The Undoing of a Lady is the final book in the "Fortune's Folly" trilogy, and this fact was very obvious while reading it. While I understand that the books in a trilogy need to be connected by an overreaching story arc to work together successfully, I was disappointed by just how much this final novel relied upon the previous two books. I doubt that it would be possible to enjoy this book without first reading its predecessors.
Nathaniel (“Nat”) Waterhouse is about to marry heiress Flora Minchin and become fifty thousand pounds richer. He doesn't love her and never will, but is prepared to sacrifice love for the money he so desperately needs. Lady Elizabeth Scarlet isn't prepared to let Nat make that sacrifice. In order to prevent the marriage from taking place, she locks him in a building from which he won't be able to escape. She plans on staying there with him until he misses his wedding. When Nat points out that this will ruin her reputation, tempers flare. With neither of them thinking clearly, it's only a matter of time before passion reigns and Lizzie loses her virginity to Nathaniel, and in the process realizing that she has always loved him.
Unfortunately, Nat doesn't experience the same revelation of love, though he does realize that he can't go through with marrying Flora. He still needs the money the marriage would have provided and marrying Lizzie would both provide it and free her from her family. He forces her to marry him, in the process making it very clear that love isn't part of what's being offered. But will Lizzie be able to settle for anything less?
The writing is, as always, stunning. Cornick's voice is smooth and highly readable, and Lizzie is a fascinating character. The impression I'd formed while reading the last two books was that she was simply a frustrating hoyden, and that I wouldn't enjoy reading about her. I could not have been more wrong, and yet more right at the same time. Wrong because, over the course of this book, I came to understand exactly why Lizzie acted the way she did, and right because reading about how she felt was heartbreaking.
Lizzie's parents are both dead, and neither of her brothers has treated her the way they should have. Everyone she's every loved has let her down, and as a result, she is severely depressed for a large part of the novel. She desperately needs someone strong enough to support her, someone who can love her the way she needs to be loved. Based on Nat's actions, I have a hard time believing he's that person, and I have an even harder time understanding why Lizzie fell in love with him.
Nat is a frustrating character for many reasons, though his treatment of Lizzie certainly plays the largest part. His behavior is often puzzling; a man whose job involves dealing with criminals on a daily basis would surely understand that a blackmailer is never satisfied, and his sudden reversals of opinion regarding Lizzie's temperament left me bewildered.
But it was his treatment of Lizzie that really made me dislike him. I think Miles describes Nat's actions best when he tells Nat that “Lizzie has been in love with you for months and you have ridden roughshod over her feelings and emotions with a willful cruelty.” Yes, Lizzie's actions are often immature, but they're understandable and, as such, forgivable. Nat's callous cruelty was the cause of many of them, and the fact that he manages to be aroused when she's dying inside made it impossible for me to see him as a sympathetic hero.
While Nat and Lizzie's story forms the main part of the plot, there are also several back stories. Two other couples either find their happy endings or progress to the point where it is easy to believe that they could move in that direction, there's a murder to solve, and the conflict over the reinstatement of Fortune's Folly's medieval laws finally comes to a conclusion. The novel neatly ties up all the loose ends from the previous two books.
At the end of the day, romance is about happy endings, and I can't bring myself to believe in Nat and Lizzie's. I don't think he can give her hers, and I'm not sure that he deserves his own. For me, The Undoing of a Lady was a disappointing ending to the "Fortune's Folly" trilogy.