What Janine is Reading: Huxtables Edition
This past January, I read Mary Balogh’s Huxtables series. Although it was a mixed bag for me, even the Baloghs that don’t work for me often make for interesting reading. Here are my thoughts on the books:
First Comes Marriage
After a short prologue setting up the hero of book five (because why?), we are introduced to Elliott Wallace, Viscount Lyngate. Elliott arrives at the village of Throckbridge to inform the countrified Huxtables, distant cousins of his, that Stephen Huxtable has inherited a venerated title, Earl of Merton. Before introducing himself to Stephen and his three sisters, Elliott attends an assembly and reluctantly dances with the plain Vanessa Huxtable. In true romance fashion, she nettles him.
The Huxtables move to the Merton estate, which neighbors Elliott’s own house. Jon, the developmentally disabled previous earl of Merton, who passed away in his teenage years, was Elliott’s cousin. Elliott’s other cousin is Jon’s older brother, Con (short for Constantine; he is book five’s hero), who would have inherited the earldom had he not been born two days before his parents married. Con and Elliott are on the outs for reasons that are eventually clarified.
There is no one to bring the Huxtable girls out in society; Elliott’s mother and aunt are both otherwise occupied. Elliott decides to marry one of the Huxtable sisters so that, as his wife, she can chaperone the others and oversee their society debuts.
Elliott chooses Meg, the oldest, but Meg has not quite gotten over Crispin Dew, an old beau. So, Vanessa pre-empts Elliott’s proposal by offering herself as his wife. After he recovers from his shock, Elliott agrees to marry her. Vanessa is plain but sunny-natured, and she offsets Elliott’s cool stiffness well. But when Elliott misinterprets something she says and believes she still carries a torch for her first husband, their road to happiness gets bumpy.
The first third of First Comes Marriage was a retread of Pride and Prejudice, with the wealthy hero arriving in the country and thinking he was better than everyone who had gathered at a local assembly and dancing with the heroine. Then we had Con, his attractive scoundrel of a cousin, making him look bad, just as Wickham did to Darcy. Vanessa even had “fine eyes.”
Balogh doesn’t channel Austen as well as Austen does Austen, and this section also had lot of telling and not much showing, so it was a bit boring and distancing. Things got more interesting once Vanessa proposed marriage to Elliott, though.
The conceit that Elliott needed to marry one of the Huxtable girls was nonsensical; surely a wife who was not established in society herself would not have known what bringing out her sisters entailed or how to handle it. But I liked the way Elliott reluctantly began to fall in love with his plain (albeit fine-eyed) wife. Everything outside their romance was pretty predictable. You could see where it was going.
Vanessa’s plainness was overemphasized. Her late father joked that she should have been named Jane so that he could call her “Plain Jane.” He was supposed to be a nice father, but I couldn’t imagine a loving father saying such a thing to his child.
This was not the strongest book in the series, but it did have some charm. Vanessa is down-to-earth and free of angst, and we can see how good she could be for Elliott. Their honeymoon scenes were lovely; the one I liked best involved gathering daffodils. On the strength of Vanessa’s warmth and laughter, and the way she thawed Elliott, I’m giving this one a C-/C.
Then Comes Seduction
This one begins with Jasper Finley, Baron Montford and the hero of this novel, wagering that he can seduce the heroine, and then joining her party of as they traipse through Vauxhall gardens. I didn’t get beyond this point, which was only 7% in.
Jasper was unappealing and the setup for his bet makes no sense. In the opening scenes he and his friends are drunk and looking for a wager to make. Apparently, Jasper is diligent about taking wagers seriously. He does not back down from a wager. But Jasper has never seduced a virgin like Katherine Huxtable before, and when the bet is proposed, it shocks even him.
As he takes this bet at the Katherine’s expense, Jasper is thinking about how he is friendly with her cousin, Con. Con cares about Katherine, and would surely be angered if he learned of the bet, Jasper knows. He realizes how drunk he is and that this is why he’s taking the bet. And he also thinks about how when the alcohol wears off, he’ll regret the wager but have to fulfill it, because he never backs down from a bet.
All that seemed pretty absurd. If you know you’ll regret taking a bet at the time you’re making it, why not turn it down? Especially when following through on it would not only require you to go against your own moral compass but could cost you a friend as well? Jasper’s drunken state is probably intended to mitigate his amoral decision. But the drunkenness is just as unappealing. He comes across as a bumbling fool.
I have enjoyed darker heroes than Jasper so I might have been able to overlook Jasper’s moral decay if he’d been sharper, more competent and more clearly decadent. I prefer heroes who own up to their darker impulses to those whose acts are whitewashed by the author. But the book doesn’t present him this way. Instead he looks foolish.
The scene then switches to Vauxhall and we get a long infodump in Katherine’s POV. And by long, I mean long. I wanted something to break it up but her short discussion with Vanessa is followed by several pages (on my kindle) of Katherine’s POV thoughts and that made me zone out. Katherine was the least distinctive of the family members when she was introduced in First Comes Marriage, so when I decided against sticking with Then Comes Seduction, I didn’t have many regrets. DNF.
At Last Comes Love
Huxtable book #3, At Last Comes Love, was much better than First Comes Marriage or what little I read of Then Come Seduction. We meet the hero, Duncan Pennethorne, Earl of Sheringford, when he returns to England after a long stay in Scotland. Duncan has a dependent named Toby who we don’t meet for a while, but it’s clear that Duncan will do almost anything for Toby, including try to find a wife within ten days—all the time his grandfather will permit him before giving his childhood home to a priggish cousin.
Duncan is ruined in the eyes of good society. Five years earlier he was engaged, but he broke it off to run away with his fiancée’s sister-in-law on what would have been his wedding day. His former fiancée married the priggish cousin, and all of society’s sympathy swung to her. Duncan is persona non grata to the ton.
Meg Huxtable once loved Crispin Dew, and now, years after going back on his promise to marry her, the army officer is widowed and back in England. Meg knows Crispin isn’t worthy of her, but she fears she still might feel something for him. To avoid falling into his clutches, she decides to marry a gentleman who has asked for her hand in marriage twice in the past few years.
But just when Crispin appears at the first ball she attends that season to try to insinuate himself back into her life, the other gentleman introduces Meg to the woman he intends to marry. Meg tries to escape and (literally) runs into Duncan. He abruptly proposes marriage and later agrees to court her, though if she says no, it may cost him the few days he has left in which to find a wife.
I more-or-less guessed at Duncan’s backstory (it reminded me a bit of Gabriel’s history in Balogh’s Dark Angel). But I still loved the book. I loved Duncan and Meg’s dialogue—it wasn’t banter, exactly, but very nice back-and-forth. I could really feel them falling for each other (this made it a bit weird, though, when later they said that they loved one another but had not yet *fallen* in love).
I don’t always get excited over Balogh’s heroines because some of them have a tendency to cower. Meg was strong and I loved that about her. She spoke her mind and challenged Duncan and (after the very beginning) displayed a strong sense of self-worth.
I liked Duncan a lot too. I had difficulty picturing him, since he was said to be almost ugly but when he smiled, he was handsome. I don’t think a smile can transform a person’s appearance that much. But that’s a minor point. I loved Duncan’s devotion to Toby. His willingness to sacrifice so much for Toby made me care so much about him (Toby, when we finally met him, was delightful too).
Except for holding one or two things back, Duncan was honest, even blunt, with Meg, and she was candid with him. That was part of what made their dynamic satisfying.
I also loved Duncan’s mother. She was a very different kind of maternal figure; seemingly vain and shallow but with hidden depths—although why she hid those depths wasn’t clear. There were also some nice bits involving Duncan’s tough-love recluse of a grandfather. The only signifcant thing that felt wobbly to me was a piece of the backstory having to do with the backstory of how Toby came to be Duncan’s dependent.
This was an enjoyable and emotional read. B+.
Seducing an Angel
Cassandra is the widow of a much older man who was shot to death. She’s suspected of having murdered him, though there’s no proof. Still, her stepson refuses to return her jewels to her and so she has no means to support her small household (a companion and a servant with a young daughter). She decides to take a lover and ask for carte blanche.
Cassandra sets her sights on Stephen Huxtable, who reminds her of an angel. She shows up at a ball (scandalously, with no escort) and stares at him. He asks her to dance and while they do, she suggests that he come to her house later. Stephen is not usually a seducer of women but he does indeed sleep with her; when he wakes up, she confronts him with her expectation that he’ll take her on as a paid mistress.
Stephen agrees mostly because he feels sorry for her. He doesn’t really want a mistress, but he has seen her shabby house and is too kindhearted to walk away. And he has a feeling she won’t accept charity, which means that if he wants to help her out financially, he’ll have to sleep with her. He actually resents her for this.
That setup was not very believable. Would anyone really pity fuck a near-stranger solely in order to be able to financially support them? I rolled my eyes and then moved on.
As he spends more time with Cassandra, Stephen becomes aware of her vulnerability. He enlists his sisters to help her integrate back into society. Stephen and Cassandra fall in love somewhere in there. Or maybe not, because I didn’t see it happen.
I liked Cassandra and Stephen just okay. Stephen was underwritten; he didn’t seem to have much life other than as a source of support, so I didn’t get a strong enough sense of who he was. Cassandra’s initial lip-curling was off-putting but after she dropped that tick, I began to like her a bit better. More accurately, I began to pity her more. Her backstory is sad and there’s very little joy in the book to leaven it.
The romance is rushed. It’s not just that Stephen and Cassandra only know each other for a few days before they decide they love each other, though that doesn’t help. I felt that Cassandra fell for Stephen because he rescued her and Stephen likes to rescue and fell for Cassandra because…. I don’t know why.
I read Stephen as drawn to Cassandra’s neediness more than to her. Cassandra hadn’t really had a chance to develop—to find out who she was without the cloud of abuse and mistreatment hanging over her. She went into her first marriage at a young age and never had a chance to spread her wings. So it felt like a codependency, like Stephen and Cassandra latched on to each other prematurely. Neediness and White Knight Syndrome were the basis for their relationship.
I also didn’t like that two characters were quickly forgiven for horrible actions.
Some people aren’t good people and even if they have their reasons, haven’t earned a reunion and especially not so quickly. I’d rather see the main characters move on without these moral cowards at their side.
Of the Huxtable books I finished, this was my least favorite. D/C-.
A Secret Affair
This one begins in a similar way to Seducing an Angel. Hannah, a duchess, married a much older, wealthy man when she was still in her teens. She is unbelievably beautiful and her late husband showered her with jewels; nevertheless, she was escorted to social gatherings by younger men and it’s assumed that she took them to her bed while she was still married. Now she’s widowed and London is agog to see who her next lover will be.
Hannah’s childhood friend, Barbara, who is engaged to a vicar, serves as Hannah’s foil in the story. Barbara believes in love and constancy, but Hannah doesn’t have much faith in them. She intends to take a lover and has already chosen the dark, almost sinister-looking Con Huxtable, although he does not know her and at first has no idea she has set her sights on him.
Con has been a mystery figure since book one, but here we learn what he’s been up to. He has opened his house to people who have no means of support—unwed mothers and their illegitimate children, jobless veterans and developmentally disabled people of all ages. Con looks dark and devilish and projects that well, but there’s more to him.
Hannah outmaneuvers Con and he decides to take her as his mistress, though he’s not sure he could ever like her. But when they sleep together, he is shocked to realize she’s a virgin. He presses Barbara for information about Hannah’s past. Barbara lets slip one or two things and then feels that she has betrayed Hannah’s confidence. Hannah, angry at Con for upsetting Barbara, reveals more about her past and in the process, shows a vulnerable side, making Con realize he must do the same. When Hannah invites Con and his cousins to a country house party, her mask slips even further.
Con is a great hero but Hannah was the one I fell in love with. She was such a fascinating and lovely heroine. I loved the beginning of Hannah and Con’s relationship and the unexpected way it progressed. I could really feel them fall in love and I liked the mystery that Hannah presented to Con.
There’s a great scene where Con stands up for Hannah when Meg, his cousin, declines Hannah’s invitation. I loved Hannah’s transformation from a chilly, prickly, armored figure to a warm and open-hearted one, first in Con’s eyes and then in the eyes of the other Huxtables. This was a little bumpy early in the book because of the virgin widow trope (particularly given Hannah’s age; she was thirty). But it smoothed out soon after that and I loved how Hannah saves the day in the last act of the book.
Con has been an interesting figure throughout the series, and he too has walls that take a long time to come down. The truth of his backstory was revealed a little soon. I wanted to discover it over the course of the novel but it was even more important for Hannah’s character to be gradually unveiled and there probably wasn’t room for Con to be explored in a similar way.
One of the things I appreciated was that Hannah and Con’s difficult pasts were given close to equal time and emphasis. Their pasts gave Con and Hannah insight into each other and that allowed them to support one another. It made the relationship feel balanced and it was easy to understand what each saw in the other.
I caught a number of anachronisms in this book: “no strings attached” (1888 and American in origin), “crowd control” (1966), “gold digger” (1826 but American). Most annoying was the name Dawn. I don’t know if it’s anachronistic but I associate it strongly with the second half of the 20th century.
I loved this book, though. The core story in all of Balogh’s books is that appearances can be deceiving and this was one of her best executions of that theme. B+.