2.5 out of 5 stars
Cut to the Chase:
This book and I have a love/hate relationship. On the one hand, it’s very well researched (including medical details ranging from dissection to infiltration anesthesia and background information on Indian geography, coolies, and fakirs). On the other hand, the characters (and author) seem so eager to impress us with their genius (he’s a mathematical prodigy, she’s a distinguished 18th century surgeon), vocabulary, and range of knowledge (discussing the “insufficiencies of Euclidean geometry,” intermingled with descriptions like “an intrepid deodar” or “pellucid mountain clarity”) that they’re almost unbearably pretentious. It’s creative in terms of its setting, characters, and story arc – they’ve annulled their marriage by the end of the prologue, and so we watch them three years later, getting to know one another and flashing back to their prior relationship. Ultimately, though, the novel vacillated between completely engrossing and downright annoying (with sometimes creepy sex scenes, see spoilers below). I’m intrigued enough to read her other works, but it isn’t a book I’ll be repeating, and I can’t quite bring myself to recommend it.
Greater Detail (and Spoilers):
This is a tough book to give details about without spoiling completely for those of you who are interested in reading it. But here’s what I can say without giving too much away:
Bryony Asquith is portrayed as a somewhat cold-tempered female doctor who received her training against her family’s protests. She is resentful of nearly everyone around her, and has a fractious relationship with her father, her half-sister, and of course, her ex-husband. In the prologue, it’s revealed that Bryony is deeply in love with her husband, Leo Marsden, but believes him to be a shallow, careless rake. She cries about her addiction to this unworthy man, and when, overnight, a lock of her hair turns white, she takes it as a sign and decides to ask for an annulment the very next day.
This is in stark contrast to the Leo we’re presented with – who starts off the novel traveling for weeks across the wilds of India to deliver a message to Bryony about her ailing father. He’s far more likeable initially, though borderline unbelievable in his otherworldliness: he’s described as a charting society darling, an Adonis, and a critically hailed mathematical genius who lectures at Cambridge and Princeton, written a well-reviewed theatrical play, and given talks to the Geographical society based on his exploration of Greenland.
It becomes clear fairly early on that they’ve always loved one another, but have layers of misunderstandings and hurtful memories they’re clinging to – not my favorite type of love story.
Yet the scenes that are well written are really extraordinarily well written, making you care for the characters and their emotional arcs despite their faults. There’s also a lot of back story revealed along the way (all of which would constitute more and more spoilers), but suffice it to say that these are characters with well plotted, thoroughly thought-out backgrounds, even if they’re still a little over-the-top in terms of presentations, hyperboles, etc.
Some spoilers I feel the need to mention: the sex scenes in this book range from touching/emotionally compelling (near the end, when we’re approaching our happy ending) to creepy. We find out fairly early on that their sex life was not fulfilling while they were married, but somewhere around a third of the way in, we find out that they were briefly sexually compatible, in that he would visit her bedroom at night, while she was still sleeping, and try to satisfy her. She thought she was dreaming, and when she woke up mid-intercourse one night, asked him to stop – a request he ignored for several nights before she finally locked her doors. They also have sex while he’s feverish and malarial – with her using a kiss to bribe him into taking quinine (which then turns into sex). She later seduces him with oral sex and swallowing while he thinks he’s asleep. Basically, there’s a lot of graphic sex that focuses more on the physical acts and also happens while one or the other of the characters is asleep or feverish, which all seems a little creepy to me.
An additional spoiler is that Leo actually cheated on Bryony a couple of weeks before their wedding, which is something else you have to decide if you’re okay with in your main character.
Comparisons to Other Authors:
This is a tough one. Thomas has got tons of plot, like a Virginia Henley, but a lot more historical accuracy. Quinn will sometimes have a little bit of medical jargon, but nothing to this degree. Otherwise, it’s tough for me to think of a strict author-to-author comparison.