>> Wednesday, September 20, 2006
A few weeks ago there was an interesting thread in AAR's Reviews message board. If you're reading this long after I posted, sorry, but the thread might be gone already. It basically says that while the poster loves Mary Balogh's old Trad Regencies, she also loves what she's writing now. "...her newer books are equally good, in a different way", she says. And I agree, which is why I both spend more than I can afford on old, out of print Baloghs and eagerly anticipate each new release.
Her latest is Simply Love (excerpt), second in the Simply series, which started with the excellent (surely I'm not the only one who thought so?) Simply Unforgettable.
I should also mention that if you read ebooks, you should keep an eye on Fictionwise. Right after Simply Love came out, they had some very attractive offers. First the book had a 100% Micropay rebate (which means that Fictionwise charged your credit card the $18 the book costs, and you got the book + a $18 credit at Fictionwise, so Simply Love ended up being basically free), and then for a while it went for about $9, half-price. Alas, the price now is the full $17.95!
New York Times bestselling author Mary Balogh returns to the elegance and sensuality of Regency England as she continues the enthralling story of four remarkable women–friends and teachers at Miss Martin’s School for Girls. At the center of this spellbinding novel is Anne Jewell, a teacher haunted by a scandalous past…until she meets a man who teaches her the most important lesson of all: nothing is simple when it comes to love.…A truly lovely romance. Too bad certain distractions around them made me lower my grade somewhat. A B+.
She spies him in the deepening dusk of a Wales evening–a lone figure of breathtaking strength and masculinity, his handsome face branded by a secret pain. For single mother and teacher Anne Jewell, newly arrived with her son at a sprawling estate in Wales on the invitation of an influential friend, Sydnam Butler is a man whose sorrows–and passions–run deeper than she could have ever imagined.
As steward of a remote seaside manor, Sydnam lives a reclusive existence far from the pity and disdain of others. Yet almost from the moment Anne first appears on the cliffs, he senses in this lovely stranger a kindred soul, and between these two wary hearts, desire stirs. Unable to resist the passion that has rescued them both from loneliness, Anne and Sydnam share an afternoon of exquisite lovemaking. Now the unwed single mother and war-scarred veteran must make a decision that could forever alter their lives. For Sydnam, it is a chance to heal the pain of the past. For Anne, it is the glorious promise of a future with the man who will dare her to reveal her deepest secrets…before she can give him all her heart.
Simply Love is the story of two characters we've already met, and who I, at least, very much wanted to know more about. We first met Sydnam Butler in the very excellent A Summer to Remember, which starred his brother, Kit. A few years before the start of that book, artist Syd had felt compelled to imitate his brother and join the army to go fight against Napoleon. But things ended disastrously for him, and after an incident that had Kit blaming himself, Syd came home horribly scarred and missing an arm and an eye.
At the end of ASTR, though, both Kit and Syd have more or less come to terms with what happened (and these were some of the most compelling parts of the book), and Syd has decided he needs to continue his life away from the ancestral home. He therefore decides to accept a post as the steward of one of his neighbour, the Duke of Bewcastle's estates in Wales.
In the following years, Syd builds a life for himself that he's satisfied with. It's a solitary, low-key life, but he feels comfortable with the way things are. When he receives news that Bewcastle is coming to visit, and that he'll be accompanied by a large party, he's not overjoyed. They'll probably expect him to socialize with them, he thinks, and then there's the fact that while the Bedwyns are already used to him, their wives and husbands aren't, and neither are the non-family members of the party, which is due to cause some embarrassing moments when they first see him.
Syd's fears prove right the very first night, when while walking the cliffs, he runs into a beautiful woman who runs away from him as if he's a monster.
The woman in question is Anne Jewell, and we met her in two other books before. The first was Slightly Scandalous, the third in the Bedwyn series. In that, Freya and Josh's book, Anne is a young single mother who lives in the village near Josh's home. When Freya discovers that Anne's son David is product of a rape by Josh's cousin, she decides to help her, and so she gives her a recommendation and sends her to Miss Martin's school, to apply for a post as a teacher. This works out just fine, and in the first book in the Simply series, Simply Unforgettable, we see Anne happily adapted to the school.
Still, Anne is very aware that although everyone in the school accepts her, she would be considered by many to be a pariah. So when Josh insists she join him and the Bedwyns in their stay in Wales, so that her son can play with the children who are, after all, his cousins, Anne only reluctantly accepts. She's going, but she's not going to force her company on the rest of the party. She'll help take care of the children and do her best not to join the party at dinner.
Which is why Anne is walking the cliffs that night, when she comes face to face with a man who's incredibly handsome on one side, but whose disfigured other side shocks her when he turns around. Shamefully, Anne's first reaction is to run, and I must say I was a bit disconcerted by this. I guess I expected something like in all those other romances I've read in which the hero has some kind of scar or disfigurement: the heroine would be the only person who'd ignore the injury completely and immediately see the wonderful person beneath it.
Well, Anne's first reaction isn't like that. It's a very human reaction, but as she immediately realizes, a silly, hurtful one. To her credit, the minute she sees this she goes back to try to apologize, but the man isn't there any more.
But of course, they do meet again, and the apology is offered and accepted. And as these two start to talk and talk and talk, they become friends, and soon something more than friendship develops.
This is a story that's extremely character-driven, and it works because these are very interesting characters and the issues they have to overcome are believably dealt with. There are no evil villains to confront here: what hurt Syd and Anne is over and the most immediate consequences have been got over. They have both rebuilt their lives after they were destroyed, and they're pretty satisfied with the results. But they both still need to realize that content isn't happy, and that they'll need to reach outside their comfort zones to get that happiness.
And this is exactly what being together helps them do. First, it helps them understand and accept what isn't so good about their lives now. I loved the first sections, when they first started talking and found themselves sharing things they hadn't even accepted to themselves. What got me here was the rawness of the feelings expressed, the honesty of them and of the way they shared them with each other. There's a particular scene, when both admit to their loneliness, that had me almost in tears.
And the dialogue is amazing. I especially appreciated the way Balogh showed that though they don't play games with each other, they obviously sometimes don't understand exactly what the other is thinking, and that is perfectly natural (and makes for some delicious conflict). Then, once they realize what is wrong in their lives, they each push and prod the other into doing what they need to do to completely heal their wounds. And it's a beautiful thing to read. I guess a quite book like this one in the hands of a less talented author might be boring, but Balogh makes it pèrfect.
The only thing that keeps me from giving this one an A grade is Balogh's crush on the Bedwyns. Their constant presence was much too heavy. I don't mind characters from previous books showing up, but it has to be because they're an important part of the plot, not just to show off how happy they are and to matchmake for the main couple!