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. D.
I finished reading the 2-in-1 book including ‘A Promise of Spring’ very recently, and would like to chime in.
I understand that secrets help drive stories because secrets introduce conflict, but I don’t enjoy it when a story is dragged out for (in this case quite a long while) based on a miscommunication that could be cleared up in 5 minutes or less if the characters just talked. Grace agonizes endlessly internally about how she loves Perry but doesn’t think Perry loves her. Perry agonizes endlessly internally about how he loves Grace but doesn’t think Grace loves him. Lather, rinse, repeat for about 30 pages (as displayed on my iTouch) in the last third of the book. This particular plot device is badly overused in romance novels, IMO, and it was beaten like a dead horse in this one.
Now, about Gareth. I appreciate villain characters. The bigger the jerk, the more satisfying is the takedown later. I’ve written some real jerkish characters myself – who engage in jerkish behavior because it amuses them or they feel some sort of righteous indignation that can only be repaid by being more jerkish – and I hope they’re at least believable. I don’t think I understand Gareth’s motives yet. He used her when they were young, and 14 years later, he…what? He doesn’t love her. He keeps accusing her of loving him, but she has nothing to bring to the sort of marriage he wants except one supposes a female body. She has no money, no lands, and no realistic hope of providing an heir. I know he’s a dominating jack***, but what *drives* him? I don’t know.
I could see the author knows her period in history, which I found very interesting and educational. I even got to learn about ‘chip-straw’ hats. The period accuracy didn’t make up for the angst, though. I didn’t love this story. I did love the previous story in the book, ‘The Temporary Wife’.
@Angela Beegle: Thanks for weighing in. I agree the non-communication was dragged out way too long. I don’t mind it up to a point if it is based in the characters’ fears and insecurities, and at first I felt that way here, but as it went on (and on, and on) I lost all patience with Perry and Grace. Perry especially. What did you think of the scene where he wouldn’t even read or destroy the letter from Gareth after Grace brought it to him? I just couldn’t imagine a real human being making that choice in that situation.
As for Gareth and his motives, that part worked a little better for me than it did for you. I saw Gareth as a manipulative narcissist who loved getting attention from Grace when he was young. It was easy for him to seduce her and use her the first time. But the second time, she had Perry and she was bitter about Gareth’s abandonment of her and Jeremy, so she was more of a challenge. And that was what I saw as the reason he pursued her — for the challenge and to prove to himself that he still had “it”. That he could still enthrall her even against her desires to the contrary, that he was handsome and magnetic enough to wield power over her.
But because he was so determined, I just didn’t buy that he would back down and give up as easily as he did in the end, without getting back at her in some fashion for choosing Perry. It seemed like Gareth’s ego was on the line in the competition with the younger, nicer, and popular Perry, and since Gareth’s ego was everything to him, I fully expected him to get mean when he didn’t get his way.
Balogh’s writing doesn’t jar me with regard to period accuracy, but it is not an era I know well and I’ve been told there are historical inaccuracies in her books, so I would caution you not to take everything in there as a history lesson. And yeah, The Temporary Wife was much better. In fact, I recommended that one in an earlier review.
I wanted to love this, for all the reasons that you cited. The major flaw to me was Gareth. The character seemed unrealistic and cartoonish to me. Just his existence would have been sufficient conflict to me: Grace’s fear of discovery, her unresolved feelings about their relationship. How much more dangerous would he have been had be been somewhat tender towards her and nostalgic for their lost love, instead of a moustache-twirling villain?
@cbackson: I agree that Gareth was an over the top villain, and as such, a weak point in the story. I was disappointed when he turned out to be alive because it took the book in a less interesting (to me) direction.
But I very much saw him as a foil to the younger, less secure, and less handsome Perry, and I think that if Gareth had been tender toward Grace, it would have (A) made less of a contrast for Perry’s good qualities and (B) made no sense in light of the fact that Gareth didn’t marry Grace to protect their child from the stigma of illegitimacy. How could a man who abandoned his son so completely be anything but a cad?
I was terrified you were going to write that Jeremy hadn’t actually died either. And then I thought, ah, it’s Mary Balogh, she doesn’t do unbelievable over the top. I have this duo of books on my “Up Next in Love” list but was not planning on reading this one. Your review confirms my decision. Thank you!
@Dabney: Gosh, that would have been totally over the top. You’re welcome! I’m actually not sorry I read it as Balogh’s trads are usually interesting even when they don’t work for me.
I feel like I should have been annoyed by all the points you raised in the review, but for some reason this particular story really worked for me. Grace came off as slightly more authentic of a historical heroine, and Perry’s decision to let her grow and work through her issues with Gareth sold me more on their love than if he had gone charging in. It wound up being an A-/B+ read, for my tastes.
@Sarah: I have at least a few friends who love this book, so you are not alone. I did love Perry’s decision to let Grace work through her issues initially as well. It seemed so mature and thoughtful early on. It was only after Perry let Gareth lead Grace away outside in the dark even though he believed Gareth was capable of raping Grace that I lost respect for him.
What did you think of the scene where he wouldn’t even read or destroy the letter from Gareth after Grace brought it to him? I just couldn’t imagine a real human being making that choice in that situation.
In truth? I thought it smacked of modern philosphy. A LOT of what Perry did, and said, smacked of a very modern (if I may say so) philosophy of non-interference in the destinies of others, coupled with a ‘beta male’ concept of masculinity. He wanted to respect her so much that he wouldn’t even read the letter when she brought it to him to read? By forcing autonomy on her, he withdrew all support. On a related note: What was the point in him going to Gareth and threatening him? He didn’t follow through. All he did was make Gareth laugh at him – again making him look weak, a portrayal that was not remedied later on in a period-accurate manner. I wanted to see him take Gareth down in some way that would’ve destroyed him socially (whisper campaign?). Or prove to be an amazing fencer. Or shoot the guy between the eyes using his hitherto-unsuspected marksmanship. Or destroy him with witty repartee.
I realize not all men are macho. The hands-offness, couching itself as respect and love, did not resonate with me.
That’s how I felt too. That business with the letter didn’t feel anachronistic to me so much as it felt contrived. If I told my husband another man sent me a love letter he would want to know what was in it, and how I was going to respond. I don’t think that’s old fashioned, I think it’s just human nature and that’s why Perry’s choice to not interfere in any way came across to me more like a plot device than anything else.
I actually haven’t read this one – I think it’s on my TBR but the plot didn’t sound familiar when I read the review. It sounds like it has a wonderful premise but then it kind of goes off into the ether. When, in the review, you said that Gareth was alive, I thought at first that her family had kept it from her (I wasn’t sure of the timing so I didn’t/don’t know whether he could have theoretically been away for a number of years, or maybe he’d come back after being a prisoner or having amnesia. But, to know that Grace knew he was alive and she knew when she decided to go home that he would be in the district and then she still decides to have dinner at his house and she hasn’t told her husband WHO he is? That just seems wrong on so many levels.
I’m not generally a fan of the he can’t possibly love me/she can’t possibly love me/we can’t possibly HAVE A CONVERSATION story. I suspect I will pick it up off my TBR someday but it will likely not be favourite. But, Mary Balogh’s books do hold something special for me and I can usually find some hidden gems even in a book of hers I don’t love.
Hee, that would be Loretta Chase. Balogh did write No Man’s Mistress though, a book I was loving until the last quarter, when it went completely off the rails. But denouement is where I most notice problems with Balogh. She brings all that painful realism to her characters and the resolution needs thought, not fairy dust or contrivances. When the style and the story come together, she’s wonderful.
To clarify, Grace did know Gareth was alive, but she didn’t know he was in the district. She didn’t realize his father had passed away and Gareth had inherited and come back to the area. When she accepted the dinner invitation, she thought it had come from Gareth’s father. However, she had implied to Perry that Gareth was dead, and didn’t correct this impression. When she learns Gareth is back in the district (the night she has dinner at his house) and that he is planning to pursue her, she still doesn’t tell Perry.
I feel the same way and in this case it was the opening scenes that I saw in that light.
That is an interesting point and one that Ariel/Sycorax Pine has also made.
@Janine: Yeah, I definitely thought he was a complete jerk, but even complete jerks – or perhaps *especially* complete jerks – are capable of reimagining their pasts with rose-colored glasses.
@cbackson: Possibly so. But I think that it if both Gareth and Grace bought into that kind of reimagining of their past, it would be very tricky to write it in such a way that readers did not buy into it as well.
@Lynn S.: You are so right about No Man’s Mistress. I felt the same way. This review reminded me of it and I got angry just thinking about it again.
I felt very much as you did, that the beginning was incredibly promising but that the conflict dragged on for far too long with a lot of introspection, worrying and angsting and a lack of action. Maybe its because I secretly love the Alpha Male, but I wanted Perry to stop being so noble and try and throttle Gareth or something.
@cleo: I haven’t read No Man’s Mistress but it seems to be one that several of my friends have found problematic.
@Kate Pearce: I felt the same way. There have been beta heroes I’ve loved but I think Perry went beyond beta to behavior that just didn’t make sense to me.
@Janine: Thanks for the link. I had enough problems throughout One Night for Love that I sort of blocked from my memory the horrible ending where Balogh further violates her heroine through the regency version of a makeover.
I’m with you and Kaetrin on finding hidden gems in Balogh, even when the overall book aggravates me. On a brighter note I’ll leave with the following quote from A Chance Encounter in honor of Elizabeth Rossiter, a truly lovely heroine:
@Lynn S.: I loved A Chance Encounter. I hope it gets reissued.
No Man’s Mistress was the second Balogh I read, and I didn’t read a third for five or six years.
Nobody can write a more irritating martyr than Mary Balogh. I have finished many a Balogh novel feeling that I would have enjoyed the ending more if the long-suffering hero had just left the heroine to her own jealously guarded misery. Which would not make it a romance at all but would fill me with vindictive satisfaction. But I haven’t read many of her trads, and I’m glad they are being reissued. I like the unusual scenarios she creates, just wish that her characters were less annoying sometimes.
@Janine: I’m glad I’m not the only one. I don’t think I’d have felt so betrayed by the second half of the book if I hadn’t loved the first half so much – it has a lot of what you call these hidden gems. The h/h have a lovely discussion about being contemplative, frex. Since I meditate and I’m interested in Christian contemplation, that really caught my attention. And all the slowly falling in love scenes really worked for me. But then the hero discovers the heroine’s lying about her identity (b/c she fled her evil guardian after killing his son (nephew? something like that) in self-defense) and the hero goes into “you lying whore” mode and it goes downhill from there.
Balogh is an interesting author because of her range. I love, love A Summer to Remember – it’s one of my all time favorites. And I hate No Man’s Mistress with the same level of intensity. I’m not sure how many other authors can call up that range of responses from me.
@Nicole: See, usually I want the heroine to leave the annoying martyr. At least, that was how I felt about The Secret Pearl.
@cleo: Agree about Balogh’s range. At the top of her game she is really great.
Apparently, I’m one of the few people who liked this story (if not as much as some other Balogh’s books). It’s certainly not run of the mill historical and I didn’t think the villain was over the top (but then, I’m used to MJ Putney’s villains who can give the Bond villains a run for the money). Overall, it was very nice and sweet.
But then again, I thought Then Comes Seduction was the best Balogh’s offering since Slightly Dangerous (my overall favorite).