5 out of 5 stars
Cut to the Chase:
This isn’t going to be for everyone — especially because it’s the old she’s-impulsive-and-reckless whereas he’s patient-and-understanding trope done to the point where she’s almost scatterbrained and he’s much, much more mature and knowing. I’m sure the feminist in me should be protesting… Still, I was kind of captivated by the writing and story, all of which I found really sweet! The writing makes you really believe in what would have otherwise seemed caricature-like tropes, and most of it feels completely grounded within the time period. The end of the story is a little taken over by misunderstanding-misunderstanding-missed-opportunity, but I don’t think it detracted from just the general sweet-and-lightness of the story. It’s well written, the characters are believable, there aren’t any truly-terrible-villains (blackmail as opposed to murder, etc) which meant that this was a light, airy, quick read that was completely satisfying and awesomely escapist in the old-Cinderella theme. It’s not intense (sexually or emotionally) but it left me smiling and in a happy mood… isn’t that what we want our romance to do?
The beginning setup is crazy, and nothing like the rest of the novel. Miles Ripley is a generally reasonable man whose life has been more or less overrun by the females in his life (his mother, his sisters) all of whom mean well, but persist in trying to manage every detail of his life (down to who he’ll marry). He’s anxious to avoid the intended they’ve chosen for him (a beauty named Frances who comes from a wonderful family, but is managing, vain and would expect him to be at her beck and call). Though he could, of course, just stand up to his relatives, he jokes that it would be far easier to just find a biddable mouse of a girl, marry her instead, and let her fade into the background.
Enter Abigail Gardiner, a distant-not-distant cousin who’s just gotten fired from her post (she gets fired defending her friend, a beautiful young governess, from the lascivious advances of their joint employer). She comes seeking a reference from Miles, he offers to wed her instead, thinking she’s a shy, retiring type.
In reality, she’s quite outspoken, and a bit of a chatterbox… but she conceals it well, and after briefly wondering if he’s insane, decides to take her chances.
Their relationship is definitely a slow boil one — she’s afraid he’s going to detest her once he finds out her many secrets (slight spoilers ahead) ranging from the fact that she loves talking nonstop to her rather disreputable family (a drunk father who gambled everything away and died in debt, two half-sisters she practically raised, etc). For his part, he enjoys finding out about her, gets used to her and even enjoys her company. Love (and eventually desire) blossom between them. Abby falls in love with him because he’s not only handsome and everything else a hero should be, but genuinely caring and protective of her, while Miles is very believably drawn to her sweetness, and the fact that she makes him laugh and brings him joy.
There are various misunderstandings near the end that keep us (momentarily) from our happy ending, but nothing overdone. The misunderstandings drag out just long enough so that you’re not rolling your eyes, the falling in love is charming and sweet. There’s nothing hugely intense or climactic, with the final villain (blackmailer) resolving off-scene, probably after the conclusion of the book. Yet… for me, all of this worked very well. It’s a good, likable story that I’ll probably go back and re-read at some point. It’s charming in a very subdued fashion, and… though I’ve said it before, sweet in a way that was very, very satisfying.
Comparison to Other Authors
Mary Balogh is very, very hit or miss for me. Sometimes I find her characters sweet, other times the pacing makes me grit my teeth. Even in her longer works, the sensuality meter is never super-high, and initially it’s almost always more about duty and expectations of the time (that the girl will lay there and not be responsive, that showing passion might somehow be demeaning)… all of which eventually builds to a slightly-more-sensuous outcome that still feels more pastel than purple. It’s more Julia Quinn than Stephanie Laurens, but for the most part, I find her humor to be a strong point (not overdone like some of Quinn’s newer things, but more tongue in cheek like Austen, or vintage Quinn). Also, I find her settings and writing to feel more genuinely regency-era, which is rarer than you would think given the number of best selling authors whose scenes give a nob to the genre, instead of really writing within the time period.