A Mary Balogh book is always worth reading, but this is the first of her recent books that I’ve tried and I’m pleased to see that the standard hasn’t slipped at all.
This has one of the most riveting premises I’ve come across: the Earl of Riverdale has just died, and to everyone’s shock, it’s discovered that he has been married twice. His first marriage produced a previously unknown daughter, Anna Snow, raised in an orphanage in Bath, while his second marriage, with a son and two daughters, was contracted bigamously. Anna Snow, now the Lady Anastasia Westcott, has inherited a huge fortune, a cousin has taken the title and entailed estates, and the expected heirs are bastards and get nothing.
Now there are enough plotholes in this to drive a postchaise and four through, complete with outriders. Since the first wife died a few months after the second, bigamous, marriage, why on earth didn’t the earl find some way to go through a legal marriage ceremony? And since the solicitor in Bath seemingly had all the documents for the first marriage, not to mention the only surviving will, why on earth did he not contact someone when the earl died? I’m sure there are convoluted reasons for this but still…
But the position is wonderful. For Anna, there’s the transition from the Bath orphanage to London society and unimaginable wealth. For the legal family (her grandmother and cousins) there’s the challenge of preparing her for her new role. And for the disinherited family, there’s the adjustment to a life outside society and loss of wealth. It’s all great stuff.
The whole extended family is introduced almost from the start, and a lot of reviews grumble about this – it’s hard to know who on earth everyone is, and how they’re related, especially as they get called by different names (title, or Aunt So-and-so, or Cousin So-and-so in the proper Regency fashion, with no concessions to modern readers). I rather liked this. We get the same confused sense of who-ARE-all-these-people that Anna herself has, and they do gradually sort themselves out as the book goes on. There’s also a family tree, for those who prefer to have everything laid out upfront. The only real point of confusion (for me) was in knowing exactly who the hero was initially, because there was more than one candidate and it wasn’t at all obvious just at first.
Anna is that stalwart of Regency romance, the sturdily independent miss who knows her own value, thank you very much, and isn’t about to be browbeaten by the hectoring of her new relations, no matter how grand they may be. So she allows her hair to be cut, but only a little. She agrees to new clothes, but they are starkly plain rather than fashionably frilly and flounced. You know the sort of thing. I didn’t dislike her, but she seemed to my mind to be a little too modern in her views.
On the other hand, the hero, Avery (who’s a duke, needless to say), is a gloriously true-to-the-Regency character. Balogh doesn’t actually call him a dandy, but that’s probably the nearest description. He’s certainly effete, smaller than average and slender, dressed with elegance and very, very beautiful. He’s also very masculine, and people fear him, an odd but intriguing combination. He acts as if everything bores him, but when Anna happens into view, he finds her anything but boring. Unlike a great many other reviewers, I didn’t mind the martial arts element. It’s just a McGuffin, like any other premise for a plot or character, and if it’s a bit arbitrary, and not terribly plausible, well, that’s in the nature of McGuffins.
The romance is one of my favourite types, where the protagonists topple sideways into it, as much to their own surprise as everyone else’s. There are unexpected kisses, an unexpected (and very public) proposal and an equally unexpected acceptance. And all before anyone is really sure quite what’s going on. It can’t be (can it) love? I really enjoyed Avery, because although he embodies many of the standard qualities of a modern Regency hero (masculine, leader of society, vastly rich, eccentric, dripping with ennui), he’s also very surprising. He sees straight through Anna’s outward confidence to the terrified girl inside who nevertheless has a steel backbone, so when her newfound relations tell her that she absolutely mustn’t leave the house until they have polished her up, what does he do but whisk her straight out to stroll through the park. And then offers to kiss her. No matter the situation, he was never confounded, and also never conventional. Sometimes I laughed out loud at his outrageous behaviour, but of course he can get away with it (see previous comments about leader of society, duke, rich, etc.).
Once the two are married and we’ve got past the obligatory sex scene, things begin to unravel somewhat. I’d have been quite happy to end the book at that point, but no, we have to trawl once more through all the relatives (setting things up for the rest of the series) and then endure a final hiccup between the lovers. I got the point of it – in fact, I got the point a long time before that, when the hero’s childhood secrets were first revealed, but there’s a lot of repetition in the book (the letters to the friend in Bath are particularly annoying in that respect), so we got to hear it all again.
There are any number of problems with this book, and even the historical accuracy is wobbly at times (would a duke really be able to get married as Mr Archer – I doubt it), but Balogh’s writing is as glorious as ever, Avery is a towering character and I just loved how much he surprised me at every turn. Five stars. Mind you, I can’t work up much interest in the embittered disinherited family or the very stereotypical domineering relations, so I doubt I’ll be reading any more of the series, no matter how much I enjoyed this one.