REVIEW: Marry Me at Willoughby Close by Kate Hewitt
Welcome to Willoughby Close… a charming cluster of cozy cottages, each with a story to tell and a happy ending to deliver…
Alice James has been a drifter her whole life, working her way through several foster homes before ending up in Wychwood-on-Lea, feeling anchorless and invisible. When a chance encounter leads to Alice accepting a position as a caretaker and companion to Lady Stokeley, she starts to feel as if she might finally be able to put down some roots and live the way other people do.
Then, Lady Stokeley’s nephew, city banker Henry Trent, storms into Willoughby Manor, seeming to find fault with everything, including Alice. As the next in line to the manor and title, he threatens to upturn everything she’s started to build. But Henry is hiding his own secret fears and weaknesses, ones he’s desperate for no one to discover. A surprising and inconvenient attraction that simmers between them leaves Alice feeling more confused than ever, and Henry torn between duty and desire, fear and love.
When circumstances become even more difficult, both Alice and Henry must decide who they really are, and what they are willing to fight for. Could Alice possibly be the next Lady of Willoughby Manor?
Dear Ms. Hewitt,
The blurb for this one might sound the teensiest bit bland but wow am I glad I asked to review it. It’s one of those end of a series books that actually makes me want to go back and catch up on all the other stories before it. It’s at times a little angsty, a little brave, a little gently humorous and has a lot of heart. It’s also got some deep seated and end-of-life issues which are handled with sensitivity and a deft touch which avoids bathos but which still reached deep. Yep, I was crying at the end.
Alice is and for the most part of her life has been alone. Her drug addicted mother lost custody of Alice to foster care several times and after 22 years of having no one on her side and having to claw her way up only to slip back down when another foster family situation ended, Alice finally has a job and a place. But only for a little while as her new employer, Dorothy Trent, Lady Stokeley is dying of cancer. Hired to care for Lady Stokeley during her last days, Alice soon finds the spirited woman is fiercely protective of her independence and determined to decide how she wants to spend her remaining time. But Willoughby Manor is not the stately home Alice was expecting to see and she fears Lady Stokeley hired her only because she thought she could boss Alice around. From the amount of dust thick on everything and overgrown ivy turning the light in the kitchen an eerie green, it’s obvious how many people must once have worked there to keep it up and how long that Lady Stokeley has been living alone.
Her nephew Henry swoops in uttering orders and eyeing Alice as if she might nick the silver. Dorothy puts paid to his blustering and coolly voices her own views of how this is going to go. No, she doesn’t want Alice moving in just yet; Alice can stay in an empty cottage on the estate grounds near her recently made friends and the woman who helped Alice get this job in the first place. That should give both Alice and Lady Stokeley their privacy and space. The others living in Willoughby Close might have their (mostly negative) opinions about Henry – the wealthy investment person from The City – Trent but Alice suspects that under his stiff, prattish exterior is a man who cares deeply for his aunt.
Alice soon discovers that Lady Stokeley isn’t all the aristocratic, stuffy person she first appears as either. Oh, she has the Lady of the Manor down pat, can depress pretensions with the best of them and is not one to be fussed over but she’s not a harridan or a Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Alice wants to be needed, finds purpose in being useful and at first chafes at doing nothing but making afternoon tea – no store bought biscuits, please – and British comfort food for Dorothy (who is relaxed about first names). Soon Alice is scrubbing, polishing and whisking away years of cobwebs. Urgh. Cleaning yields immediate results and Alice has used it over the years to try and make sure people would want to keep her around. Alice does try and see the positive in everyone and everything. As hard as that has sometimes been in her life it gives her hope.
Despite what Henry Trent might imply, Alice does have experience with taking care of patients as a nursing aide and did see her gran through her own end of life days. She can tell Dorothy isn’t there yet and discovers a protective streak of her own as far as helping Dorothy live life on her own terms for as long as she can. Alice also delights in her own place. Small as it might be to others and though it’s filled with odds and ends furniture, to Alice it’s huge and her own. She also discovers the joys of neighbors and neighborly help as the residents of the other cottages pitch in and get her settled.
What Alice didn’t count on is Dorothy’s obvious penchant to meddle a little and maneuver things as she thinks they ought to be and that what Dorothy seems to want to direct is Alice and Henry. Alice finds that Henry tends to cover his own – very few – worries, insecurities or fears with anger or irritability but he’s also the type to solemnly inform the dog Alice is pet sitting not to “befoul his car” or Henry “will be very aggrieved.” Really. Henry wears bespoke suits, drives a posh Jaguar and probably knows which forks to use none of which Alice does.
But there’s something there, between them, though both try and ignore it at first. However Alice isn’t going to get herself into any situations where Henry would be gently schooling her. She loathes pity and feeling “lesser” even if that’s not what Henry would intend. A fancy dinner in London with Henry would never do which takes him aback when she declines. Still, as Alice begins to learn about Henry’s life, she sees some similarities to her own. They both had wretched childhoods though for different reasons and keep themselves a little apart for fear of hurt. He can be tetchy and irritable and doesn’t “do” public emotion but also shows more and more moments of wistfulness and kindness. Henry might put up a great front but his aunt spills a few things about him, not that this changes anything. After a wonderful kiss, Henry – ever the gentleman – immediately apologizes. He is, after all, the heir to an Earldom and Alice is hardly countess material.
Something breaks free in Alice after she drags out of Henry exactly why he won’t let their relationship progress any further. To his credit, she had to dig hard to finally get him to stiltingly stammer out the whys but having spent a lifetime trying not to make waves, finally standing up and demanding the truth is liberating. Yes, it stung but now Alice decides she isn’t ever going to let anyone look down on her again. She’s good enough for herself and that is what matters. I could almost see her standing straighter, pulling her shoulders back and lifting her chin. If she’d had a hat, she’d have Mary Tyler Moore’d that thing straight up in the air. She also has to gently tell her friends that she needs to be free to make her own mistakes and learn who she really is. Go Alice!
I appreciated the little hints and bits that shade each character. Eighty six year old Lady Stokeley has moments of unfocused remembrance after which she wistfully says how painful it is to realize how much the things in her life have changed. Alice has to hide her emotions even from friends after first seeing her cottage because it reveals too much about what she’s never had. Henry’s sudden still face when he discusses his despised father tries to hide a wealth of information about how neglected he felt growing up. No one is bursting with public revelations – they’re British – but these quiet things show depth, richness and burnish them in my mind. Everyone here, from the main characters through to the secondary ones feels real. Emotions are revealed in momentarily thickened voices or turned heads, eyes blinking to hold back tears. For Henry, loosening up is unbuttoning the top button on his tailored shirts.
Alice at first doubts Henry would ever see her that way but she likes him and is satisfied that they eventually consider themselves to be friends. The age difference might squick people – though it’s only 15 years – but as far as life experience goes, Alice’s rough childhood has made her mature beyond her age though she is a bit romantically naïve. Alice doesn’t make pie in the sky wishes on Henry though. She wants to like him, does most of the time, until he does or says something that makes her doubt whether he will be anything other than uptight and slightly snobbish. She’s not trying to fall in love with him or paint rainbows. It’s all very down-to-earth, actually. Yet Alice does make Henry see his pale existence and the lack in his life. Before Alice he never noticed but now he does.
So how do we get to HEA? How is Henry unstarched? Alice and Dorothy aren’t chums but each respects the other and a friendship has bloomed. Alice decides she wants to do something for Dorothy, one last “beginning” and happy memory instead of everything ending. The way everyone pitches in is lovely. The past main couples of the series are in this book but as characters supporting this story rather than hawking their own. Dorothy also gets one last chance to play fairy godmother and matchmaker. And it’s her final words which spark Alice to go for it. But really I’m not sure about one last event at the end of the book. I don’t think it works that way.
I so desperately want to do justice to this wonderful book. One of the joys is watching the changes in the characters and not just “oh, because the plot needs it right now” but what feels like genuine “this has really happened because of the events in the book” changes. Seeing Alice come into her own and stand up for herself or Henry slowly thaw and yearn for something more in his life, or getting to know Dorothy’s briskness and emotions hidden for decades beneath a calm façade was a treat. None of them lets it all hang out but the slow reveal after delicate hints spoke volumes. Underneath the growing romantic relationship is one of friendship between Dorothy and Alice. The reality of Dorothy’s choices are stark and clear from the beginning but I was like all the others in coming to believe she was indomitable, a fixture. When the decline became more rapid as her life neared its end, I felt as if I were losing a dear friend too. Yes, there were tears being rapidly blinked away as I read this part. We all hide hurts and pain but what we do with our fears makes the difference. Alice wrestles hers down and her final act of bravery takes all her courage to reach for but she had Dorothy’s urging to back her up and her prize – Henry – is well worth the effort. And he, well he’s gobsmacked that someone as wonderful as Alice actually wants him and yes, his change is totally believable. A-