JOINT REVIEW: Someone To Hold by Mary Balogh
Kaetrin: Janine and I enjoyed reviewing Someone To Love together last year – we decided we’d do it again for book 2 of the Westcott series.
The former Lady Camille Westcott is hiding out in Bath with her grandmother and younger sister. In Someone to Love, it was revealed that Camille, Abigail and their brother, Harry, were not in fact the legitimate children of Humphrey Westcott, the late Earl of Riverdale. The title therefore passed to cousin Alexander and all the money went to the only legitimate offspring, Anastasia, the former Anna Snow. Camille had been engaged to the uxorious Viscount Uxbury but he “suggested” she call it off after learning of her illegitimacy.
Camille has lost much; her social standing, her fiance, her future – her very identity is wipe out by the news. She knows intellectually that it’s not Anastasia’s fault but she can’t help blaming Anna in her heart.
Joel Cunningham, a portrait artist and a part-time art teacher, is an orphan who grew up with Anna at Miss Ford’s orphanage in Bath. He had thought he loved Anna and had even proposed to her but she told him what they felt for one another was the love of siblings and turned him down. Now Anna has married Avery, Duke of Netherby and he has to put any romantic feelings for Anna aside. As Anna’s close friend, he is inclined to dislike starchy Camille.
When Camille takes the position as teacher that Anna left vacant at the orphanage, he does not expect he will in any way approve of it. But he sees another side to Camille as she throws herself into the teaching role. And Camille learns who she is when she is not desperately trying to be perfect to win the affection of her father.
Janine: Camille was an interesting and multi-faceted character. Unlike Anna, who remained calm in the face of painful discoveries about their father, Camille actually feels anger at him. I thought it made her less perfect but more human.
Even before her father’s bigamy was unveiled, Camille had an unhappy relationship with him. He’d rejected her overtures to him when she was a child, and so she grew up trying to be the perfect, haughty lady, both because she thought it would please him and because (in my interpretation; this wasn’t stated outright) her prickliness served as a kind of armor. It made further rejections from others less likely to take place.
Kaetrin: What is stated outright in the book is that Camille doesn’t believe in love. At least, not at first. I think you’re right Janine – her prickliness was a kind of armor. After all, if she didn’t believe in love, then she could not be upset that her father didn’t show her love, could she?
But as she is forced to let go of many of the things she previously held dear, she also lets go of some of the starchiness. She allows herself to be messy – to have messy emotions, to be less than perfect in her appearance and her bearing and in her activities (ie her teaching). Ultimately, she finds a kind of freedom in her fall from the heights of the ton.
Janine: That’s a great point about accepting messiness inside and out. When the book begins, Camille is leaving her grandmother’s house on the hill for the orphanage, where she hopes to convince Miss Ford, the woman who runs it, to give her the teaching position that has just opened. Whether or not it was intended that way, Camille’s trek down the hill functions as a metaphor. She has to come down in the world to learn who she really is.
I have mixed feelings about this (why does a male character like Avery from Someone to Love get to stay haughty and elevated, when a female one rarely does?) but I liked Camille’s journey of self-discovery.
Kaetrin: I didn’t think find there to be a double standard. With Avery, his haughtiness is very much affectation (a different kind of armor I guess). And as much as Camille does soften over the course of the book, she still defaults to stiff and starchy. When she is in unfamiliar surroundings, she will revert to the haughty and stern lady. As for the elevated, well, Harry has been unable to remain elevated so perhaps that will be explored when we get to his book.
Janine: What I am trying to get at is my perception of a romance author’s view of readers — that readers can still love a male protagonist like Avery even when he is at haughtiest and wealthiest, but with a heroine like Camille, she has to be brought lower and softened, even shown to be maternal, to be appealing.
Kaetrin: We’ll have to agree to disagree there, at least in Avery’s case – although I’ve seen it plenty of times in other romance books. Avery doesn’t take himself very seriously. And Camille doesn’t end up penurious.
Janine: To get back to the storyline, it turns out Camille has a gift for teaching, and even though she is not as immediately soft as Anna, the children quickly come to love her for her creative education strategies.
Joel, meanwhile, is slower to give his affections. He is still getting over Anna, and has not forgiven Camille for making his childhood companion unhappy. His first impression of Camille is that she is somewhat like a drill sergeant, but soon he has to (grudgingly) admit to himself that she is good with the children.
Around this time, Camille’s grandmother commissions portraits of her and of her sister Abigail from Joel. Joel’s creative process is (a little conveniently, I thought) a slow one and involves getting to know the different facets of his subjects, and this gives him more reasons to indulge his growing if not wholehearted interest in Camille. As he does, he finds himself understanding her side of things better, and slowly, his loyalty to Anna starts to budge.
Kaetrin: Joel’s process was convenient yes. So was Camille’s talent for teaching.
Janine: True, but Camille’s affinity for teaching felt necessary to the plot, whereas Joel could have been given a more believable creative process that didn’t feel so much like a shortcut to serve his getting to know Camille. His creative process felt a bit invasive of his subjects’ privacy to me, to be honest.
Kaetrin: But he didn’t actually spend all that much time getting to know Camille only for the purposes of painting her. He spent far more time with Abigail for that purpose. I agree with you that Joel’s process wasn’t essential to the plot though. As I know virtually nothing about portrait painting, I don’t have any other opinion about his process though.
Janine: Things come to a head when Joel makes an unexpected discovery about his parentage. He and Camille grow closer out of a simple need to hold, and to be held.
I liked Camille a great deal, for her justifiable anger at her father, for her quest for independence and her desire to learn where Anna had come from, and for the softer, even maternal side that she discovered with the children.
I was a little less keen on Joel and I think this was because he put Camille’s reputation at risk over and over, bringing her to his apartments in broad daylight, and because when, later in the book, their relationship got physical, he put no effort whatsoever into trying to prevent a pregnancy.
The first time they had sex, his apartments were such that his living quarters were right next to his studio, and I tried to imagine how he thought he would be able to work next door to a squalling baby, as well as provide for three, if Camille became pregnant.
I don’t think this would have bothered me as much had it not been for the fact that Joel spends a good part of the book still believing he is half in love with Anna and seeing a widow, Mrs. Tull, whom he meets with for the occasional dinner and bout of sex (he breaks it off with Mrs. Tull before he and Camille become lovers). Then too, late in the book, he bungles his relationship with Camille a bit.
Kaetrin: I liked both Camille and Joel but for much of the book I couldn’t work up much enthusiasm for their romance. It was very quiet and understated. I was far more interested in Camille’s journey actually, particularly her relationship with the baby, Sarah. I also really enjoyed the scenes where she was teaching.
Janine: I agree that Camille’s journey was more compelling than the romance. But I think this ties back to Joel’s attention being divided between Anna, Mrs. Tull, Camille, and even the women whom he painted. I almost wish that Mrs. Tull hadn’t been part of his life. If Joel had had more focus on Camille, the shift of his loyalty from Anna to her would have been more romantic and engaging. As it was, though I was able to follow the thread of romance, there were times when his interest in her seemed almost intellectual, and later, close to platonic friendship.
Kaetrin: Mrs. Tull didn’t bother me. And I never thought Joel loved Anna romantically – even in the previous book I felt it was established the love he felt for her was familial.
Janine: Oh, I agree. I don’t mean that his interest in Anna, Mrs. Tull, or his painting subjects was romantic, just that it divided his attention away from Camille. And it’s because his focus on Camille was so diffuse that his romantic feelings for her weren’t foregrounded enough.
Kaetrin: Hmmm. Perhaps. For me their early (and even mid-book) interactions lacked something of a spark, regardless of his attention being divided. But absolutely yes to to your comment that “there were times when his interest in her seemed almost intellectual, and later, close to platonic friendship.”
Janine: I don’t want to imply that Joel was completely unlikable — he was insightful, talented, good with the children at the school, and offered Camille his friendship and emotional support in endearing ways, even before he realized how much he liked her. And I had some sympathy for him with regard to his discovery about his parentage, too. But in all, I liked Camille better of the two.
Kaetrin: Yes, I did too. I liked how she recognised some of her previous behaviours were not ideal and took responsibility for them.
“I always thought that above all else he was a gentleman,” she said. “It hurts to know I was so wrong. And it always hurts to be accused of being something one is not. Yet I cannot help remembering that when Anastasia was admitted to Avery’s salon and offered a seat, I was outraged because she was not fit to be in that house with respectable people, among whose number I counted myself. Sometimes other people’s words become uncomfortable mirrors in which we gaze upon ourselves.”
It took her a while to fully articulate it, but she eventually did realise that the reason she took the post at Miss Ford’s orphanage.
She had cut herself off quite deliberately from everyone who would love her if she gave them the chance because she did not know who she was and did not want to be smothered by a protective love that would prevent her from finding out.
Janine: That motive did not entirely convince me. There are a lot of other places she could have gone to work if all she wanted was to cut herself off from smothering protectiveness, but she went to the place that Anna had been raised and worked in.
Her decision would have made more sense if she was also trying (even if she would not admit it to herself) to get to know her sister from a distance and see if she could like her. In Anna’s book, Someone to Love, Camille said something like that to Abigail when Abigail brought up her interest in the teaching position, and I wish it had been stated here, too.
Kaetrin: In many ways, the series has the theme of identity. How much of identity is wrapped up in our parentage? Our standing in society? In Someone to Hold, identity is much more overtly explored – both from Joel’s and Camille’s perspective.
Janine: Yes! I have to mention two more things that bothered me in the book, even though they are spoilers. I’ll try to be as vague as I can about the exact plot turns, while still mentioning my peeves, but read further at your own risk.
Spoiler (Spoiler): Show
Despite all my peeves, I liked this book. I especially liked Camille’s journey toward independence and self-discovery, her learning that she didn’t need to be the perfect lady to be loved, but to open her heart instead. I also liked the growth of her relationship with Anna later on in the book.
Kaetrin: Yes, I liked that she didn’t fall under Anna’s spell. Her journey in that regard was very much along the “fake it til you make it” line. It felt true to the character and more realistic. I didn’t love that Camille had to “forgive” her father in order to be truly happy. That’s my paraphrase. I didn’t think it needed to be in the book at all. In the end, I decided it was there only to tie every little loose end up with a bow. I’m a big fan of bows but in this case, her father had been a total douchecanoe and I think it would’ve been perfectly okay for Camille to acknowledge that without having to take some kind of moral high ground and be the bigger person.
Janine: Yes! Excellent point. When one reads romance, one comes across a lot of forgiveness of bad parents and sometimes even abusive ones. Sometimes I wonder if it’s really thought out, or just there because it’s a common genre trope. In this particular case, I think that Balogh wanted to show Camille was moving on, no longer having to cope with festering anger, but as you say, this could have been handled differently. Camille could have simply decided that her father was never worth her emotional energy and she was going to move on and focus her attention on the people who treated her better, instead of forgiving him.
Kaetrin: I’d have liked that much better.
I didn’t dislike Someone To Hold. But I didn’t love it either. It didn’t have the charm as Someone To Love for me. I found it terribly easy to put down. Partly, that’s to do with the political climate at the moment and my inability to look away from the train wreck that is Trump’s presidency. Books that transport me from reality are very welcome right now but I’ve found the ones that have succeeded have had more action in the plot and have had a faster pace. This book felt very quiet, slow and introspective. It was very much about Camille’s coming into herself, about identity and those things are, it turns out, things I need to be in a different reading mood to really embrace.
Janine: I actually found it quite absorbing, and I was very grateful to it for that because I needed that break from the real world. But then, Balogh almost always absorbs me, even with her lesser books. There is something that feels very believable about her characters that draws me in.
Kaetrin: And, as I said earlier, I didn’t really feel the romance for most of the book. I enjoyed the last 30 pages or so from a romantic perspective but up until then I was pretty much unmoved. The first time Camille and Joel had sex I was a bit flabbergasted.
Janine: I think I bought their attraction more than you did, though it did seem close to a friends with benefits kind of thing.
Kaetrin: I didn’t think there had been sufficient set up in the book to explain why they would even want to. Plus, there was hymen misplacement syndrome which bugged me.
She twined her legs about his as he pressed against her entrance and came into her, slowly but firmly and not stopping until she felt stretched, until she feared there could be no deeper for him to come without terrible pain, until the pain happened, sudden and sharp, and there was indeed somewhere deeper for him to come and he came there, hard and thick, and her virginity was gone.
Everybody repeat after me: The hymen is EXTERNAL.
Janine: LOL. And yeah, I noticed that too.
Kaetrin: I’ve been mulling over what grade to give the book. Perhaps if I’d been in a better reading mood, I’d have enjoyed it more. Perhaps if Clinton had won the presidency I’d have more patience with a slower-moving, more subtle story. But I wasn’t and she didn’t. So I’m going with a C+. Janine?
Janine: I was more absorbed than you but still agree with many of your points. C+/B- for me.