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REVIEW: A Promise of Spring by Mary Balogh

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.

Temporary Wife A Promise of Spring	Mary BaloghGrace 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… [spoiler]Grace’s difficult and risky pregnancy in her late thirties.[/spoiler]

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. [spoiler]And in Abbotsford, even two years after their marriage, when Grace and Perry expect a child, everyone but the doctor believes it is Grace’s first pregnancy.

Finally, there is the turnabout in Grace where Gareth is concerned. For the longest time, Gareth has this pull over Grace, and even though she fears him, she doesn’t seem to know how to resist him completely. Toward the end of the book, she does a complete about face and becomes indifferent to him. She explains that she hadn’t forgiven herself for sleeping with Gareth and bearing Jeremy out of wedlock and had been punishing herself with Gareth because she thought she deserved no better. She also explains that she has now finally forgiven herself and this is what freed her from Gareth’s power.

But why? If she had spent well over a decade, including two years of her marriage to Perry punishing herself, what was it that prompted her to forgive herself in the end? There doesn’t seem to be any event that catalyzes this change in a behavior / thought process that would surely be ingrained after more than ten years.[/spoiler]

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-.

Sincerely,

Janine

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JOINT REVIEW: A Christmas Promise by Mary Balogh

JOINT REVIEW: A Christmas Promise by Mary Balogh

Janine: It's been roughly four years since the first time I read Mary Balogh's A Christmas Promise. At the time, I loved the book, so when I heard it was being reissued, I thought this would be a great time to review it. I felt a little trepidation though, because sometimes books I used to adore don't have the same effect on me when I reread them years later.

Sunita: I thought I had read this book before but when I picked it up a couple of months ago, I realized it was new to me. The synopsis made me think it was similar to Georgette Heyer's A Civil Contract, which is one of my favorites among her novels, but it's not very romantic. The book does share some plot similarities, but the tone is quite different.

A Christmas Promise      * by Mary Balogh Janine: A Christmas Promise is a marriage of convenience story, a Christmas celebration story, and also a story that deals with grieving. It begins when Randolph Pierce, Earl of Falloden, receives a visit from Mr. Joseph Transome, a successful coal merchant.

Randolph has recently inherited the earldom, and with it the country home in which he grew up. Grenfell Park is mortgaged to the hilt, and Randolph has refused to sell it in order to pay off this and the other debts which his cousin, the previous earl, ran up.

Mr. Transome has purchased all of Randolph's debts, and he offers Randolph the following bargain: he will cancel all of Randolph's debts and settle half his enormous fortune on Randolph, if Randolph will marry his only daughter.

Randolph immediately balks at the notion of marrying a stranger, and the daughter of a "cit." He is in love with Miss Dorothea Lovestone, though he cannot afford to offer for her. He asks the coal merchant for more time, but Transome replies that that is time is the one thing he does not have. Although Randolph does not immediately realize it, Joseph Transome is dying.

The frail Mr. Transome grants Randolph a mere 24 hours to think over his offer, and after drinking himself to a near-stupor, Randolph realizes he has little choice unless he wants to sell Grenfell Park, which he cannot bear to do. The next day he tells Mr. Transome that he will agree to marry his daughter Eleanor.

Mr. Transome is pleased, though he stipulates two more conditions: The union must be consummated on the wedding night, and Randolph must reside with his new wife for the first year of their marriage.

Meanwhile, Eleanor Transome is at least as repelled by the thought of marrying an earl as Randolph is at the notion of allying himself with a coal merchant's daughter. Not only has Eleanor been rejected by members of the aristocracy in the past, despite her finishing school manners, but she is also in love with someone else: her second cousin, Wilfred.

But Wilfred, a shipping company clerk, has written Eleanor that he cannot in good conscience marry her while his prospects are so poor, nor ask her to wait for his circumstances to improve. Since Wilfred has left her no hope of a marriage between them, Eleanor agrees to fulfill her father's dying wish by marrying Randolph.

Randolph and Eleanor's first meeting does not go well. Eleanor believes Randolph is a spendthrift and gambler who has wasted his own fortune and will do the same to her father's, while Randolph thinks Eleanor is ambitious and grasping in her pursuit of a title.

It does not help Randolph's perception that Eleanor, conscious of her father's physical suffering, barely touches the dying man, and that self-consciousness makes her stiff in Randolph's presence. Randolph believes his soon-to-be bride is cold, and when Mr. Transome assures Randolph that in time he will see that Eleanor is the greatest of all the treasures Transome has bestowed on him, Randolph refrains from saying that he cannot imagine such thing will ever come to pass.

Nonetheless, the two young people marry and the wedding night scene is both surprising and memorable. Mary Balogh is a master, in my opinion, at depicting the evolution of a couple's relationship in the progression of the ways they make love. The sex scenes in her books can sometimes be strange or even uncomfortable to read, but they are also memorable and very effective at showing the nature of the couple's feelings toward one another. The angry sex between Randolph and Eleanor is both painful and oddly pleasurable, and it shocks both of them.

The next day, Eleanor goes to her father's house and remains there until Joseph's death. Before her father dies she does her best to give him assurances she does not believe about her husband and her marriage, and in turn, Eleanor's father extracts a promise from her. She is not to mourn him for long, and she is to celebrate Christmas with all the joy she is capable of.

But will Eleanor be able to keep her Christmas promise when she has not even be able to cry all the tears trapped inside her at the loss of her only remaining and loving parent? How can she evince joy at Christmas when she learns that Randolph was in love with Dorothea Lovestone, and that he is rumored to be keeping a mistress?

Will it be possible for Eleanor to celebrate the holiday when Randolph suspects she is too cold to mourn her father, and when he has invited four lonely gentlemen to share the holiday with them, one of whom Eleanor has reason to despise? Can Christmas be anything but fraught with conflict, when Eleanor has invited twenty of her boisterous middle class relatives to Grenfell Park at the same time and when Wilfred arrives with them, uninvited?

Will all these obstacles make Christmas at Grenfell Park an inescapable disaster? Or will a Christmas miracle enable Randolph and Eleanor to see each other with new eyes, and heal the breach between them?

Sunita: Your summary perfectly illustrates how much this book is and is not like Heyer's. The similarities are there: Rich Cit buys impoverished nobleman for cultured daughter, both must learn to live with each other. But even apart from the wedding-night sex scene, which I found intense and surprising, and the greater level of sexual tension and awareness, there are key differences. For one thing, Eleanor is beautiful. More importantly, while Mr. Transome sets the plot in motion and his memory shapes events in the book, he is not physically present for most of it, allowing Balogh to concentrate on the romance at the core of the story.

Janine: As I mentioned above, I approached rereading A Christmas Promise with some trepidation because it's rare for a book to have the same intense emotional impact on me on rereading that it had the first time. I remembered my first reading of A Christmas Promise as magical, and I wasn't sure that lightning would strike twice for me with this book.

Imagine my delight when the book proved to be as magical and seamless as I remembered. It was such a beautiful reading experience for me that I can't keep from describing it in metaphors and saying that it has the crystalline sparkle of snow; the sharp, stark, melancholy beauty of a deep winter twilight; the warmth and sweetness of a hot mug of cocoa, and the deep emotion of holiday music.

Sunita: I agree that this is a beautifully written book. Many of Balogh's earlier and very good novels are light on dialogue but very heavy on introspection and internal monologues. In this book, where the hero and heroine are thrown together and develop an unwilling attraction, this lets us see their feelings develop and uses their sharp words toward each other sparingly.

Janine: You make a great point. Let's discuss the characters.

Randolph isn't always good to Eleanor, but I found him sympathetic because it was clear from early on, when he showed her father compassion, that he had a good heart. He starts out making some mistakes, like not comforting Eleanor after her father's death, and seeing his mistress, but he realizes these were mistakes and he rectifies them.

I love the way Eleanor gradually grows on him, and he starts to realize how wrong he was about her. He sees that she has a loving heart, and he wants that love for himself. He's just not sure how to get from point A to point B. But he wants to be a good husband, and by the end of the book, he is everything Eleanor could ask for.

Sunita: I also really liked that Randolph could reevaluate his own behavior and assumptions as he got to know Eleanor. His initial reactions to her father and her family were snobbish and suspicious, but as he spent time with Eleanor and her family, he allowed his greater knowledge to reshape his opinions and feelings. You never feel that Randolph will lose his aristocratic instincts, but at the same time he can see the disadvantages of his upbringing. I thought Balogh hit the balance really well, in that both characters learned from each other without losing their individuality.

Janine: As for Eleanor, boy, I really felt for her despite her outward coldness to Randolph. She loves her father so much and his loss unmoors her. She has a tendency to get defensive and to lash out when hurt but I loved that fighter aspect of her personality. For example when Dorothea Lovestone's mother tells Eleanor about Randolph's mistress, Eleanor finds a way to make Lady Lovestone uncomfortable.

Sunita: Eleanor's relationship with her father had a special poignancy for me, because I am an only child and was extremely close to my father. He died suddenly and unexpectedly, and even though it's been almost ten years, I still miss him terribly. Balogh beautifully captured that sense of rudderlessness that can overwhelm you when you lose someone close to you. I found this aspect of the novel hard to read the first time, and I think I may have skimmed a bit. The second time I was prepared, but wow, it still packs a punch.

Janine: The larger cast of characters is also memorable. There are three other pairings in the book and I enjoyed all of them. Sir Albert Hagley, Randolph's best friend, seemed like a jerk at first but really redeemed himself by the end of the book.

The members of Eleanor's family were wonderful (with the exception of Wilfred) and they showed Randolph and his friends that the middle class has as much to offer them as vice versa. In another book, I might have found something like that unrealistic, but I thought it worked here because the initial snobbery wasn't overcome in an instant.

Sunita: I agree. These aren't people that are going to suddenly become kindred spirits, but they appreciate each other. It helps that everyone seems comfortable with their own class location.

Janine: The theme of mistaken first impressions, which is present in many of Ms. Balogh's books, is so well-executed in this one. Eleanor and Randolph have legitimate reasons to think badly of one another, and it makes sense that they cling to those mistaken first impressions early out of misplaced loyalty to the people they believe they are in love with. But they agree to be civil to each other pretty quickly and they start to give one another the benefit of the doubt shortly after that.

Sunita: Isn't it nice to have characters who mostly behave like thinking adults? They act on a lot of snap judgements and mistaken impressions at the beginning, but they get over them.

Janine: Agreed. Something else I really appreciated was that the book shows the holiday season in all its facets. Yes, it's a time of boisterous celebration and of family closeness for some, but it's also a time of loneliness for others and a time for missing loved ones who are no longer with us.

Sunita: Balogh has a number of books set at Christmas time, and I think she pulls off the tension between loneliness, loss, and the almost obsessive desire to be happy in the holidays better in this book than in most of them. Perhaps it works because the difficult emotions aren't only being experienced by the hero and heroine.

Janine: It's rare for me to enjoy every single page of a book but I did with this one. Still, if I had to pick a favorite scene from A Christmas Promise, it would have to be the last scene. I don't want to give away what happens but suffice to say that I almost emptied my box of tissues when I read it.

Sunita: The last few scenes are incredibly powerful to me. I also liked the scenes in the village, especially in the school.

Janine: For a grade, I'm torn between A- and A. I know there is no such thing as a perfect book, and there are minor nitpicks I could make about this book (for example, it seems doubtful that Randolph, a peer, was really in danger of going to debtor's prison for not repudiating his cousin's debts, and being Jewish, I would not have objected to less of a focus on the story of the birth of Christ), but I was so caught up in the story that I hardly minded these things. Perfect books may not exist, but as holiday reads go, I can't think of one that is closer to perfect.

Sunita: Agreed. I love Christmas stories despite the fact that I'm not Christian. I think the Bethlehem focus felt even stronger because of the birth-death dichotomy. Also, the neat matching up of the secondary characters seemed a bit much. If I hadn't known otherwise, I would have assumed they were sequel bait. But whether it's an A or an A-, it's a real keeper. I am so glad these early Baloghs are being released.

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