One never knows what to expect from a Judith Everett book (which is very much a good thing, in my estimation). After two books set in the same immediate family, this one veers off at a tangent with a minor character from book 2, Geoffrey Mantell, a second son making a career in the army, and the strange, rather fey, girl next door, Emily Chandry. The two strike up a childhood friendship, and meet again as adults when Geoffrey is on leave. He spends his time searching in rather desultory style for a wife, but when he returns to the war, he decides that Emily is the one he wants. He returns in time from his soldiering only to find that he’s too late – she’s married and gone.
Now, this is the central premise of the book, the tipping point, and it’s revealed in the blurb, but we don’t reach it until well past the 25% point. I confess I read the many early chapters in some impatience to get to the meat of the story – and of course to the resolution, because how is there to be a happy ending out of all this? I was very, very curious to find out how the author resolves this conundrum. I had some ideas, but there were a number of ways this could go. It’s a very intriguing premise.
From this point on, the story revolves largely around Geoffrey’s efforts to put his love for Emily behind him, find himself a wife and move on with his life. All of which he fails to do in pretty spectacular fashion. Gradually he finds himself drawn into the oddity of Emily’s marriage, and the even greater oddity of her now deceased father’s machinations, since his determination to keep his presumed fortune out of the hands of his avaricious son-in-law creates problems for everybody.Geoffrey is a straight-down-the-line character, an honourable and dutiful man in a family of rather wilder types. His older brother Francis is a rake quite uninterested in settling down with a wife. His sister, Clara, is an unrepentant flirt who’s also in no hurry to marry. His mother only seems interested in getting the three of them suitably married. His father is distant, thinking his son a dull dog. Which he is, of course. I like an honourable hero as much as anyone, but I don’t like one who angsts at great length about his situation. There was, frankly, far too much time spent with Geoffrey agonising over Emily, and how he was to be the friend to her that was all he was allowed to be, while not showing his true feelings, and how he must find himself a wife to distract himself. I’d have liked him a lot better if he’d simply taken himself back into the army or found himself something else to do, preferably at the other end of the country. But of course, then there would have been no story.
Emily is (to my mind) a much more interesting character. As a child, she was unloved and neglected, spending her time in the woods, semi-feral, and building a fairy village in a clearing, complete with miniature houses, people and animals. Geoffrey is drawn to the endeavour as much as to the girl, and the two became friends in childhood while jointly working on the project. The whole concept is both magically creative but also unutterably sad, that she (or in fact both of them) were so little loved within their own families that they created a fantasy world to play out the happier lives of their pretend villagers. I liked that Emily grew up to be such a strong character, despite the neglect, taking charge of her own destiny as far as the law and circumstances allowed. She escaped her horrible father by marrying a man who wasn’t perfect, by any means, but with whom she could at least have a better life, and when the final crisis comes, she takes charge then, too. Good for her.
Even the side characters like Francis and Clara are livelier and more interesting than stolid Geoffrey. He’s such a goody-two-shoes that he spends time in London, while he’s supposedly looking for a wife, helping a random stranger with her affairs. Now, the random stranger happens to be the heroine of book 2, and so we see again some of the events of that book, but this time from Geoffrey’s perspective. This is not uninteresting to those who have read (and remember) book 2, but it adds nothing at all to this book except to illustrate that Geoffrey is a Good Person, which frankly we’ve already seen too much convincing evidence of. So that whole section of the book could easily have been dispensed with. It may well be that when the Branwell Chronicles is completed, these little cross-over vignettes will add depth and richness to the series-long story, but for me, impatient to find out just what was going on with Emily, this whole section was an irrelevance.
As the book progresses, it veers more into Gothic melodrama, with some dramatic happenings before our hero and heroine get their inevitable happy ending. I wasn’t entirely satisfied by the resolution to the problem of getting Emily out of her marriage, but it was perfectly in keeping with the Regency, and the nature of the characters themselves, so I won’t quibble over it. In fact, the author has such a sure hand in evoking the Regency that the odd Americanism that creeps in is quite startling (my favourite is the very non-British ‘grandbabies’). But really, there are vanishingly few of these, and in general the writing is quite brilliantly accurate to the period, without being heavy.
Overall, this didn’t resonate with me the way the first two books in the series did. There’s a greyness and lack of humour that probably exudes from Geoffrey (and is therefore totally in keeping), but I felt it weighed the book down somewhat. I would have liked more of a spark from Geoffrey, a little less of the remorseless agonising and sheer goodness, and a lot less of the repetitive pursuit of an eligible match when his heart wasn’t in it. I could have done without any of the overlap with book 2, and the sub-plot with Geoffrey’s mother added nothing very much to the story. Conversely, I would have liked a bit more of Emily, and that curious marriage. If this were the first Everett book I’d read, I’d probably have given it three stars and never read anything else by her (in which case I’d have been very much the loser). But it’s so beautifully written, and evokes such a believable Regency, that I’m going to give it four stars and hope for better fortune with the next book.
There are very few authors who have the courage to take an idea, a character, a situation and simply allow it to unwind at its own pace and in its own way, without ever trying to nudge it into the familiar plot-ruts. Writers like Mary Balogh, E A Dineley and Arabella Brown can do it, and Everett is of the same ilk. Such writing can be hit or miss, and this one isn’t a total success for me. Nevertheless, I respect and applaud the attempt, I have the utmost admiration for Everett’s talent and I will always prefer this kind of uncompromising originality to the majority of cookie-cutter Regencies.