One summer night, Edward Alcott gives in to temptation and kisses Lady Julia Kenney in a dark garden. However, the passion she stirs within him is best left in the shadows as she weds his twin, the Earl of Greyling. But when tragedy strikes, to honor the vow he makes to his dying brother, Edward must pretend to be Greyling until the countess delivers her babe.
After her husband returns from a two-month sojourn, Julia finds him changed. Bolder, more daring, and more wicked—even if he does limit their encounters to kisses. With each passing day, she falls more deeply in love.
For Edward the embers of desire sparked on that long-ago night are quickly rekindled. He yearns to be her husband in truth. But if she discovers his ruse, she will despise him—and English law prevents him from marrying his brother’s widow. Yet he must dare to risk everything and reveal his secrets if he is to truly take all.
First things first: as hard as it is to do, this is going to be a spoiler-free review. All of the events I mention are either in the jacket copy or the first few pages of chapter one. I’ll still refer to later events, of course, but give nothing away while still getting most of my thoughts out.
Because oh, the thoughts.
The Earl Takes All is a tightrope walk of the highest order. Earl Albert and identical twin Edward have gone off to Africa for one last adventure but tragedy strikes. With his last breaths Albert asks Edward to take his place, to make sure pregnant Julia delivers their baby safely. He agrees out of honor, even though he isn’t sure if he can pull the stunt off.
There is so much that can go wrong, adding a healthy dose of angst – will Edward be found out? By whom? How? If yes, how would he recover? And if no, how would he live with the guilt? More than that, there are many places where weak characterization or a rushed scene would have pulled apart the underpinnings of the entire book. Heath manages everything masterfully, making sure the plot moves along while characters have all the human feelings you’d expect them to have.
You know how sometimes there’s a jump in time and it’s used to solve everything? “A month later and they’re friends again! Of course!” That doesn’t happen here. While the action is moved ahead now and then the relationships stay basically the same. It allows the characters to say, “I’ve been thinking a lot over the past few weeks and while I’m still not comfortable with xyz, I feel like I can talk about it now.” All of Heath’s characters are people, and only give you whiplash when it makes total sense (like that one time when… ~zips lips~).
Heath trusts the reader. Many authors nudge you about Whatever Thing endlessly but Heath knows we won’t forget. She’ll mention it early on and let it sit in a corner of your brain for 100, 200, 300 pages before drawing the thread back in. I love that.
The first half of this book is amazing. Everything feels real, without a stray emotion or action in sight. At the midpoint there’s a Big Happening and then things slow down. A lot. To a crawl. Here’s the thing – looking back it was totally necessary. If the action wasn’t allowed to drop I would have been questioning people’s sanity.
It still affected my reading experience, though. By 60% I was thinking, “What the heck is left to drive the rest of this book?”. Then there’s another Happening with two chapters left and I thought, “How will she wrap this up in time?!” It’s a roller coaster I wasn’t expecting.
If I were grading purely on difficulty and execution of an idea The Earl Takes All would be five stars, easily. I’m incredibly impressed that she took this thing on and did it so well. I want to read more romance like this, stories that push boundaries while staying true to their historical periods and human emotion.
That being said… the drop in action nearly killed the experience for me. I’m not a big lover of angst and while it’s delicious, you’re up to your eyeballs in it. One misunderstanding in particular left me skimming pages because I couldn’t take it any more.
So even though I will gush about this book and push it on friends I only feel comfortable giving it three and a half stars. If you like angst it will be a four star read for you, and it’s an easy recommend to anyone that likes romances that stray from the usual. Heath is one of my favorite authors and I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.