A warning: this is going to be slightly spoilery, because it’s impossible to analyse the book properly without getting into the nitty-gritty, so if you really don’t want to know anything, don’t read on.
I really don’t know what to make of this. My first reaction is that it’s a shambles – too long spent on the preliminaries, then a huge explosion, an inexplicable flounce and then some over-angsty tidying up. It’s unbalanced, with too much time wasted on description and not enough on character development. But on the plus side – well, it’s Mary Balogh.
Here’s the premise: Devlin Ware, Viscount Mountford, is twenty-two, and the eldest son and heir to the Earl of Stratton. Their home, Ravenwood, is portrayed as some kind of paradise on earth, and the beautiful and loving Ware family as paragons of virtue and duty, bent on giving everyone, high or low, a rattling good time at fetes and balls and feasts throughout the year. Naturally they do all the work and organising themselves. Fully a third of the book, believe it or not, is devoted to painting a cloying, not to say nauseating, picture of the beautiful Ware family and their idyllic life with all the rosy-cheeked and loyal locals (who are all named, by the way, as if we need to know all this stuff). It is an info-dump of astronomic proportions.
The info-dump culminates in a grand fete and ball, at which Devlin and all his family run round selflessly ensuring the locals are all enjoying themselves, while the locals make appreciative noises and hold log-splitting contests and dance round the maypole (in July? Well, whatever). At the ball, Devlin dances with the eighteen year old daughter of neighbours, Gwyneth Rhys, and dances her right out into the garden where they discover that they have been in love with each other for years, he proposes, she accepts, they kiss, and isn’t all this just so sweet?
And then a thing occurs, and this is where it gets spoilery. Devlin and Gwyneth come across another couple hoping for a spot of privacy in the garden, and perhaps something more than a kiss. Unfortunately, it’s Devlin’s father and the mysterious widow who’s recently moved to the village, and they seem to know each other rather well. Oh noes! She must be his mistress, yet the earl has brought her here as a guest into his home, under the nose of his countess. Now, the Regency (in fact the whole Georgian era, and the Victorian too) was quite relaxed about a married man having a mistress, but the cardinal rule is you don’t bring her anywhere near your wife.
Devlin is incandescent with rage at this insult to his mother and his sisters, and creates a huge and very melodramatic scene. I imagine the author intended this sudden explosion as a contrast with the peaceful scenes that preceded it, and it actually does that very well, like a sudden thunderstorm at the end of a perfect summer day. But the effect is not what Devlin expected – his family turn on him, and he is banished.
Now this is the point where the book goes off the rails for me. His mother wants him gone, for whatever reason, so go he must, but there is a whole world out there he could have gone to. What he does is, frankly, inexplicable to me – he signs up to join the army and go off to fight Napoleon. I can only suppose that he had some kind of death wish, but it’s never really explained. When he goes to say farewell to Gwyneth, she rails at him that they could have gone to her relatives in Wales, they could still have married, so why does he have to join the army, and it’s a very good question. I suppose the main reason is: because the plot demanded it.
Devlin survives the war, albeit with an interesting scar. His half-brother, Ben, who had chosen to go with him, also survives. Another brother, Nicholas, who had planned to enter the army himself, also goes off to fight (why? Two brothers from one family in the war is just madness), but he also survives. And the Earl of Stratton dies and Devlin is forced to return home and pick up the threads of his old life as best he can. Except that everything has changed. He has changed, but everyone else in the family has changed too. There are no more fetes and open days. There is no happy family, selflessly arranging entertainments for the locals (they’re doing their own arranging). Everyone is miserable.
Gwyneth, meanwhile, is still unmarried (well, we never saw that coming, did we?). She tells herself she’s over Devlin and is ready to marry the nice Welshman who’s passionate about music and seems to be passionate about her, too. But then Devlin reappears and all bets are off. I’m going to be honest here, and say that the rest of the book runs on fairly predictable rails. Devlin takes up the reins of the estate, rebuilds bridges with his family, develops a new relationship with the locals and ends up marrying Gwyneth after all, and absolutely none of it is surprising, with one exception. Gwyneth turns out to be the saving grace of this book, because Devlin is a wet blanket almost to the end. And then we get the schmaltzy wedding day, which is twelve teaspoons of sugar sweet, so you have been warned. There is one fairly soft-focus sex scene, which made no sense to me at all, but I suppose a Balogh book without any sex would be too much of a novelty.
I love Mary Balogh to pieces, and even though I was saying ‘Wait, what?’ at frequent intervals and nothing happened for far too long and Devlin was a drip, she still hit me right in the feels time after time. But this just doesn’t feel like the Regency, to me. That whole first third of the book, with the frankly over the top generosity of the Wares, rang false with me. The very idea that they would open the park to anyone who wanted to enjoy it is (for me) incredible, and far too modern an idea. The whole point of large estates was to keep the riff-raff out so that the toffs never had to encounter them. They might conceivably hold an open day once a year, but even that feels more Victorian than Regency to me.
And then the oddities, like face painting for the children – really?? And a baby carrier. These things are not impossible to imagine happening in the Regency, but to my mind, they sound too modern. Gwyneth rides astride sometimes, a huge no-no. Then there’s the baby fat that gives younger daughter Stephanie such grief. Look, fat was absolutely not a problem in the Regency. Right up to the 1920s, when the health craze kicked in, being plump or downright fat was a sign of wealth. Conspicuous consumption was a real thing, and only poor people were thin (or anyone with actual consumption – TB – so being thin was regarded as dangerously unhealthy for anyone who could afford to eat well). Then there are feeders for the wild birds. Well, that’s possible, I suppose, but Regency people kept exotic birds like parrots or songbirds in cages. Wild birds were either for eating or for scientific study (by stuffing or dissecting) or not interesting. Also, the author obviously doesn’t realise that a university education in the Regency was nothing like the modern version. Far from needing to work hard for exams, the sons of the nobility had no need to take any exams, or even to turn up to lectures. They paid, they got a degree.
On the whole, this book was a disappointment. It’s beautifully written, because of course it is, it’s Mary Balogh, for heaven’s sake. But the pacing was all wrong, and the central conceit felt contrived. If I were writing it, I’d have been tempted to start with the fatal fete, condensing all the dull info-dump into little vignettes. Or it could have started with Devlin returning home as earl, showing the earlier events in flashback. Either would, in my opinion, have worked better than the long, long opening chapters.
I also didn’t find any of the characters terribly interesting (apart from Ben, and maybe Stephanie), and it was just too darned sweet for my palate. I like a little tartness in my Regencies, and I also like to be surprised, and that just didn’t happen. And having grumbled at ridiculous length about this book, I confess I read it avidly the whole way through, if only to see the big explosion and find out how things worked out for Devlin’s family. This is the first of the series, so maybe the rest, unburdened by the scene-setting of the opener, will be more interesting. Three stars.