REVIEW: A Promise of Spring by Mary Balogh
The following review contains SPOILERS. The spoilers from late in the book are hidden, but others are visible. If you have never read A Promise of Spring and prefer to avoid spoilers, read this review at your own risk.
Dear Ms. Balogh,
A Promise of Spring, now being reprinted in a 2-in-1 volume with The Temporary Wife, has a gripping opening. The residents of Abbotsford, a village in Hampshire, are trying to decide what is to be done about Grace Howard. Grace is the spinster older sister of their rector, Reverend Paul Howard, who recently died saving a small child from being gored by an enraged bull.
Grace had been living in the rectory with Paul and doing her brother’s housekeeping. The people of Abbotsford believe her to be destitute and without family, and since she is respected there and they feel deeply indebted to her deceased brother, none of them can bear to see her without means. While several of the Abbotsford residents try to figure out what should be done, Sir Peregrine Lampman visits Miss Howard and asks her to marry him.
Sir Peregrine – Perry to friends – is a sunny natured and gregarious man in his mid-twenties with whom ladies, young and old, love to flirt. He was a close friend of the intellectual rector with whom he shared interests in wide ranging subjects. Although he doesn’t know Grace well, Perry admires her dignity, her self-containment and the beautiful environment she created for Paul with her embroidery and gardening.
While paying his respects to the grieving sister of his friend, Perry realizes that he wishes that he knew Grace better. Rather than letting her disappear from his life, Perry impulsively proposes marriage. Grace refuses Perry on the basis that she is ten years older than he, but he asks her to reconsider.
They go back and forth a bit and finally she gives him a stronger reason not to marry her. Grace grew up with Gareth, a neighbor and playmate whom she loved. When Gareth decided to fight in the war, she gave herself to him. Gareth died, she tells Perry, and left her with her son, Jeremy.
Because Jeremy was a bastard, he was considered inferior to his legitimate cousins and did not receive enough attention from the governess who watched the children swim. Jeremy drowned, and Grace was told that since he was a bastard, it was for the best. Paul, she tells Perry, was the only one to show her sympathy and compassion after her son’s death, even quarreling with their father, taking Grace with him and cutting off the family.
After hearing the whole story, Perry again asks Grace to marry him. Feeling too vulnerable to do the right thing and refuse once more, Grace accepts.
Perry and Grace marry. The residents of Abbotsford think theirs is a mismatch and will not work out well, but against the odds, their marriage thrives. Grace is surprised by her enjoyment of the marriage bed, and Perry learns that there is pleasure to be had in gardening. They find they enjoy each other’s company even when he is reading and she is embroidering silently beside him.
But Grace is afraid that happiness will not last. Eventually Peregrine will tire of his much older wife and realize that he made a mistake. Even though she has begun to come alive again, she resolves to keep a part of herself dead, so as not to suffer more when Perry realizes he should not have married her.
This state of affairs is disrupted when Grace receives a letter from her estranged sister-in-law, Ethel. Grace had written her family to inform them of Paul’s death and Ethel’s reply is a subdued invitation to come home for a visit and bring her new husband.
Grace is torn – she realizes that her younger, proud and willful self also played a role in her estrangement from her family, but it is difficult for her to forgive them their treatment of Jeremy. Yet she also wants to visit her son’s grave, and to see her aging father again before he dies. In the end, she and Perry decide in favor of going.
Grace and Perry arrive at her father’s home, Pangam Manor, and are greeted with politeness by Ethel and by Grace’s brother Martin. Grace’s niece, Priscilla, is glad to see Grace again, while Grace’s father, Lord Pawley, is stiff in his manner. Still, if the family is surprised by Perry’s youth, they don’t show it, and they don’t make Grace feel unwelcome.
The family relationships begin to thaw and just when Grace’s wounds start to heal, an invitation to a dinner party from Viscount Sandersford arrives. Grace remembers how Gareth’s father ignored her and the illegitimate grandson she had given him. Ethel suggests that they refuse the invitation, but Grace feels it is time to make peace, so the family attends.
At the dinner, Grace is shocked to realize that Gareth’s father isn’t Viscount Sandersford any longer. Gareth’s father passed away, and the new viscount is Gareth, the father of her child — the same Gareth she had told Perry was dead. Gareth, very much alive, is now intent on pursuing Grace. He tells her that he realizes that he made a huge mistake and insists that she cannot ignore the passion that has always been between them.
And he goes further than that: after Grace and Perry depart Pagnam Manor, Gareth follows them to London. He refuses to take no for an answer and will not stop pursuing Grace until she admits that her love for him has never died.
There were many reasons I wanted to love this novel. First, the beginning was so wonderful that I spent the first fifth or so convinced that I was reading a gem. Perry’s total acceptance of Grace, his lack of condemnation of her past, and his eagerness to marry her even after learning about it, as well as given that she was thirty-five to his twenty-five, made me love him.
Grace’s vulnerability, the loss and suffering in her past, and the way she kept her emotions bottled up really got to me. I was rooting for her and for Perry from the beginning and I couldn’t wait to see their marriage blossom.
And blossom it did. I loved the way they slowly and quietly came to love each other, without fanfare or fireworks. As much as I enjoy more combustible pairings, I also love a subtle, unexpected, quiet romance. Also, the older woman-younger man is a trope I’m fond of and I enjoyed that aspect of the story. I did wish that Grace was a little less insecure about her age but I suppose that was natural in her circumstances.
I also loved the contrast between the soft-spoken, non-threatening Perry and the dashing, older, handsomer and better titled Gareth. In another book Gareth would have been the hero and Perry the second fiddle whose love for Grace went unrequited so I *loved* that here this dynamic was reversed.
Unfortunately, the strengths I loved were offset by weaknesses. A Promise of Spring suffers from kitchen sink plotting as well as multiple contrivances. I’ll start with the former.
There is Perry and Grace’s age difference and the ways it affects their confidence in their marriage, Grace’s estrangement from her family over her son’s birth and death, the lie Grace tells Perry about the very-much-alive Gareth being dead, Gareth’s dogged pursuit of the married Grace, and finally…
A couple of these conflicts would have been enough to fill a short book like this, and because there are so many, most of them get short shrift and are resolved in ways that feel unconvincing.
The conflict between Grace and her family dissolves away very quickly. We never learn which of them it was who said that it was fortunate Jeremy died because he was a bastard, but that issue, a major one to my thinking, isn’t explicitly hashed out between Grace and her relatives. Instead everyone turns out to have admired or loved Grace all along, feelings of competition or rebellion are admitted, and the cruelty to Jeremy and even the possible responsibility for his neglect at the time of his death are glossed over.
Other conflicts also resolve too easily. Perry realizes on his own that Grace didn’t intend to lie about Gareth and never confronts her about it. Gareth goes away after it’s been implied that he is dangerous and after, as Grace prepares to give him the final brush-off, Ethel warns her of him:
“Oh, be careful.” Ethel looked troubled. “Do be careful, Grace. That man frightens me.”
Because of that buildup I was expecting Gareth to either try to rape Grace or to run off with Priscilla, Grace’s niece, in retaliation, but instead he just abruptly accepts his loss with good grace and slinks off into the sunset.
Then there are the contrivances. First, Grace tells Perry that Gareth is dead. This is explained as something that didn’t seem like a lie to Grace at the time because Gareth was dead to her after his refusal to marry her. I was fine with that until she did it again: when Perry asks if Gareth was a friend of her lover’s, she inadvertently confirms Perry’s statement. It no longer felt like a one off to me after that, but the deception was still portrayed as unintentional on Grace’s part. By the second time she bungles communicating the truth, this feels contrived to keep Perry in ignorance of just exactly who Gareth was.
Second, Grace and Perry don’t discuss their problems with Gareth much even when they both know Gareth is pursuing her. And this goes on and on. And on. They also each fear the other doesn’t love them and may come to regret the marriage or even take up with someone else, but neither confronts the other with their fear. Even when Grace attempts to include Perry in her concerns about their relationship by showing him a letter Gareth sent her in secret, Perry doesn’t destroy it or read it with her and his actions and words encourage her to read it alone.
I can believe that insecurities would keep them from communicating to some degree, but this went on so long that it started to feel like a contrivance rather than a natural pattern of behavior for the characters.
Third, Perry doesn’t interfere in Gareth’s pursuit of Grace. This is said to be because he wants Grace to resolve her feelings for Gareth and make a free choice between them, but it starts to feel like a convenient device after a while because even when Gareth pulls Grace for a moonlit walk Perry allows it despite the fact that Grace’s refusal to fall into Gareth’s arms angers Gareth.
I would say that it doesn’t seem to occur to Perry that Gareth could harm Grace, except that’s evidently not true because immediately after the walk, Perry tells Gareth that he won’t ever call him out unless Gareth forces himself on Grace. If Perry feels Gareth is capable of rape, why permit him to take walk with Grace alone in a dark garden where they can argue out of hearshot? The contrivance here makes the otherwise loving and intelligent Perry seem either borderline TSTL or an inconsistently drawn character.
Fourth, Grace’s backstory also seems doubtful. She had Jeremy at age twenty-one and never had a London season. Why did her family never try to take her to London before then? Why did they not insist Gareth marry her? Why didn’t they try to marry her to someone else when Gareth refused? Why didn’t they try to get her to give Jeremy up for adoption or else send her away when she gave birth and then maintained her pride in her son? I could accept one or two of these unanswered questions about Grace’s past, but this many makes it difficult to suspend disbelief.
Fifth, I thought it was passing strange that no one outside of Grace’s family and Gareth seemed to know that Grace had borne Gareth a child. Jeremy lived for four years and his existence doesn’t seem to have been hidden, so one would expect there would be rumors about Grace, a baron’s daughter who had a child out of wedlock. But instead only her family seems to have noticed this event. No one gossips about her in London, Leicestershire or Hampshire.
To its credit, A Promise of Spring absorbed me while I was reading it, and I really wanted to love it. When I finished it, I felt dissatisfied despite the fact that the book sucked me in. I knew my dissatisfaction had to do with the kitchen sink plotting but as I thought about the reasons more, I also started seeing contrivances, plot holes and slapdash conflict resolutions. I have enjoyed many of your trad regencies, but (to make what I know is a horrible pun) this is one that did not deliver on its promise. C-.