Born to be Wilde is James’ newest addition to her Wilde series, which features a ‘celebrity’ family of aristocrats, the Wildes, whose exploits are widely gossiped about and followed in 18th century England.
This installment follows Parth Sterling, an orphaned cousin raised with the Wilde family who is now a wildly successful businessman and banker, and Lavinia Grey, a once-wealthy heiress whose laudanum-addicted mother has left in a bit of a financial pinch. Lavinia finds herself in need of a wealthy husband and though Parth has refused to marry her, he offers to find her a suitable husband.
I love James’ writing but I haven’t been terribly enamored with the Wilde series. They’re a little more focused on main character drama, when what I’ve always most enjoyed about James’ work is her incorporation of friendships, particularly female friendships. This book was no exception – it was satisfactory but not a stand-out.
Lavinia and Parth had a fiery, annoyed-by-you-but-I-really-like-you relationship which was fun to follow; I definitely enjoyed the bantering between them. I felt some of the conflict was a tad bit forced, but the chemistry was real and both of the characters were good people, the kind you’d want to hang out with. Lavinia was on a journey of learning to value herself and her talents, and I thought that was a really nice story line. I particularly liked the way it played out; it felt both very empowering and true to the time period.
It may have been that I was reading it just before bedtime but I found it hard to keep track of all the side characters – I kept on forgetting who was who and how they were connected to each other. I’ve read all the books in this series and maybe I was just tired, but none of the side characters were on the pages long enough to be well-developed and they kept on slipping out of my mind.
One thing that James did really well was her treatment of Parth. Parth is an Indian-Anglo character; his mother was Indian and his father was British. He was sent to England when he was 5 and had lived there ever since. He’s very British culturally, but there is a definite acknowledgement that things are different for him because of his mixed heritage. And it’s rare to find an Indian lead in Western media so clearly represented as sexy (which Parth definitely was! This is one of James’ steamier novels.)
James includes an afterword discussing the relatively accepting attitudes of British society towards Anglo-Indian children in the late 1700s*, which is reflected in the novel (Lord Liverpool, prime minister 1812-1827, was of Anglo-Indian descent.) This was such a wise decision on her part – it gave her some space where she could include instances of Parth being treated differently, judged and a bit othered, but it didn’t need to be a focal point of his experience as a British citizen. And because she chose to make him culturally British, she didn’t have the opportunity to accidentally mangle Indian culture.
From James’ research, it sounds like Parth’s experience would have been fairly typical for an Anglo-Indian child aristocratic child in this time period. It was a really clever way of including a character of color that was both appropriate for the time period and for the author’s own experience. I think James has deftly and sensitively added an Anglo-Indian character to the historical romance genre.
So I definitely recommend the book if you’re looking for a unique hero, if you’re a fan of a really nice personal growth journey for the heroine, or if you’d like a good bit of tension between the main characters. If you’re looking for a supportive female friend group or if you’re not a fan of books that rely heavily on other books in their series, than alas, this may not be the book for you.
*Attitudes drastically changed during the Victorian period, for the worse.