Whispers in the Reading Room by Shelley Gray is so very typical of me. Set in Gilded Age Chicago (just after the World's Fair closes), there's some mystery, a hero with a dubious reputation, and a librarian heroine. Never mind the cover art. Published by Zondervan (an inspirational imprint of Harpercollins), my curiosity was piqued. Wendy catnip. While I wouldn't say that curiosity killed the cat in this instance, this turned out to be a slog of a read.
Lydia Bancroft is a librarian, a gently born lady who has fallen on hard times after the death of her father. The only hope of securing her future, and returning her mother to their former lifestyle, she must marry well. She's on the verge of doing that (so she thinks), when she finds herself intrigued by a mysterious patron who frequents her reading room.
Sebastian Marks was born on the wrong side of the tracks, his mother a prostitute, his father unknown. Through sheer grit and determination, Sebastian has become one of the most feared men in Chicago, owner a notorious gambling hall / bar. A big deal is made over the fact that he doesn't deal in women however, so like he's totally OK. Anyway, he's smitten with Lydia from afar, knowing she's way too good for him. However, when he spies her odious fiance' man-handling her in a hotel dining room, he swoops in to save the day. Her engagement now kaput, her mother positively apoplectic, Lydia and Sebastian become friends. That is until a shocking murder and Sebastian's over stimulated sense of self pity rear their ugly heads.
From a marketing standpoint this book is endlessly intriguing. Technically it's an inspirational. I guess. Sort of. But honestly? Outside of a few mentions of scripture and prayer this easily could be marketed as simply a "gentle romance" and it would have been fine. Also, while the sensuality of this story is very G-rated, I'll admit that I'm surprised I haven't seen more fire and brimstone reviews for this one. Sebastian is a club owner. He makes his living off of gambling and liquor. Yes, he doesn't deal in prostitutes (minor detail), but gambling is illegal. There's mention of bribing cops. And, let me repeat, THIS IS AN INSPIRATIONAL. Now obviously, I don't have a problem with this per se. I wouldn't consider faith to be a big driving theme in this story. It's there, but it's a light touch. The whole thing is such a dichotomy that even as I grew frustrated with the story I kept circling back around to this point. For an inspirational the plot points of the hero's background sure are risky.
So where does it go wrong? One word: Lydia. Good Lord is this girl clueless. Naive doesn't begin to cover it. To make matters worse the author keeps trying to sell the fact that she's "so smart" because she's a librarian and reads a lot. Well for someone who supposedly reads a lot (including Chicago newspapers) she sure is as dumb as a post when it comes to "the real world." Normally I would say this fits the time period and her character. She is a gently born lady after all and gently born ladies weren't expected to know much of anything that didn't involve needlepoint and playing the piano. But Lydia has fallen from grace. She's having to pawn family possessions to keep a roof (a ramshackle townhouse) over her head. Her mother puts the B in bitter. She's working for a living. To have her still be so naive is just annoying. To put it bluntly, if you dumped Lydia in the middle of the woods, all alone, she'd curl up into a little ball and be dead within 30 minutes.
In contrast, Sebastian is all wounded hero with a dark past which means, brace yourself, the romance here is Grade A, 100% Pure Rescue Fantasy. Lydia is the precious snowflake who cannot get her hands dirty and Sebastian is the hero determined to keep her in a gilded cage all while pulling a Pullman car's worth of self-pity behind him. And while Lydia has a nice moment of railing against Sebastian when he behaves like a jackass in the end, he does very little work to win her back and repent for his idiocy. I pretty much wanted these two shot dead by a gang of ruffians by the time it was all said and done.
This is marketed as the third book in the Chicago World's Fair Mysteries series. It stands alone extremely well, although this is much more a romance than a mystery - with the shocking murder not occurring until the final third of the book. Even then the identity of the whodunit wasn't exactly much of a mental stretch.
I liked Gray's writing style and thought she handled the historical settings and details well, but nothing else about this story moved me. If anything I was surprisingly close to DNF'ing it because I was so sick of Lydia's naivete and Sebastian's overbearing attitude, but persevered because I was that close to the finish. Were there intriguing risky elements? Certainly. But at the end of the day this Rescue Fantasy romance with a helpless heroine and an overbearing hero protecting her (constantly) meant it read very old-fashioned. Oh, what might have been.
Final Grade = C-