DUELING REVIEW: Someone to Romance by Mary Balogh
Once again, Kaetrin and are reviewing one of Balogh’s Westcott novels together. – Janine
Janine: Someone to Romance begins with Lady Jessica Archer, half-sister to the Duke of Netherby, escorted by a cavalcade of carriages to London. Jessica is twenty-five. She hasn’t met anyone special but she wants children and is finally ready to look for a husband. Jessica and her entourage stop at an inn along the way and another of the inn’s guests is forced to vacate a private room so Jessica can dine there. The man (a middle-class merchant, Jessica assumes) makes his reluctance known and Jessica concludes he is rude. He, in turn, thinks she is haughty.
Gabriel Thorne, nee Rochford, Earl of Lyndale, is the man. At age nine, Gabriel was orphaned and taken in by his unloving uncle and aunt. He fled England at age nineteen under a cloud of suspicion. Gabriel had not committed a crime but had reason to fear arrest and conviction. In Boston, Gabriel found a home with Cyrus Thorne, a relative of his mother’s. Gabriel stayed in Boston even several years later, after his uncle and cousin died and he inherited the Lyndale title.
Thirteen years have now passed since Gabriel fled England, six or so since the title became his. Gabriel is now about to be declared dead. Cyrus, who adopted Gabriel, has been dead for seven years. His death left his son a wealthy man.
Gabriel planned to stay in Boston and let the title pass to Manley Rochford, the man next in line. Though Gabriel knew Rochford was a villain, he rationalized that Rochford could be a tolerable steward of the family estate and treat the servants and tenant farmers well enough. But then Gabriel heard from the one relative he still corresponded with, Mary, his aunt’s sweet, disabled sister, that she was facing eviction should Manley inherit the title.
Gabriel has returned to England to investigate the situation and he decides to keep his identity secret for now. It doesn’t present a problem because due to his adoption his surname is different and the one Rochford currently in London when Gabriel arrives is Manley’s son, Anthony, whom Gabriel has never met.
Gabriel needs an aristocratic bride who can run the estate and whose name carries enough clout to bolster his position in the inevitable wrangle with the Rochfords. Jessica Archer, odious though she seems, is eminently suitable for this role.
In London, Jessica and Gabriel meet again. Jessica thinks that Anthony, soon to be an earl’s heir, would be a better choice than the mysterious, rude Gabriel Thorne. Gabriel feels similarly about Jessica’s cousin, Lady Estelle Lamarr. But Jessica and Gabriel are more attracted to each other.
Gabriel is determined not to be one of Jessica’s “court,” as he calls the would-be suitors who cluster around her at ton events. He manages to finagle a carriage ride to Richmond Park with her. There, Jessica reveals that she can tell he has ulterior motives for courting her. Gabriel realizes there is more to Jessica than haughtiness. Jessica, who has a heart under her outward loftiness, does not want to be used. If he wants her to marry him, she tells Gabriel, he will have to romance her.
Although Gabriel has no idea how to go about that, he succeeds in attracting Jessica more with each meeting. The single roses he sends daily become more meaningful than the huge bouquets sent by Anthony.
Kaetrin: I loved the roses and the significance they had over the course of the book. One of the most swoonworthy lines in the book (which I won’t quote because it comes quite late in the piece) was about the roses.
Janine: When Gabriel reveals what he faces, Jessica decides to come to his aid.
Will Gabriel clear his name? Will he be able to regain his title and prevent Mary’s eviction? And will Jessica and Gabriel realize they have found love in each other, despite Gabriel’s need to marry Jessica for other reasons?
Someone to Romance begins with flashbacks and a long infodump, recalled and summarized in Jessica’s thoughts while she travels to London. Jessica doesn’t set foot outside the carriage until 6% into the book, so the introduction feels awkward and weak. The subordination of action to Jessica’s musings also made me feel that Jessica was navel-gazing. My impression of her did not improve that much and sadly, Gabriel, too, was a lackluster character for me. They were both nice people, but neither was well-developed.
A lot more could have been done with Gabriel’s backstory in America. We’re not told why he liked it there other than that he was happy there and unhappy England. Why was he happy there? What, other than Cyrus’s company, did the US offer that appealed to him? His dislike for the English aristocracy is mentioned but since he searches for an aristocratic wife (to say nothing of the fact that his parents were aristocrats) it’s not convincing.
Further, we’re told he was close to Cyrus but not much more about their bond. Adoption is a big deal and is all the more notable in this case because Cyrus only adopted Gabriel when Gabriel was twenty-five. There must have been more than Gabriel’s hard work that brought them close enough to take that step. But Cyrus is a cipher. Without knowing more it’s hard to *feel* Gabriel’s sense of loss over Cyrus’s death. That loss is mentioned, but it reads like a surface feeling, not deep emotion.
Kaetrin: I had a very different reaction to the book than you did Janine, although I do agree that it took a little while to get started, I didn’t find it info-dumpy. Many Balogh novels take a little bit of getting into for me and the payoff is usually good enough that I don’t mind it.
I’ve been struggling to read during this year; books I thought I would enjoy have not held my interest as much. So when I find myself wanting to stay up late to read, when I think about the book long after I put it down, that has extra significance right now. And with Someone to Romance, I did just that and I thought about Jessica and Gabriel often.
Jessica wanted to see known for herself and not for her aristocratic lineage. Personhood (in the true sense, not the right wing evangelical sense) is a theme of the series I think; the characters want to be valued for who they are rather than what they can bring in terms of money or name to the relationship.
What had offended her was her assumption that he saw her as a commodity rather than as a person. Did he? He very much feared she might have a point. She wanted him to see her for what she really was—or perhaps that should be who she really was, quite independent of all the attributes that made her one of the most eligible ladies in England.
He had been taken aback by her outburst. She had been seriously upset with him. Not so much with his presumption in informing her that he intended to marry her as with the fact that it was not her he wished to marry, but rather the titled, wealthy Lady Jessica Archer, sister of the Duke of Netherby. Just as though they were two quite separate entities.
Strangely, stupidly, the possible truth of that had not struck him until she said it. He had assumed that the Lady Jessica he saw was the whole person, that there was no more to her than the appearance she presented to the world of beauty, elegance, poise, arrogance, and entitlement. She would perfectly suit his purpose, he had decided almost the first moment he saw her. Even her beauty would suit him. One of his first duties as Earl of Lyndale, after all, would be to produce sons. She would be an attractive bedfellow, he had thought, if perhaps a trifle cold.
Which of them, then, had been the arrogant one?
Jessica wanted Gabriel to see her for herself and it was not until he began to do that, that she softened toward him. At the same time, Jessica began to know Gabriel as a person too. She saw behind the somewhat unconventional demeanor and encouraged him to use his words to reveal himself to her. And in that exchange, their romance began.
Janine: Quite honestly, I thought it should have been obvious to Gabriel from the start that Jessica was more than her title. Everyone is more than their title / profession / any one role. All people have thoughts and feelings that go beyond that. Gabriel’s assumption that Jessica didn’t made him look like an ass.
Kaetrin: It’s true that most of my knowledge of the Regency comes from romance novels but I don’t know that it was all that unusual for men, particularly aristocratic men of the time to think of women as something akin to, if not actual, property. I’m reminded of the move The Duchess and the early scenes where the young Georgiana had romantic notions about marriage to the Duke of Devonshire but the reality was nothing like it. Her wedding night was the opposite of romantic. He married her for her breeding and lineage and possibly her looks but not because of who she was as an individual. Perhaps the movie took great artistic license with that part of the story (I know it did with other aspects of it) but I recall thinking that was probably much more like aristocratic marriages of the time than the ones I’m happy to read about in romance novels. So, with that in mind, it did not strike me as strange that Jessica’s personhood wasn’t something that immediately occurred to Gabriel here and for me, it was to his credit that he promptly recognised that of course it ought to have occurred to him without Jessica having to tell him.
Janine: There were definitely matches like the ones you describe in the 19th century but there were also some that were quite romantic.
(For anyone interested in the topic, there’s a book called Love and Marriage in the Great Country Houses, by the author Adeline Hartcup, that includes among the matches described romantic stories along these lines. It’s very accessible and I enjoyed reading it.)
My first reaction to your comment was to say that whether it’s because he lacks sensitivity and perception or because he views Jessica as property, Gabriel is an ass either way. But I have enjoyed far more douchy characters in other books, so my sentiment here may be a manifestation of my general irritation. A reader either has chemistry with a character or doesn’t and when we don’t, things we might like in another character can rub us the wrong way.
I like a lot of time spent with the main characters so I wasn’t all that fussed by the brief description of Gabriel’s time in America. It seemed implicit to me that the reason he enjoyed America was because he discovered a close family bond with his cousin who became a father to him after the loss of his own parent when he was only a child. Then, he discovered he was good at business and found his own success, building upon what Cyrus left him.
Janine: I got all that, but I felt it was more told than shown.
Beyond that, the conflation of a person / relationship with a country bugged me. I don’t live in my native country and I know many immigrants and ex-pats. The ex-pat and immigrant experiences are complex. They change how your see your native country. Your knowledge of a different culture gives you a different view of your new home than the people native to that culture have. Migrating can even change your relationship to yourself. To say that you like your new home better has many and multiple meanings and to me it was reductive and unconvincing to have Gabriel’s love of America ascribed mostly to just that one thing.
In addition, while I can understand Gabriel’s reasons for welcoming Cyrus’s adoption of him, I would have liked to understand Cyrus’s reasons better. Setting aside the anachronism—adoption was not codified into law in Massachusetts until 1851—even now it is rare for a man to be adopted at twenty-five years of age. Was Cyrus aware of Gabriel’s need to turn over a new leaf, erase his painful past by covering it over with a new identity? Did Cyrus want to help Gabriel heal from trauma? Just a few words on this topic could have given Gabriel’s story more depth.
As it was, the Gabriel / Cyrus relationship felt like a theater stage backdrop to me—flat and illusory. Because no motivation was given for Cyrus’s decision to formalize their connection (instead of just have a father-figure / mentor relationship without taking the adoption step) it read like a contrivance that was just there to change Gabriel’s surname to Thorne.
Kaetrin: Gabriel’s thoughts about the aristocracy made sense to me; he had no expectation of inheriting the title and had been happy with his father, a clergyman, growing up fairly modestly. But after his father died, he went to live with the Earl of Lyndale where he was not loved and where he witnessed aristocrats behaving badly in a number of ways. It wasn’t a wonder to me that he would take a dim view of them.
Perhaps too, I imported sentiment from other historical novels I have read over the years; the notion of freedom in America, where hard work more than social status/wealth would determine success. (I note that the notion was not necessarily ever a reality).
Janine: I imported this to an extent as well. However, while some white men took great advantage of the upward mobility America offered them, Gabriel didn’t fit that profile. He didn’t seem to care about his wealth and he’d had some status in England to begin with—an earl’s nephew is not a nobody. I guess what I am saying is that Gabriel’s whole backstory didn’t hang together that well for me.
Kaetrin: By the time the book begins, Gabriel’s grief over losing Cyrus was not fresh so what was in the book was enough for me. I accepted he loved Cyrus deeply but it was not the focus of the story, nor did I want it to be. I felt the same way about his time in America. I wanted to read about Gabriel and Jessica for the most part, which is what the book delivered for me.
Janine: I felt that this could have been sketched in with the addition of one or two paragraphs. It didn’t need to take anything away from the romance. YMMV, though!
I would have liked to see Jessica’s backstory handled better also. Her past trauma is the loss she felt when her beloved cousin, Abigail, lost her legitimacy and social standing and their plan to debut together turned to dust. That’s upsetting and I had sympathy for Jessica when it took place in Someone to Love. But Jessica’s difficulty in moving on until eight years later and two years after Abigail found her own happiness made me view Jessica as clinging to her feelings.
I didn’t believe Jessica completely meant it when she indicated that she had suffered less than Abigail; she dwelled on it longer and in the present day, more than Abigail did. She was almost resentful of Abby for moving on. Although the resentment was interesting, it also made Jessica seem unaware of her privilege. Abigail lost a lot more than Jessica and occupied to a far less exalted position than the one Jessica held, but didn’t fuss over it nearly as long.
Kaetrin: I thought that Jessica was having a battle with her heart and her head here. She acknowledged that her feelings were objectively disproportional and why. But she felt the way she felt. I understood that and sympathized. I’ve experienced similar emotions (albeit for different reasons of course). It takes time and insight to reconcile those things and Jessica had reached the point where she was able to do so.
Janine: Yes, but she had eight years! Part of my issue stemmed from comparing and contrasting Gabriel’s getting past his (far more serious) trauma with Jessica’s inability to move past hers.
Kaetrin: Fair point. But I think a new level of angst started for Jessica when Abby got married. That was two years before the events of this book. Jessica had decided not to marry in solidarity with Abby and then Abby went and ruined the plan to be miserable together forever! It’s not very mature but I understand the sentiment about feeling left behind. What gave me some comfort about Jessica’s position was that she was alive to the fact that it wasn’t very reasonable for her to be feeling as she had been and it was well past time for her to move on.
Janine: I see what you mean but the immaturity did not reflect well on her. I wanted her to be relieved and pleased that Abby found happiness.
Kaetrin: I think she was. I think it’s possible to feel conflicting emotions and I think Jessica did.
Janine: That’s a great point. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that I felt that the happiness-for-Abby side of her conflict didn’t get enough attention.
Much was made of Jessica’s aristocratic hauteur and her ability to turn it on and off. This was a trait I don’t recall seeing in the past, and not an attractive one. Since she wasn’t her candid self for part of the time, it was hard to know who she really was and hard to invest in her.
Kaetrin: I felt this was more about the general hauteur of aristocracy. Gabriel shook hands with the servants and had a generally much more egalitarian view of the world. He knew he needed to fit in with English high society and he needed someone familiar to help him navigate the unfamiliar terrain. I didn’t think Jessica was any haughtier than any number of other members of the ton.
Janine: You’re not wrong but the way it was emphasized turned me off. Gabriel was less opaque, but I found him boring. There were so many emotions he could have felt due to his past that he didn’t.
For example, for years he hadn’t thought much about how the servants and tenant farmers at his childhood home could be harmed if he didn’t claim his title. It’s hard to believe he could have lived in his aunt and uncle’s house for nine of his formative years and not known that the servants and tenants would be severely impacted. His old girlfriend’s family were tenant farmers, FFS. How could he not have given her future fate in Manley’s hands thought during his years in America?
Kaetrin: He’d been basically run out of town on a rail. I thought he was pretty amazing for caring at all to be honest. Why would he think of tenants in the UK when he’s leading a full life in America? He wasn’t raised to be the earl. The notion of noblesse oblige wasn’t ingrained in him. (And there are/were plenty of aristocrats who were who would still not have cared at all.) He was happy in America. He was running a successful business which occupied most all of his time. I was not at all surprised he wasn’t thinking about the tenants and servants on the estate. Gabriel beat himself up plenty when he arrived back in England and realised the extent of what Manley was doing. That was enough for me.
Janine: I take your point. I thought inheriting the title would bring the tenants to mind, since they were now his responsibility, but I can see your view of it too.
The storyline reminded me of a few of my favorite Baloghs — books where the hero starts out scapegoated in place of the true villain and where he must marry the heroine before he knows if he will love her. At Last Comes Love, Dark Angel, and Thief of Dreams are all based on this concept and I loved all three. But this book read like a watered-down version of those. The hero was less developed here so his quest had less heft.
Kaetrin: My reaction was very different to yours, Janine. I think Someone to Romance is vying for my favourite of the series so far!
Janine: On a different topic, sometimes there’s a point to bringing in characters from prior novels—Harry played a pivotal role in Gil and Abby’s book—but it can also bleed into overkill. The frequent appearances of the copious family members in Someone to Romance made me think of the time Jayne reviewed Simply Love and critiqued the “felicity and fecundity” of couples from earlier books. Balogh’s clan gatherings can overwhelm the story. Avery and Anna have four kids! Why?
Kaetrin: That didn’t bother me. I’m generally happy to know that the other couples are doing well and the names of their children. I didn’t find it intrusive. There wasn’t a lot of page time devoted to it.
Janine: I also didn’t care for the way Mary was used in the story. Her disabilities seemed intended to pluck at readers’ heartstrings and to frame Gabriel as heroic because he was driven to return to England so as to rescue her. I would have been more appreciative of that aspect of the story had Mary been able-bodied; that way I wouldn’t have felt that disability was being equated with need of rescue. I appreciated that Mary was more than a prop and was developed as a character, but the way her disability was emphasized when she was first mentioned (“Mary, with her clubfoot and crooked spine and deformed hand and plain looks,”) didn’t sit well with me.
Kaetrin: Here we do agree. I had misgivings about the way she was portrayed, particularly the disability representation. However, unlike with the Orientialism in the first book, I did think she at least had some personality and some depth to her character (not enough, but some).
Janine: Yes, she did (that was what I meant by “more than a prop”). I’m not sure it’s any better, though. It was still ableist. In general I have a problem with Balogh’s portrayal of people with disabilities (I’m looking at you, Heartless.)
Kaetrin: Yes, me also. (Even though Heartless is my favourite Balogh).
Janine: There were some things I did like in the book. I liked when Jessica insisted that Gabriel romance her. I liked the way Gabriel set out to distinguish himself from Jessica’s “court,” her other suitors. I liked the single roses he sent her and I liked that he was honest with Jessica about his motives. Those scenes were the best ones in the book. Some of the humor at Anthony Rochford’s expense was amusing, too. Balogh digs into her characters’ psychology more than many other authors, so even her weaker books are interesting.
For much of my reading I turned the pages fast, and that’s in the book’s favor too. I was able to put the book down for a few days after reading to the 83% mark, though, because it was obvious then that Gabriel and Jessica loved each other and the only reason to keep reading was to see how the villain would be dealt with.
Overall, the book was bland and the characters underdeveloped. The structure wasn’t bad, but the novel needed more flesh on its bones and more oomph.
Kaetrin: I loved it. Apart from my concerns about the disability representation, I have little to criticize. The beginning was just a little slow and the ending a little rushed but for the most part, I adored the book, especially Gabriel. I loved the way he didn’t attempt to conform and I loved the way the Westcott men responded to him, largely because of his self-confidence. I loved his sense of duty to his inheritance, at great cost to himself. (Of course, he ended up super happy so in the end he’s a big winner but he didn’t know that when he made his choice.). I loved the way fairness and consent mattered to him.
I liked Jessica too. I’m a hero-centric reader so it’s not a big surprise that it was Gabriel who most caught my attention in the story but I loved the way that Jessica insisted he see her as more than a trophy. I felt for her, pushing at the constraints of her sex and status even while she acknowledged her own privilege. I enjoyed that Jessica was open about wanting sex and wanting sex with Gabriel.
I loved the subtlety of the romance; how it was easily apparent even to this reader who’s not great at subtext but that Gabriel and Jessica’s relationship wasn’t full of grand gestures but a lot of little ones. That pinky touch! *swoon*.
Janine: I wish I had found the book half as romantic. Maybe a big gesture or two could have made it better for me! For me the amount of romance was no more than would fit in a petri dish.
Kaetrin: I remain delighted with Matilda and how she’s come into her own over the course of the series and Avery continues to be a complete scene-stealer. He just sits there quietly and watches everyone run around and gasp and fuss and then he quietly stands up and calmly and efficiently solves the problem. I love it.
Janine: Yes, the Avery bits were some of my favorite parts of the book.
Kaetrin: Balogh has a way of phrasing things that makes me smile from behavior “larded with false charm” to “he was going to have no alternative than to love her”, for the most part, Someone to Romance hit my good book buttons.
Janine: I hate to be a killjoy, but the second phrase you quoted is one that I have read in Balogh books enough times that to me it’s a cliché by now.
Kaetrin: It’s a phrase that works for me every time!