could be deepened within the relationship that wasn't already there. Overall, How to Entice an Earl failed to become my favorite novel in Collins' Ugly Ducklings trilogy - that honor remains with How to Romance a Rake - but it was still a very enjoyable conclusion to the series.