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REVIEW:  The Heiress Effect by Courtney Milan

REVIEW: The Heiress Effect by Courtney Milan

Dear Ms. Milan,

I’ve enjoyed catching up with your Brothers Sinister series this year despite a persistent reading slump. For this reason, I preordered the newest book in the series, The Heiress Effect, about a month ago. When it popped up on my kindle, I started reading.

The Heiress Effect by Courtney MilanMiss Jane Fairfield has a problem. Or rather, a hundred thousand and four hundred and eighty problems. To repel prospective suitors for the four hundred and eighty days it will take for her younger half sister Emily to reach her majority is no small task, given Jane’s large fortune, which numbers one hundred thousand pounds.

Jane herself is of age, but until her sister reaches her majority, Emily will remain in the dubious care of their guardian, Titus Fairfield, a man who has had Emily subjected to burns and near-drowning, all in the name of “curing” Emily’s seizures. Though Emily’s condition is hardly incapacitating, Titus treats her as a fragile flower in need of sheltering, and does not allow her to leave the house.

It falls to Jane—illegitimate but an heiress thanks to the fortune her biological father left her—to protect her legitimate sibling from Titus’s ministrations. So Jane remains under Titus’ roof and bribes doctors and quacks. She dresses outrageously and acts clueless while insulting any man who might otherwise have wanted to marry her. And she counts. She counts the days until Emily is free.

One day, the Johnson twins, so-called friends of Jane’s who whisper about her behind her back, mention that the gathering at the Marquess of Bradenton’s home to which Jane has been invited will include new guest, Oliver Marshall. Oliver is the illegitimate but acknowledged brother of a duke, and Jane fears he will pursue her for her fortune, so when they meet, she works extra hard at putting him off.

Little does she realize that she is the last woman Oliver would want to marry. Oliver has money that his brother settled on him, but what he really craves is power. Political power. For that he needs a less obtrusive wife, someone who would be viewed as a credit to him and would help people forget that he is illegitimate. This is not something Jane could do.

Oliver’s first impression of Jane is that she is socially completely inept, but well-meaning. When some of the men whom she has insulted as part of her act mock her, Oliver refuses to participate, or to hurt her in any way. He knows too well what it feels like to be an outsider.

But then he receives an offer. The Marquess of Bradenton, a power broker who was gravely humiliated by Jane, asks Oliver to engineer her downfall. In return, Bradenton promises to deliver nine votes, from himself and his friends in the House of Lords, in favor of voting reform, an issue near to Oliver’s heart.

Not only that, but if Oliver does so, Bradenton will also let him be the one who gets the credit for swaying Bradenton’s friends. This will lift Oliver’s political star high enough to eventually net him a seat in Parliament.

Oliver gets a sick feeling in his stomach at Bradenton’s suggestion, because while he would like to refuse, he can’t quite bring himself to do so. His conflict grows when he realizes that Jane’s act is just that—an intentional deception.

Oliver gets to know Jane, and she begins to trust him. When Oliver warns her against doing so, she decides not to listen. Oliver makes her feel less alone, and while Jane may be the “impossible girl” in Oliver’s eyes, he is equally drawn to her.

In addition to Oliver and Jane’s storyline, there are two subplots in the book. One is about Jane’s sister Emily, who sneaks out of the house against her oppressive guardian’s edict, and meets and falls in love with an Indian law student, Anjan Bhattacharya. The other has to do with Oliver’s younger sister Free, and her namesake, his agoraphobic aunt Freddy.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Heiress Effect but before I get into the reasons why, I wanted to mention the stumbling blocks I encountered. Most of these were relatively minor, hopped over easily, but there were several of them.

You have a way of crafting strong and original conflicts. Your plots put the hero and heroine at cross-purposes in unexpected ways, and that is one of the reasons I so appreciate your books. That was the case with this book as well as with the other works in this series.

Perhaps because I am familiar with your other works and you consistently write good guy heroes, though, I didn’t believe that Oliver would actually harm Jane in his quest for the votes Bradenton could deliver. I think the conflict would have felt even stronger if I had.

At the same time, I did believe in Oliver’s desire to fit in, and in the ways this hurt his relationship with Jane. But for this reason, I wanted a bigger grand gesture, sacrifice, or other balancing of the scales by Oliver at the end of the book. This is a redemption story, and the redemptive arc needed to be stronger.

The Emily/Anjan and Free/Freddy subplots were amazing and I loved them, but I felt that the main Oliver/Jane storyline lost a little momentum because of the subplot development. To a degree, the subplots felt more emotionally impactful than the main storyline, but I liked the main storyline a great deal too.

Politics was somewhat idealized by the resolution of the story. The Heiress Effect began with Oliver having to choose between harming one person—Jane—and sacrificing the greater good (a win for democracy by expanding voting rights). But politics is a profession in which you have to be prepared to sacrifice individuals for the greater good, for example sending soldiers to die in wars. If you can’t bring yourself to do that, you may find yourself unable to stomach your profession. There’s no simple solution to this problem, so I wasn’t completely satisfied with the book’s conclusion on that front.

I also felt that the novel tried to dodge a bit of a bullet with Anjan’s character. I loved him and I really felt for him because of the way he had to hide some of who he was to be accepted in England. In this he had something in common with Oliver, but the novel never told us whether he gained the same freedom to be himself at the end that other characters find.

In discussing the book’s premise with Sunita, who has not read it, I learned that Anjan’s last name indicates that he belongs to a high caste (Brahmin). It is very unlikely that someone in his position would have married an English woman, especially in 1867, although it is possible. It is even less likely that such a marriage would have won approval from Anjan’s mother.

On a different topic, while the “to thine own self be true” theme is one of my favorite themes in literature, I feel the worthwhile message of The Heiress Effect is driven home a little more strongly than I prefer, with the result being that the novel feels a bit didactic.

To one degree or another, I’ve had this issue with every Milan book or novella I have read, and I’m not sure to whether it is because the strength of the messages can get in the way of the romanticism of the narrative, or whether it’s that the messages stand out more because they are feminist and progressive, which I like, but which isn’t typical of the genre. I suspect it’s some of both.

Now onto the things I enjoyed in this novel. There were quite a few of them, too.

The ultimate conflict was not about whether Oliver would sacrifice Jane for votes, but rather about whether he would sacrifice himself—his personal happiness with Jane—in favor of marrying a wife more “suitable” for a politician’s public image.

I loved the way Jane, who wore bold clothing and made bold choices, was contrasted with Oliver, who tried so hard to fit in that he stifled who he was. I loved this conflict and especially the role reversal. [spoiler]While the story began with Oliver giving Jane courage, it ended with Oliver taking courage from Jane.[/spoiler]

I thought Jane was a truly heroic figure, and I loved her. She was true to herself and that can take a lot of strength. Oliver was less heroic, but I still liked him. I thought it was a nice bonus that neither of the protagonists was an aristocrat, that both were outsiders, and that two who were once scorned as “illegitimate” found their happiness together.

The sex was sexy and felt necessary to the story. I loved that there wasn’t any extra sex shoehorned in just to make the book more steamy. Instead we got exactly what served the story best.

Similarly, I was glad that though we got to visit with Robert and Minnie, Hugo and Serena, these scenes served Oliver’s growth and didn’t feel like prequel bait (I was a little less keen on Sebastian and Viola’s later scenes – those didn’t feel quite as organic).

One of the things I appreciated most was that The Heiress Effect included a world of characters: family members, friends, and colleagues of the main characters. It’s rare to see such a richly textured tapestry of a novel in this genre and I think the secondary characters contributed to that effect.

Among those side characters were two human and believable villains. Titus, Jane and Emily’s uncle, wasn’t purely evil. He believed he was doing the right thing by keeping Emily confined and allowing doctors to experiment on her in order to “cure” her.

The Marquess of Bradenton was even more believable and more compelling. He relied on his privilege to bring others into line and tried to use it to control Oliver. Bradenton truly believed himself superior to Oliver due to his birth, and putting upstarts like Oliver and Jane in their place was something he saw as natural, part of the social order.

It was such a nice twist that just as the hero wasn’t an aristocrat, his antagonist was one. Romances so often romanticize the upper classes that it feels refreshing and authentic to me to see an example of how power and privilege can corrupt and blind.

Anjan and Emily’s storyline had a subtle star-crossed lovers feel that was deeply romantic. I wondered how they would overcome Emily’s uncle, and the solution to the problem proved delightful.

Anjan was a wonderful character, chafing at bigotry and oppression but aware that rebelling could be costly to him. He was respectful of Emily, and caring and supportive once he learned the truth of her circumstances.

Emily was lovely, and in a way, she too was oppressed—in her case by her uncle’s view of her medical condition. What I loved about Emily was that she did not accept her uncle’s view of her, and she found a way to chart her own destiny. It was great to see a disabled secondary heroine portrayed as competent and capable.

Oliver’s aptly named sixteen year old sister, Free (short for Frederica), was another terrific character. I loved her ambition and her inner strength, which was made up of part idealism and part determination. I am now looking forward to The Mistress Rebellion, the upcoming book that will feature her as a main character.

Finally, what can I say about Oliver’s agoraphobic aunt Freddy? This was the character who annoyed me in The Governess Affair with her constant disapproval of Serena, but in this book I discovered a lot more compassion for her than I’d had previously. She won my affection and respect, and she broke my heart.

While not perfect, The Heiress Effect was a very enjoyable book and a moving one, too. Even with the issues I’ve listed, it is still one of the best 2013 books I’ve read. My grade for it is a B+.

Sincerely,

Janine

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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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