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REVIEW: Not Quite a Husband by Sherry Thomas

Dear Ms. Thomas:

book reviewI 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.

Simply gorgeous.

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:

There are several instances of sex being initiated by Leo while Bryony is asleep, and a couple of Bryony initiating sex when Leo is asleep (and in one case delirious with fever, a plotline I think I saw on the soap opera Santa Barbara 20 years ago). I didn’t have any moral qualms about this, but it struck me as sort of over the top and cheesy in the style of 80s-early 90s melodramatic romances (some of which I adore, so that’s not a knock).

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.

Best regards,

Jennie

This book can be purchased in mass market from an independent bookstore or ebook format from the Sony Store and other etailers.

has been an avid if often frustrated romance reader for the past 15 years. In that time she's read a lot of good romances, a few great ones, and, unfortunately, a whole lot of dreck. Many of her favorite authors (Ivory, Kinsale, Gaffney, Williamson, Ibbotson) have moved onto other genres or produce new books only rarely, so she's had to expand her horizons a bit. Newer authors she enjoys include Julie Ann Long, Megan Hart and J.R. Ward, and she eagerly anticipates each new Sookie Stackhouse novel. Strong prose and characterization go a long way with her, though if they are combined with an unusual plot or setting, all the better. When she's not reading romance she can usually be found reading historical non-fiction.

24 Comments

  1. Moth
    May 26, 2009 @ 11:56:42

    Your spoiler bar is malfunctioning. I’ve already read this so not a problem for me, but I thought you might want a heads up. :)

  2. SonomaLass
    May 26, 2009 @ 12:02:27

    Eeek! Thanks for SAYING spoiler, even though the bar isn’t working — I managed to scroll down fast and avoid reading what I shouldn’t. This book is my reward to myself when I finish my semester grades later this week. I’ll come back and read your review after that!

  3. Janine
    May 26, 2009 @ 12:25:20

    I think I fixed the missing spoiler bar. I hope I covered the correct section.

  4. Jennie
    May 26, 2009 @ 12:26:49

    Yes, it appears fixed. Sorry, it was fine when I previewed it. Spoiler bars seem tempermental, for some reason.

    Thanks, Janine!

  5. Moth
    May 26, 2009 @ 12:44:57

    Spoiler bar working for me now.

  6. Mara
    May 26, 2009 @ 15:37:05

    I think I saw Sherry Thomas’ name pop up here in the comments section some time ago and so I’d like to think she might read this. If so here goes….Ms. Thomas, thank you so much for writing romance. That’s it. Just glad you didn’t pick some other genre. Your writing is wonderful and I look forward to each book eagerly.

    Really glad to hear the great reviews on this one too. When Dear Author likes it I generally do too. I’ll order it tonight!

  7. Raine
    May 26, 2009 @ 17:46:05

    I inhaled this book in one seating last friday. Left the world behind, even though I had an assignment due monday morning which I finished after staying up for 39 hours straight but I digress…

    Started reading it at 10 pm and didn’t stop until 3 am. Love it. Made me read Private Arrangements again- I agree with the abruptness of the ending.

    Please keep ‘em coming Ms Thomas.

  8. Jennie
    May 26, 2009 @ 18:45:14

    Mara, let us know what you think when you do read it.

    Raine, I’m not a read in one sitting type of gal, but I did read this pretty quickly for me (over maybe three days?). It was that compelling.

  9. Kathy
    May 26, 2009 @ 20:46:02

    I just want to add my two cents worth of “squeeing” over a book. This book was absolutely wonderfully and elegantly written. I, too, could not put the book down until I had finished it. And then I picked it up again and immediately re-read it. Now when I get in a blue funk because authors of some of the best historicals I’ve ever read are no longer writing historicals or at least not much at all (like Judith Ivory, Connie Brockway, and Laura Kinsale), I thank the stars that Sherry Thomas is writing. So thank you, Ms. Thomas!

  10. ami
    May 27, 2009 @ 01:09:40

    I actually finished it one sitting like Delicious and Private Arrangements, but I felt disappointed in this book(I felt like it could have been so much more). It was too short, so we never got some viewpoints that I felt we should have had(I don’t know more of Leos or Bryony in her, Castle moments or when uhhh acting frigid? Or that gambling quote scene, what was Leo thinking during that? I don’t know, I wish we had a little more explanations of each character. And yeah plus B) It also lost a bit of steam toward the end, right after the point where the shooting match takes place. All the tension that was built up to that point, just defused somewhere along the way. It was still decent up to that point, but then it became kind of let’s get this over with, instead of slowly inhaling the rest of the story. y when they’re rushing. I’ve read many other rush to the “Place” or Siege stories, so that part was rather lacking for me.

    I know she had to rewrite this without the side story thus the shorter length and some gaps. I still liked it but.. PA remains my favorite, the main characters were the most likable in that one. I did like the prologue and epilogue in NQAH though.

  11. Sally
    May 27, 2009 @ 10:07:09

    I just finished the book and loved it. Like Sherry’s other books, it is a beautifully written, mesmerizing story. I especially enjoyed how we gradually understood Leo’s and Bryony’s characters and witnessed their growth to appreciate the heart warming HEA. Thank you, Sherry, for such a wonderful book, and I can’t wait to read your next one!

  12. Moth
    May 27, 2009 @ 17:03:30

    Am I the only one who was a little startled by
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    P
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    just how much time they had for sex in the middle of the siege? I mean, jeez, he was out manning the walls to the point of exhaustion. She was in the surgery handling the wounded. Just where did they really find the time for all that nookie?

  13. Jennie
    May 27, 2009 @ 19:28:33

    Ami, I didn’t really have the same problems with the pacing in the second half of the book that you did. I was anticipating all along that they would end up in the middle of the rebellion, and the quicker pace worked for me there. As I said, I wouldn’t mind if her books were a little longer, but my only complaint there.

    Moth, I don’t disagree, but it seemed in line with the rest of the sex in the book, which wasn’t hugely realistic. I didn’t mind it. I cut my teeth on 80s books where there was often sex on horseback, etc. So maybe I’m a little immune to the strangeness there.

  14. Rossi
    Jun 01, 2009 @ 00:20:47

    !!!SPOILER!!!!

    I actually like the sexing during sleep part. I think it’s such a good demonstrating how intensely lonely both of these ppl were in their relationship until that moment of understanding. It’s clear that these two are meant for each other but like any good love story, their path to each other is convoluted and sometimes, stupidly so. But nevertheless, I quite like the Big Mis in here. It’s very relatable because it’s stem from very human flaws and insecurities. Instead of some contrived plot line, the main problem is within and in a non broody sulky way too. I

    Unlike others, I thought the book was long enough. I do feel that once the Big Misunderstanding got clear up, there wasn’t that much to drive the plot further more.

  15. Jennie
    Jun 01, 2009 @ 19:08:59

    Rossi, I think that’s a good point about the motivations behind the sex. I think my only (minor) issue with it was from a plausability standpoint.

    In some ways, this was a “Big Mis” plot, in that the reasons for the estrangement could have been aired out in a conversation. The worst of Big Mis plots are completely misunderstanding driven (“Oh, she’s your sister“), whereas with the better ones (and I include this book among those, obviously), the misunderstanding goes deeper and is informed by the characters’ flaws, fears and insecurities. So I totally agree with you there.

    On reflection, I wonder if the intervening years allowed the heroine to mature to the point where she could accept love. I think Leo definitely matured, but I’m not sure what changed in Bryony. I do like to think that there has been some catalyst for change so that the years of separation don’t feel totally wasted (and I did appreciate that the separation wasn’t as long as separations often are in this type of story – a decade seems to be the standard).

  16. SonomaLass
    Jun 03, 2009 @ 11:34:43

    I finally got to read the book, so now I’ve read your review, Jennie. SPOILERS AHOY!!

    I agree that the Big Mis here is one of the good ones — because it isn’t totally a Mis. He did sleep with another woman right before their wedding! It falls into Big Mis territory because she’s too insecure to confront him about it, and she jumps to the wrong conclusions about what it means, but it’s not like he didn’t do it. For me that part of the plot worked pretty well, because he knows he screwed up and he can begin from there to figure out how badly she was hurt.

    Sherry Thomas works very well with the “you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone” trope. There are personal reasons that’s a favorite of mine, and maybe that’s why I have liked all three of her books so much. I’m also a sucker for British India as a setting; there were moments in this book that reminded me of one of my all-time favorite books, M. M. Kaye’s The Far Pavilions. The geography, history and culture were done well, IMO.

    Another thing I loved about this book was that there was NO VILLAIN. (I guess you could count the prophet guy, but he’s not the romance standard direct enemy of the h/h.) The conflict was between them to be worked out, alongside an external set of challenges for them to confront together, and that really worked for me.

    The sleepy sex thing didn’t bother me, really. I was glad she found that way to establish the characters’ sexual rapport. I really appreciate romances where the characters acknowledge their sexual attraction but that doesn’t solve everything — no mighty wang or magic hoo-hoo in operation. It doesn’t bother me that mind-blowing sex is a requirement for the relationship to work (hey, it’s fiction, and those parts are fun to read!), but I like seeing the needs of the characters go beyond that, to issues of respect and emotional compatibility. IMO the best romance authors do that, and Sherry Thomas is right up there for me.

  17. Jennie
    Jun 03, 2009 @ 22:50:19

    Another thing I loved about this book was that there was NO VILLAIN. (I guess you could count the prophet guy, but he's not the romance standard direct enemy of the h/h.) The conflict was between them to be worked out, alongside an external set of challenges for them to confront together, and that really worked for me.

    I totally agree. I got fed up a while back with the surfeit of romances that featured villains and nemeses for the h/h, and often strong mystery or suspense elements even when the book wasn’t labeled, say, a romantic mystery. Not because I dislike mystery or suspense, or object to villains in stories, but because I felt that some authors were using these plot tropes or external characters to pad the story because they couldn’t sustain the focus on the h/h. I really admire a author who manages to tell a story without falling back on those crutches (though NQaH did, I guess, include some “adventure”, but I have a higher tolerance for adventure in my romances than I do mystery or suspense).

  18. SonomaLass
    Jun 03, 2009 @ 23:01:35

    Many historical plots rely on the machinations of a villain, and that’s difficult to do well. It just gives you more clichés to avoid. I don’t object to villains done well, but it is nice to see a good plot that doesn’t rely on someone personally out to get one of the main characters, or working fiendishly to keep the h/h apart. It also helps the romance to feel more real to me, because most couples I know have to struggle against themselves or against circumstantial obstacles to get together and stay together, not against a personal nemesis.

  19. Jennie
    Jun 04, 2009 @ 17:00:54

    Many historical plots rely on the machinations of a villain, and that's difficult to do well. It just gives you more clichés to avoid. I don't object to villains done well, but it is nice to see a good plot that doesn't rely on someone personally out to get one of the main characters, or working fiendishly to keep the h/h apart. It also helps the romance to feel more real to me, because most couples I know have to struggle against themselves or against circumstantial obstacles to get together and stay together, not against a personal nemesis.

    Yes, exactly. I’ve certainly encountered an interesting villain or two in my reading, but most of them were forgettable or detestable (and not in a good way), or some combination thereof. I really prefer the conflict to focus on the h/h and their own tangible or intangible obstacles, rather than some evil outside force.

  20. SonomaLass
    Jun 04, 2009 @ 17:27:30

    I just finished one of those, a book that’s been in the pile for a while. I actually had trouble finishing the last quarter of it — once the h/h had acknowledged their feelings, it was just about them defeating the villain. A fine writer, but for the last part of the book there was too much focus on these two-dimensional evil characters and not enough on the main couple and their relationship. Disappointing.

  21. Elmost
    Oct 18, 2009 @ 00:51:20

    Nice post. All really good details. In That Respect are a few sites that I’ve recorded at in order to comment, but they are a couple of and far between. Riveting statistics ) I was actually considering about remarks last night.

  22. Mykal
    Nov 08, 2009 @ 08:56:47

    I dont usually reply to posts but in this case. WOW!!!

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