[Warning: contains some mid-book spoilers, so if you don’t want to know anything apart from the blurb, look away now].
Well, that was different. I’m really torn on how to rate this. On the one hand, there’s an intriguing plot, a set of strong, complex characters and a nicely developed romance. On the other hand, the heroine is almost wilfully obtuse at times, refusing to see what’s under her nose or to ask the obvious questions. I can’t remember the last time I read a Regency romance written in the first person, so we see everything through her imperfect and somewhat immature gaze. As she struggles to understand the emotions and motives of the hero, so the reader is left to wonder, too, which is no bad thing. It does make the actions of some of the characters inexplicable, however.
The premise is an interesting one. Margaret Brinton made an unfortunate engagement two years earlier after falling in love with a man who only wanted her dowry to finance the mistress he was keeping. After she broke it off, he promptly married someone else, and Margaret’s been living down the scandal ever since. Now she’s determined to put the past behind her and find a husband she will never fall in love with, a man who won’t startle her with unpleasant revelations or break her heart. And she has another reason: her brother Daniel wants to marry the sister of the man who betrayed Margaret’s trust, but he won’t do it while she’s still unmarried.
So Margaret decides to attend a matchmaking house party, accompanied by her brother, and I stumbled a bit over this. Well-to-do Regency folks were very well-mannered, and rarely so vulgar as to openly discuss matchmaking or marriage requirements or dowries. There were house parties with matchmaking intentions, of course, because it was everyone’s business to ensure suitable matches were made, but it would be done a lot more subtly than this. I’d have liked a bit more explanation for the party, and why Margaret’s parents sent her there with only her brother for escort, instead of a proper chaperon.
At the first dinner, Margaret is introduced to two men, Mr Northam, who is a charming rogue and a rake, and Lord Williams, a baron, who is less charming but has a nice smile. They are cousins but with some hostility between them, and Margaret becomes the focus of their battle. She sets her sights on capturing Northam as her husband, but Lord Williams seems determined to interfere, before rudely walking out on Margaret’s musical performance, humiliating her. There’s an element of Pride and Prejudice about this, with grumpy Lord Williams in the Darcy role and seductive Northam as Wickham, while Margaret is every bit as prejudiced as Elizabeth Bennet. But when she’s summoned home early, thwarted in her efforts to win Northam, she discovers that her father has promised her hand in marriage to Lord Williams.
This raises a thousand questions in my mind, but principally — why? Why on earth would any sensible father agree to a betrothal to a man who turns up on the doorstep and says, hello, you don’t know me but I’d like to marry your daughter, whom I barely know? I have a lot of problems with Margaret’s parents, but this is the big one. What possible excuse could he give for wanting to marry her? And that’s without even going into the whole business of arranged marriages, which was illegal by Regency times. And another quibble — why did her parents not tell her who they had betrothed her to (and why!), so that she didn’t fall into embarrassing error when he turned up? Why didn’t she ask them why they chose this man?
But betrothed she is, and she feels powerless to refuse, so the grumpy baron comes to stay and proves to be not at all grumpy away from the malign influence of his cousin. The story definitely shifts up a gear at this point as he tries his best to break through her self-imposed barriers. And when he fails, and realises that she really doesn’t want to marry him, he does the honourable thing and releases her from the engagement. So at this point, I’m liking him quite a lot, as he seems to be morphing from grumpy interfering villain to gentlemanly romantic hero.
Unfortunately there’s another outbreak of why why why, when Margaret is basically forced to go and stay at Lord W’s house with her father. Why would her parents do anything so cruel and frankly improper? Why do they not have any other friends and relations they might go to (apparently)? Why does Lord W immediately revert back to his grumpy persona? This is a recurring issue throughout the book, which (quite literally) kept me awake at nights wondering just what was going on in these people’s heads, and most of these questions are left unresolved. Perhaps that’s the author’s intent, to leave such questions as an exercise for the reader, but I found it frustrating.
As you can tell, I was at this point very swept up in the story, reading on long past my bedtime to find out how it ends. I’m happy to report that the final section of the book rises to the occasion beautifully. There’s some very powerful writing, some interesting symbolism concerning the lake, a glorious moment where Margaret lays into her immature brother, and a fine romantic denouement, which is both tender and very funny. The reason for the antagonism between Northam and Lord W is an easily-guessed one which makes them both look very bad in their treatment of Margaret. I was disappointed that the reveal came from Northam. A bit of honesty from Lord W would have helped his cause no end, but there it is.
This is the author’s debut published work, and it shows enormous promise. The talent is there, and although there’s a little unevenness in the characters, there’s some overwriting (’The creamy broth and crushed almonds tasted like resolve and opportunity swirled together in a perfect blend of promise’) and some scenes seemed rather contrived (a carriage accident and who should happen along but Lord W…), it was still an absorbing and page-turning read, and I would have given it four stars but for one thing – the book is riddled with Americanisms. I’m not talking here about spelling differences (honor, parlor, etc) or words like gotten or passes instead of dies, which are commonplace and even I, pedant that I am, don’t much mind. I also don’t quibble over drapes or needlepoint or shimmying (first recorded in 1919; I told you I was a pedant) or vest or entry. I do very much mind American grammar like ‘write me’ instead of ‘write to me’ and ‘must come visit’ instead of ‘must come to visit’ and Parson Andrews instead of Mr (or Dr) Andrews. These cropped up on almost every page and I swear I tripped over every one. And although the English countryside was evoked rather well, I wasn’t convinced of the author’s grasp on Regency customs. I’ve mentioned the matchmaking house party, but Margaret’s issuing of dinner invitations on the fly, and the morning callers at Lord W’s house who came every day also grated.
Now, most readers will either not notice any of this or it won’t bother them, but it bothered me, a lot. I even flipped back to the first chapter at one point to check that the book really was set in England. So although this is an interesting debut with unusual depth, these problems and those pesky unanswered questions keep it to three stars for me.
I received an ARC of this book from Netgalley. The book will be released late February 2020.