Theo Aylmer wants nothing more than to teach chemistry within the hallowed walls of Cambridge. After ten years of study and climbing the professorial ranks, he is finally starting to achieve a measure of success. But then the unexpected death of his father draws Theo back to Cornwall and the roadside inn where he grew up. It’s the last place he wants to be and a corrupt local lord, a charming smuggler, and two meddlesome customs agents are only adding to his misery.
Philip Ludlow hasn’t had an easy life, but he’s made the most of a bad lot and is content to fill his days smuggling illegal French brandy to his local customers. The handsome new innkeeper is only making his job more enjoyable. But life as a smuggler is never safe and as Philip brings danger to Theo’s doorstep, decisions must be made. Will Theo flee to Cambridge or risk a new life with the roguish Philip?
The Blue Ribbon is set just a few years after the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 and follows the growing romance between a straight-laced professor of chemistry and a charming smuggler. Set primarily in Cornwall, we are given a few glimpses into the comfortable mantle of village life, but the story never has a distinctly coastal feel. This isn’t a detriment per sae, just an observation. Theo and Philip are both relatively well-developed characters and while Philip is a great deal easier to like, Theo is not without his merits. There is a measure of insta-love between these two, but it’s subtle rather than being done with a sledgehammer. Their romance is sweet and they seem a solid couple that is easy to champion. There is a secondary cast, who are given a fair amount of page time, in fact too much on occasion. But two in particular, the custom agents who dog Philip’s heels, remind me of the Reverend Thwackum and Mr. Square from Fielding’s Tom Jones. They provide a measure of malevolent comedic relief.
The first half of The Blue Ribbon is fairly strong and the story moves smoothly. Theo’s journey home makes for a compelling plot and there is a realism that gives everything a boost. Unfortunately the second half of the book just gets silly. A relatively well-defined plot gives way to a Scooby Doo episode and the story never recovers. This section was especially disappointing because the first half was so strong. Everything is resolved too neatly and too swiftly, which just shredded the realism that existed before. In addition, while The Blue Ribbon is set just after the 1745 Jacobite rising, the author never gives much historical background on this and the storytelling suffers ever so slightly as a result. Unless you’re a student of history or, at the very least a fan of the Outlander novels/show, the average reader would benefit from some historical explanation.
The Blue Ribbon started off strong and has a pair of relatively engaging protagonist. While the second half of the book devolves into silliness and tired plot devices, The Blue Ribbon as a whole still has enough to recommend it to readers who enjoy sweet romances and historical fiction.