Pros: An unusual heroine.
Cons: The contrivances are many, but it's still a readable romance.
Long time romance author Mary Balogh has been one of the few that I've managed to stay with over the years. Her Regency era novels have been amusing, romantic and still readable over the years, and while many other authors have vanished or dwindled in quality over the years, she has managed to keep her standards up.
This year she has started a new multi-volume family saga, the Huxtables, whose lives are turned upside down when they have an aristocratic visitor call on them. The four Huxtables live in the village of Throckbridge, the children of impoverished gentry. The eldest of the three sisters, Margaret, is already in her mid-twenties, and promised that she would shepherd her younger siblings to their majority. The next one, Vanessa, married the younger son of their neighbor, Sir Humphrey, and was adopted into the Dew family as a daughter when her husband died young. Katherine teaches at the local day school, and the youngest, Stephen, is barely seventeen, and the sisters all hope that he does well to help them in the future.
But everything in the village is turned upside down when an aristocrat, Lord Lyngate, turns up with his secretary in tow. He's a very lofty sort, looking down at the villagers as bumpkins, and without a scrap of humour to him. Faced with the burden of attending the Valentine's Day dance at the inn where he is staying, or having to put up with the racket all night, he decides to go to the dance.
And meets Mrs. Vanessa Dew. Out of all the Huxtables, she is the plain one -- and knows it. While she is certainly not ugly, she knows that in contrast to her sisters, she's hardly the sort to be looked at twice. So it is with some surprise that she finds the Viscount asking her to dance.
Of course there's a reason why she was the one he asked -- Lord Lyngate wants to do his duty, and get out of there as quickly as possible. And there could not be any sort of controversy as Vanessa is Mrs. Dew, and he assumes, married.
But when he arrives at the Huxtables' home the next day, he is surprised to find out that Vanessa is part of the family, and also a widow. But his real reason for being there is to inform Stephen that he is now the Earl of Merton, and Lyngate's ward -- news that isn't making anyone in the family happy. And the complication of having sisters isn't sitting well with him either, just what is he going to do with all of them?
But Vanessa has an audacious solution for his problems, she asks Lord Lyngate to marry her, to the benefit of both of them -- she will make him happy, she promises, and he in turn, will help her sisters find a settled life among the ton...
I must say that this one surprised me, especially when I was thinking it was going to be one of those 'boy meets girl' sorts of romances that tend to fit into formula. Fortunately, Mary Balogh is smart enough to create complicated backstories for her characters, and give them some real problems to work through. In Elliott (as Lord Lyngate is called through most of the book), there are the problems of trust and emotional security, and Vanessa has some real issues about self-assurance and trust to get over herself.
Along the way, there are plenty of misunderstandings, but unlike most romances, these don't feel too contrived, which makes them interesting. While there is the obligatory ex-mistress, and a troublemaking Huxtable cousin that Elliott has had a running feud with for years, neither of them are quickly resolved, nor are they disposed of in too quick of a fashion.
Along the way there are plenty of descriptive bits, and for the most parts, Balogh gets these right. Most interesting was Vanessa's presentation at court, and her discovery of London high life. There are little details about daily life, and polite customs, which compared to most of what passes for historical romance these days is refreshing. So too is the fact that Balogh keeps the sexual content to the sensual variety without having to resort to vulgar language, coy expressions for various body parts, or sex of the modern sort.
What was good was the level of romantic interaction between the main characters, which tends to be lacking in today's society. Sometimes it is nice to just read a romance where you know it's pretty much going to be a HEA (happy ever after), with a few bumps along the way, and let the outside world and stress go away for few hours. There are three more books in the series, and I hope that Ms. Balogh can keep the quality up throughout. An excerpt from the next book in the series is included as well.
Four stars overall. Recommended.
The Huxtable Series:
First Comes Marriage -- you are here
Then Comes Seduction
At Last Comes Love
Seducing an Angel
A Secret Affair
First Comes Marriage
2009; Bantam Dell/Random House Publishing