REVIEW: Someone to Cherish by Mary Balogh
Is love worth the loss of one’s freedom and independence? This is what Mrs. Tavernor must decide in the new novel in the Westcott series from New York Times bestselling author Mary Balogh.
When Harry Westcott lost the title Earl of Riverdale after the discovery of his father’s bigamy, he shipped off to fight in the Napoleonic Wars, where he was near-fatally wounded. After a harrowing recovery, the once cheery, light-hearted boy has become a reclusive, somber man. Though Harry insists he enjoys the solitude, he does wonder sometimes if he is lonely.
Lydia Tavernor, recently widowed, dreams of taking a lover. Her marriage to Reverend Isaiah Tavernor was one of service and obedience, and she has secretly enjoyed her freedom since his death. She doesn’t want to shackle herself to another man in marriage, but sometimes, she wonders if she is lonely.
Both are unwilling to face the truth until they find themselves alone together one night, and Lydia surprises even herself with a simple question: “Are you ever lonely?” Harry’s answer leads them down a path neither could ever have imagined…
Dear Mary Balogh,
I adored this book, adored the quiet strength of its heroine, and the core of kindness and honorableness of its hero. I am a big fan of all of your books, but I have struggled with ‘family fatigue’ when it comes to the Westcott series. Unlike some of your other series, like the Bedwyn Saga which I loved, this series felt bogged down by the large and intricate family depicted. I quite frankly, got tired of hearing about the Westcotts, and being privy to their behind the scenes machinations annoyed me. I couldn’t remember (and didn’t care to) many of the characters and their relationships to each other. Having said that, the first book in this series Someone to Love was really lovely and I liked the expected yet unexpected pairing in that book (true confession: I loved the hero Avery). This latest book, Someone to Cherish is a gift to your readers. Dare I say I needed such a gentle comforting read during this time of high anxiety and stress.
I loved the heroine Lydia. Right away, in the opening paragraphs the story centers us in the heroine’s POV. Her inner thoughts and musings are relayed to us in a gentle ironic tone that invites us to share in the construction of interiority. Lydia is at a party where she is fading into the background, something that she is used to doing. The disjuncture between how others view her—and how she sees herself—is laid bare to us the readers. The key difference between this depiction of diffidence is that Lydia deliberately ‘hides’ herself. Her hiding in a way, is strength and burden. The reasons for that are revealed to us slowly, and I thought the depiction of her marriage was very delicately and powerfully done. It is a story and depiction of female oppression that doesn’t involve force or brutality, but rather the mundane violence that contribute to an erasure of self. I really appreciated this and I thought it was one of the strongest aspects of the book, both in terms of tone, and in terms of the narrative arch. Plenty of books in romance and outside, have looked at the issue of unhappy marriage and female oppression, but the way that Lydia was written, her choice to ‘hide’, takes what is an erasure of self into an active act against it. She was reclaiming her self, not erasing it. Of course, it takes true love for her to fully emerge, and that was rendered beautifully, how a loving and kind partner can make you a better version of yourself. She reclaims herself first, but it takes Harry to heal her. I liked that the initial conflict in the story was actually internal—it was between Lydia and herself. This remains a thread throughout, even as other outside obstacles emerge.
Lydia’s first marriage to a charismatic but controlling and egotistical religious zealot is depicted with what I thought was very realistic detail. While her first husband didn’t beat her, he her by cast her as a kind of shadow to his real and fully realized self. Lydia made herself invisible in part, because her husband encouraged her to. What’s great about her character, is that she doesn’t accept that for herself. After the death of her husband, she takes full ownership of her life. And this flourishing of herself is so beautiful and so moving to read about. It made me so happy I cannot express how much! Even her first meeting with Harry comes from this place of wanting to live and wanting to be free. In a lot of ways, the story is about Lydia’s triumph over abuse, and the happy ending, the escape from a marriage that diminishes the soul, is a display of a beautifully understated feminism.
The publisher’s blurb doesn’t really do justice to the intricacies of the plot. Even though the book unfolds at a gentle and sedate pace, without much angst, there is conflict and there are great obstacles to the heroine’s happiness and to the happily ever after. First is the nature of village life. My mom grew up in a small village in the mountains and her stories of her life resonated with your depiction. The village of Fairford is so tiny that everyone knows everybody else’s business and a person’s reputation is of extremely high value. On the one hand you have great warmth and generosity—the neighbors celebrate for example, the 70 year old neighbor’s birthday with a surprise party where everyone contributes, including Lydia who makes a delicious cake. At the same time, gossip spreads like wildfire. There are neighbors that are kind and helpful, and others that are judgemental and small minded and malicious. What is true across time and place, both in my mom’s small village and in Fairford, is that a woman’s reputation is of utmost value in a small community.
The romance was so sweet and so gentle. Lydia and Harry truly embodied the idea of cherishing as both the protection and deep care of someone else. The way they meet really sets up their dynamic as one of discovery, revelation, and gradual intimacy. They both realize there is a freedom and joy to be had in intimacy and in trust and it was a joy to read about their discovery of this (and a good reminder for me too!)
This is set up very cleverly from the moment they meet—right after Lydia leaves the party that opens the book, Harry escorts her home, and she asks him one simple question “Are you ever lonely?” The abrupt honesty of the question shocks Harry into seeing Lydia—the real Lydia—for the first time and jumpstarts their romance. The attraction is slow and simmering between them and I really liked the ways Lydia compares her dream lover to her real lover in the story finding the real thing better than the dream. Harry is a dream man in many ways. The plot hints at his hidden darkness, but what’s revealed is not so much darkness as trauma and deep suffering. He is a person who really cares about others, regardless of class or age or gender. He is a deeply kind man and more than just telling us that, you show us in the ways he treats his neighbors, his regard for his family, even the affection he bestows on Snowball, Lydia’s dog. Harry has weathered much hardship, and you depict again, very realistically, the kind of fog that comes with feelings of depression. What makes Harry unique and loveable as a hero is that he acknowledges his feelings and works hard on his resilience and at being in the world.
Some things that didn’t work for me—I had to skim or skip over any and all scenes depicting the extended Westcott family. I find them, as a group, to be wholly saccharine and entirely unbearable. I know this sounds harsh, but I just could not get myself to read of the Westcott ladies once again ‘conspiring’ to matchmake or make things happen. It was not only repetitive, as this occurs so many times in the other series, but its also just felt shallow when compared to the depth of emotion and feeling in the romantic plotline.
Other things I loved: the scene where Lydia comes out of her shell, and I had lots of fantasies about her pretty pink dress. The scenes of her quiet but happy solitude—baking, gardening, knitting and just enjoying her freedom. It was delightful to read about this kind of female fantasy where liberation and freedom are so hard won. Lydia came by her little house, her Snowball, her life partly chance—the death of her husband—but also from her own choices—to reject her family’s oppressive love and make a life for herself.
This is a terrific story of love and resilience, of trust and of freedom. One of my favorite poets, the Lebanese American Khalil Gibran once wrote “Love one another, but make not a bond of love. Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.” This story is exactly about rejecting the bondage that masquerades as love, and finding freedom in cherishing another soul. It is a deeply nourishing and deeply moving story of resilience.
My grade: A