This is a most unusual book. Most modern Regencies run on rails, with well-worn tropes squeezed for the last drop of creative juice, and unless the writing is exceptional, that can be very boring. But here’s a story that doesn’t run on rails at all. For one thing, the heroine doesn’t even put in an appearance until almost half way through, and the romantic travails of the hero’s two sisters take centre stage. But I love a book that surprises me and this one does that in spades.
Here’s the premise: Lord Newsam returns from war to take up the title after his elder brother dies. So far, so commonplace. But Granville is not your average hero. Feeling himself unequal to the challenge of tackling his temperamental and entirely self-centred mother, he lives in the dower house while she still holds the main house. His two sisters, the timid doormat Amelia and bad-tempered Charlotte, aren’t exactly barrels of fun, but he’s equally non-confrontational with them, too, nor does he reprimand the insubordinate staff. For a soldier, he’s altogether surprisingly restrained.
He finds the family estate, Gomersall, a sad, neglected place. His mother’s insistence that she’s superior to everyone else means that no neighbours come to call. The land is in poor shape, the tenants downtrodden and neglected and the bailiff is set in his old-fashioned ways. Granville finds it all rather daunting, and unlike the army, where he was surrounded by his men, at home he’s alone and unsure of himself and a bit lonely.
Slowly, however, he gets to grip with things. He disposes of the bailiff (although I found it a bit unbelievable that no one knew about it until the wagon went past loaded up with all his furniture. In any small, rural community, word would have been out within five minutes. He would have told his friends, at least, made various arrangements for leaving and settled his accounts with tradespeople- at least, I hope he settled his accounts!). But no matter. Granville finds a replacement rather too easily (and this is a recurring theme in the book, that difficulties are overcome all too easily).
The two sisters form the ‘side’ romances, and again they fall into place somewhat easily, especially Amelia (but then again, I love characters who know their own minds, so I’m not going to quibble). Charlotte’s is a little more of a bumpy road, but her first suitor is rather an interesting character, of a type not often seen — neither villain nor hero, just an ordinary young man enjoying a romantic interlude. Once again, the book surprised me.
But what of the heroine, I hear you ask? Where is the main romance of the story? Good question. There’s a brief conversation early on when Amelia asks Granville whether he’s ever found a woman he could marry, and he tells her, yes, once, but she was married and he never saw her again until recently, finding her widowed and impoverished living nearby, her husband having killed himself when his debts overwhelmed him. She blamed the Newsam family, and wants nothing to do with him. Now, this meeting would have made a fine dramatic prologue. We hear the story second hand, as he describes it colourlessly to Amelia – how he was riding down the lane when the children ran out almost under his horse’s hooves, he just avoided them, discovered the woman he had admired now destitute. He offers her his help, she flings his card back in his face. We really should have *seen* this, and it would have underscored the importance of the widow to the story.
Still, she turns up at last half way through, when Amelia, newly emboldened by her engagement, engineers a meeting and work for her on the estate. And so Mary Thorpe moves into the dower house with her two children, and Granville moves into the main house (finally!), and the two inch towards the inevitable happy ending. There’s no angst in the romance, and we never really find out what’s going on in Granville’s head regarding Mary. He is clearly pursuing her, and they have some fine scenes together (including a delightful interlude with a kite), but there’s nothing particularly romantic in any of it until he proposes, she rejects him (because of the whole husband’s suicide thing and the scandal) and he then goes off to pursue another possible love interest.
Wait, what? Honestly, I wanted to box his ears at this point, because what sort of lover just shrugs and slopes off when the supposed love of his life turns him down? Silly man. I was afraid we were heading into the betrothed-to-the-wrong-girl trope at this point, but the author is more creative than that, happily. And eventually, without too much drama, matters resolve themselves, and there’s a neat twist at the end, just for laughs.
Some minor niggles. The writing style is no-holds-barred head hopping, the point of view leaping merrily from character to character with gay abandon. But at least I never once had to stop to wonder whose head we were in – it was always obvious, and actually it felt remarkably freeing to know everybody’s thoughts like that. Another problem was that I found it difficult to know what the time of year was. Once when something was mentioned as happening in September, I had no idea whether that was a few weeks away or many months. It was a bit disconcerting. Once or twice there was mention of it being cold or warm, and there was one time that was definitely May, but other than that I felt a bit lost, although it was probably just me not paying attention. Also, I didn’t notice any mention of what title Granville holds, so I’ve assumed he’s a baron (but I would have liked to know for sure).
The writing style is so Regency-authentic that it might almost be Georgette Heyer at work, and it’s witty, too, and that means not just funny, but also insightful. I learned some new vocabulary, too. I’m still not quite sure what a betsie is, or a tax-cart, but a sonsy woman is plump, buxom and comely. A lovely word. There’s a heap of northern dialect, which all seemed fine to me, although I’m no expert. I didn’t notice a single historical error or typo, which must be something of a record.
The author has written other books in different genres, but this seems to be her first Regency romance. I already have the second one lined up to read, and I hope she writes many more. This is a wonderfully written story, with a very realistic Regency populated by likeable and believable characters. It’s wildly original, downright quirky, in fact, which is awesome. I can’t tell you how tired I get of stories that cover the same tired old tropes in the predictable ways. This book is the antithesis of predictable. It won’t be for everyone (the head hopping drives some reviewers to distraction), but for anyone who appreciates that oh-so-rare beast, a truly authentic Regency grasp of language with a great deal of wit, this book will be a delight, as it was to me. Five stars.