REVIEW: A Certain Magic by Mary Balogh
Dear Ms. Balogh,
I’ve been slowly reading my way through your backlist, and several of your older regencies have found a permanent place on my bookshelf. Among them are Dark Angel, Dancing with Clara, A Christmas Promise and others. Unfortunately, A Certain Magic won’t be joining these books.
A Certain Magic begins when Alice Penhallow, a 29 year old widow, arrives in London from Bath. She has come to London to help her sister in law nurse her children, who are suffering from the measles. Shortly after arriving there Alice meets her former friend and neighbor, Piers Westhaven.
Some of the early conversation between them did not feel natural to me, because Piers and Allie talked about things they already knew, and I felt that they would not have needed to discuss them. For example, there’s this bit:
“Well,” he said, “I wish you had not left home, Allie. I have no reason to spend time at Westhaven Park any longer. First Web dying two years ago and then you purchasing a house in Bath last summer and taking yourself off. It’s deuced lonely at home without either of you.”
“Is it?” she said. “But I did not have a great deal of choice once Web’s cousin decided last year to move into Chandlos after all. The house belonged to him. And I am not complaining. It was the only one of Web’s possessions that did not come to me, and he would have left me that, too, if he could. Oh, I could have taken a house in the village, Piers, but I did not think it fair to stay in the neighborhood. There are those who would have said I had been forced from my own home, and that would not have been fair at all. It was better to move right away.”
Piers, a widower, has recently become the heir to Lord Berringer, and is now expected to remarry. Alice learns from Piers that the widow of an old friend, Lady Margam, has written to him asking him to help her eighteen year old daughter Cassandra make her entrance into society. Piers finds the request amusing and agrees to escort Cassandra to the theater providing that Alice and a gentleman of her acquaintance accompany them. Alice invites Sir Clayton Lansing, a suitor who has pursued her from Bath to London, to join them as well.
Alice is not attracted to Sir Clayton and although Piers admires Cassandra’s curves and her rich and vulgar uncle, he can’t imagine consummating a marriage with her. It is clear that Alice and Piers are much more well suited to one another, but despite that, Piers keeps finding himself offering to escort the shy and overwhelmed Cassandra to other events and places.
This is more or less what happens in the first third of the book, which is the portion that I read, and that’s the reason that I did not read further. Part of the problem is that Cassandra is a character who lacks spark, and she is in many scenes. I am sure that her dullness is intentional, there to show that if Piers married Cassandra she would, as Alice knows, bore Piers silly in short order. But she bored me just as fast.
You do an excellent job of showing that Piers and Alice have a warm rapport with one another, but it was not enough to keep me turning the pages. There are a few glimmers of what could have been some emotional material, but for me, there were not enough of these.
Yes, I learned that Alice had a child who died in his crib, and that Piers lost his wife and infant daughter in childbirth. These events could have been the source of a wealth of angst, but Piers and Alice’s grief and suffering over these deaths were not explored as much as they could have been, at least in the portion of the book that I read.
Somewhere between a quarter and a third of the way through the book, it also becomes clear that Alice has been in love with Piers since she was fourteen. I think if this had been apparent earlier on, I would have been more invested in the outcome of Piers’ courtship, but by the time this information was revealed, I was frustrated with the sedate pace of the story.
I really wanted to love this book, but instead I lost interest in it. There is nothing egregiously bad about it; Piers and Alice seem like nice, likable people, deserving of a happy ending. But they and their situation simply weren’t compelling enough for me, and I did not have the patience the slow pace of the story required. For me, A Certain Magic lacked a certain something, and I give it a DNF.
Ah, but Cassandra is not who you think she is, and therein lies the twist to the story. I’m not saying you would have liked it any better if you had kept reading, but the pace does pick up! Sometimes I love Balogh, and sometimes I want to just slap all the characters and be done with it, but, as I recall, I liked A Certain Magic. I should probably reread it one of these days to see how it held up for me.
I recall liking this one, though not as much as my favorites of hers. I looked up my notes on it and I loved the heroine for her quiet strength, and I liked that the plot was character driven rather than one of those annoying manipulative relative plots she likes to write. But, I love childhood friends romances, so that probably had a strong effect too.
Aoife, I did skim ahead so I know that the pace picks up somewhat later on, but it was too late in the story for me. The book fell victim to my impatience. It was published in 1991, and to be fair to Balogh I think that readers had slower attention spans back then. This was not a book that made me want to slap the characters, but it also did not make me want to read further about them.
Jan, actually there was a manipulative relative in this book — but he was the relative of the eighteen year old Cassandra, so in the section I read he was (possibly without knowing it) helping to thwart the romance between Piers and Alice.
Sorry, I should have been clearer. I meant the manipulative relative plot where someone is pushing the h/h together for the entire book until they give in. I hate those kinds of stories, and she’s written several.
Jan, I thought this might have been what you meant, but I wasn’t sure.
I’m glad you and Aoife enjoyed this book. It didn’t seem like a terrible book to me, just slow and not very compelling.
I give a lot of good grades because those are the books that I finish reading, and when I wrote my opinion piece on DNF grades, many readers said that DNF reviews were helpful to them, so I’ve been trying to write a DNF review from time to time.
There are even weaker books that I don’t review because I don’t make it very far. Recently I picked one up and didn’t make it past page five. I had paid for it, too. There was no excerpt on the author’s site; if there had been, I’d have known that it wasn’t for me.
I can’t review a book like that because what would I review? Five pages? How much can I say about a book after reading so little of it? So when I make it a third of the way into a book before quitting as I did with this one, I feel I should probably do a DNF review, even if the book is not a terrible one.
If nothing else, it gives readers a sense of what works for me and what doesn’t, and whether or not our tastes will match up.
I liked this book *much* more than you did, Janine, but I do recall that I found the beginning of the story to be very slow as well. IIRC, Piers and Alice spent a lot of time touring around the sights of London, and not too much else happened. But unlike you, I found Alice and Piers to be very engaging characters and half way through the story I really was rooting for their HEA. Alice was refreshingly serene, kind and mature for a romantic heroine and Piers was delightful–hiding his breaking heart behind his witty, devil-may-care facade. I really like the theme of “best friends in love” and felt that Balogh handled it very well in this story.
This book worked for me because I thought that the middle section and ending were very poignant and moving. For me, it was worth sticking it out through the slow pacing in the beginning to get to the emotional payoff of the end.
I may be out in left field on this one, Elle. It’s happened before.
I felt that Alice was a little too serene, for someone who had lost a husband, a child, and was in love with a man she thought she couldn’t have. And Piers may have hid his breaking heart a little too well, too. I saw that he blamed himself for the death of his wife and daughter, but he was too willing to repeat the same mistake (marrying the wrong person) again, even though Alice was no longer married. I too really like the theme of “best friends in love” but in this case, I felt that some ingredient was missing. I’m glad you enjoyed the book so much more, though.