I am the newest member of the passionate Deanna Raybourn fan club. This historical novel, set in 1920, has the snappy banter and flirtatious manner of 1930s screwball rom coms with the bouncy, breezy intrigues of Lauren Willig. Add a dash of Indiana Jones, and you have this delightful novel.
I was sucked in from the first page, and completely taken with our impetuous heroine, exotic locale, and yummy romance. The story opens with Poppy March Hammond attempting to crawl out a church window in her wedding dress, having realized she absolutely cannot marry her fiancee, the dullish but rich Gerald. A handsome and mostly sanguine clergyman, Sebastian, helps her out by whisking her away to Devon, where she shelters with her estranged father. There, she learns her paternal aunt, Lady Julia Grey (yes, that one!) was a detective and spy, and Poppy is inspired. Deciding to seek out Sebastian to thank him for his help, she discovers he wasn't quite what he implied, and that's when the real adventure starts.
Setting off for the Middle East as the companion to a retired Colonial working on his memoirs, Poppy embarks on some amateur sleuthing, helped by her extremely capable and mysterious lady's maid, Masterson. She's flirted with heavily by a variety of hot men, and gets whisked into some serious hot water with her investigation.
Everything about this story worked for me, and it was a playful, frothy read that was perfect for sleepy nights after work and busy weekends -- I could dive in and escape when I needed. I laughed out loud more than once: Poppy is delightfully snarky, a lovely mix of ingenue and flapper, and Raybourn gives Poppy and her men some wonderfully flirtatious banter that I just lapped up.
The setting couldn't get any more exotic and escapist -- the Middle East in the 1920s -- and Poppy is the perfect companion to travel with. Admiring everything, open and curious, she plunges into life with vim I wish I could channel. (On a more serious note, I'll add I appreciated Raybourn's handling of attitudes about colonialism in this era. It would have been inauthentic to have a cast of characters who understood why the divvying up of the Middle East by European powers was bad, but unapologetically pro-colonialist attitudes would have rang oddly in a novel like this. Raybourn manages to recognize, name, and present the pro-colonialist sentiments through her characters while having our heroine feel uneasy about those attitudes -- all without seeming anachronistic or heavily whitewashed. It's a real skill to manage that -- respectful without getting preachy -- and it made me really able to appreciate the story.)
While loosely connected to Raybourn's previous novel, City of Jasmine through a minor character, and in the same universe as her Lady Julia Grey novels, this is a delicious standalone that one can dive into without being familiar with the other books (as I was).