Dear Ms. Thomas:
I read 18 A-level romances in 2008, an unusually rich year for me. Two of those 18 books were your first two romances, Private Arrangements and Delicious. Needless to say, your books have vaulted to the top of my “most anticipated” list. So I settled down to read Not Quite a Husband with high hopes. I’m happy to say that I was not disappointed.
Bryony Asquith and Leo Marsden have known each other forever, their family estates in rural England being adjacent. Their childhoods were very different, however, and Bryony never paid much attention to Leo, who was four years her junior (a detail I really appreciated because it was unusual and gave their subsequent relations some unexpected dimensions). Bryony finally notices Leo when he returns to London as a young man of about 23, handsome, charming and feted for his mathematical genius and his travels.
Bryony is an odd duck, on the shelf due not just to her advanced age (she’s in her late 20s) but her unusual profession: she is a doctor. In the 1890s, both female doctors and noblewomen practicing a profession were quite unusual. Thus Bryony is doubly alienated.
Jane gives an excellent recap of the plot of Not Quite a Husband, which actually begins after Leo and Bryony have been married (and estranged) for several years in her review. So as not to duplicate Jane’s efforts, I thought I would focus on what worked for me and what didn’t, and why.
First of all, I love your prose. Love, love, love it. One example:
The summer night sky over the Hindu Kush, domed by the Milky Way’s mage light, was infinitely splendid. Strewn against this craggy luminosity, millions of tiny stars shone, a diamond heist gone awry.
I felt while reading Not Quite a Husband that it was a bit of a departure in some ways from your previous two books. It felt slightly less sophisticated to me, for a couple of reasons. First of all, the genesis of Bryony and Leo’s estrangement is an improbable coincidence that just so happens to place Bryony in the wrong place at the wrong time so she can see something she shouldn’t. This leads to a sort of Big Mis, in that Bryony makes assumptions about Leo (and holds onto them for years) that just aren’t correct, and that could have been cleared up with an honest conversation.
I am not as opposed to the Big Mis convention as some readers, and it can even work for me, especially in cases, such as here, where there are underlying issues that make it plausible. It’s not about Bryony mistaking Leo’s actions; it’s about her fear of being loved and loving in return, and her inability to trust that love will last. Leo’s mistakes are mostly due to immaturity, and to his credit he does try to make things right. It’s just that he doesn’t know how to get through to Bryony. Perhaps it’s that his life has been so easy up until his marriage that he doesn’t remotely understand the emotions that Bryony hides beneath her cold facade. He’s not shallow, but he is far out of his depth with Bryony.
Besides the sort-of Big Mis, there is some activity that I think I’ll spoiler-bar to be on the safe side:
Different readers bring different expectations to the table vis a vis “realism”, and the things that I mention did not affect my enjoyment of the book, but they did make me see it as slightly less polished and sophisticated than Private Arrangements or Delicious.
I have felt since your first book that your prose and storytelling are reminiscient of Laura Kinsale (in my eyes, there is hardly a higher compliment). In Not Quite a Husband I found echoes of the best of Mary Balogh, as well – not just in the ability to evoke emotion with slightly sensationalistic plot points but in some sentimental family reunions towards the end.
I really liked Leo and Bryony as characters. Leo is easy to like of course; in a way that almost made me like him less! I guess I could relate to Bryony resenting slightly what a golden child he was, how he seemed to have it all – a brilliant brain, social graces and a loving family. Bryony was quite a bit pricklier, and while in theory I love the idea of a prickly heroine, in practice I don’t always love the execution. But I felt that I understood Bryony’s isolation and fears; my heart hurt for her and that made her HEA that much more satisfying.
I wish I had gotten a better handle on the attraction that medicine held for Bryony. I understood that she had a scientific mind and was interested in anatomy and how the human body worked. But she seemed at several points driven to heal, and while I understood that her work constituted an escape from her life, I didn’t have a sense of whether she was the type of doctor who was capable of showing compassion when it was needed. I would have liked to have seen a little of her bedside manner, to find out if she was brusque and all business (as the general depiction of her personality would’ve suggested) or if perhaps she was able to let her guard down with her patients and pour love into the work she did, since she was at that point unable to express it in other ways.
My only other complaint is the same one I believe I’ve had with your first two books – I wish Not Quite a Husband had been a bit longer. It didn’t feel quite as abrupt as Private Arrangements, whose ending I definitely had issues with because it felt rushed. It’s just that you tell the story so beautifully and I get the sense that it’s publishers’ restrictions, rather than tight storytelling, that dictates the number of pages in your books. That might just be my imagination, though. That said, while I hovered between A and A- grades for Not Quite a Husband, I am going to give it an A; it earned that grade with the emotion it evoked from me.