JOINT REVIEW: Someone Perfect by Mary Balogh
Janine: Kaetrin and I have been reviewing Mary Balogh since her Westcott series of historical romances began eight books ago and this review continues the tradition.
Someone Perfect is Westcott-adjacent and the start of Balogh’s “Friends of the Westcotts” series; its heroine, Lady Estelle Lamarr, is Viola Westcott’s stepdaughter.
Estelle and her twin Bertrand are living in the country. Estelle has turned away many a suitor; if she can’t “find herself,” she’s content to live with brother. As the book begins, the sun is shining after days of rain and Estelle celebrates by going for a walk. The scenery tempts her into sitting by a nearby river and dipping her feet, even taking off her bonnet. Her hair comes down by mistake.
Her moment of bliss is interrupted when a panting, menacing dog races toward her. The dog—Captain—is called to heel by a huge, dour man. When he rides away without a word Estelle is shocked by his rudeness and embarrassed by her improper appearance.
Justin Wiley, Earl of Brandon, is ashamed and consternated by his behavior, which was brought on by broodiness and unexpected lust. He dreads a confrontation with his sister that awaits him in nearby Prospect Hall. Justin (age 34) and Maria (20) are half-siblings who once adored each other. That and every other facet of Justin’s life, was shattered twelve years ago and they haven’t seen each other in all that time. When he inherited his father’s title and country seat six years earlier, Justin had Maria and her mother sent to Prospect Hall.
Kaetrin: I had to laugh at the description of Justin’s age. I felt like it was one of those maths exam problems where you have to do algebra to work out the answer.
Maria was the daughter of his father and his father’s second wife, now deceased. She was fourteen years younger than Justin. He had not seen her for twelve years. She had been a child then, eight years old, thin and pale, with fine blond hair and big blue eyes, and he had adored her. And she him. But he had left home abruptly and been gone for six years before he inherited the title and properties and fortune upon the death of his father.
Let me just say there are not many authors I willingly do maths for.
Janine: In the intervening years Maria’s mother sickened, cared for by the teenaged Maria (the nurses Justin sent were turned away). When she died, Justin became Maria’s guardian and wrote his sister to invite her home. All his letters met with chilly and polite refusals. Justin loves Maria and decides to give her the chance to meet young people, come out in society, and marry by bringing her back.
While he is at Prospect Hall, Estelle and Bertrand, friends of Maria’s, pay a call. Justin and Estelle’s second meeting isn’t any smoother. Each feels awkward, embarrassed, and resentful. Estelle’s concludes that Justin is rude and unpleasant and that she dislikes him intensely. Though Justin is aware of it, he invites Estelle and Bertrand for a visit. Maria’s companion can’t move due to family demands and Justin doesn’t want Maria to be isolated.
Kaetrin: The rest of the story, for the most part, takes place at Everleigh Park, where Justin has invited Maria’s relatives, his own and their shared relations too, to try and give Maria a better sense of family and belonging. (The cast is extremely large and it took me quite a while to remember who everyone was – and as none of them were Westcotts (apart from Estelle and Bertrand) they were all entirely new.)
Janine: I didn’t feel impatient with the family gathering, and I often do with Balogh. New bonds were forged, sometimes across gaps of social class, and shared interests discovered. There was genuine warmth and interest on all sides. It may require suspension of disbelief that no one was a snob over the class divisions, but I was glad of that.
Kaetrin: Over the course of the novel, Justin finds himself reconnecting with a family he’s been largely estranged from for a dozen years and we find out what really happened that caused Justin’s father to throw him out of the house.
In terms of the romance, Justin is immediately attracted to Estelle but it is only when he allows himself to consider that to take his full role as Earl he needs to marry and have heirs, not to mention that he will be responsible for launching Maria into society the following spring and wouldn’t it be more convenient if he had a wife to help him that he contemplates doing anything about it. When he does, he is particularly ham-handed about it. It reminded me somewhat of the first proposal scene in Pride & Prejudice – and received about the same response from the lady to whom it was directed.
Janine: Yes. I was also reminded of the proposal scene in Slightly Dangerous.
Kaetrin: Details of what Justin did after he was kicked out of home (with only a horse and twenty pounds and what he could put together quickly in a small bag) for the six years until his father passed away are also revealed.
As Estelle and Justin spend time together during the house party, he realises that it is far more than convenience that make him want to marry her and she opens her eyes to her own feelings about him. Justin is not perfect – nobody in the book is (it is one of the overt themes) but, as it happens, he is perfect for her.
Janine: I liked Justin and Estelle. Balogh’s characters sometimes indulge in too much hand-wringing but Justin and Maria are confident. They know their minds, behave like adults, and act on their convictions. Sometimes they regret it but not excessively.
The book centers on the mystery of Justin’s past and whether he can ever heal and find happiness. Estelle serves as a catalyst, as a sounding board, and a filter through which readers see Justin (even when she assesses him inaccurately, we see him accurately). All that was well done, and I also give Balogh kudos for developing Estelle well beyond that in what is a hero-centric book. I liked that Estelle was beautiful and neither vain nor demurring about it. Her twinship connection with Bertrand enhanced both with insights into each other and sympatico sentiments. The only aspect of Estelle I didn’t buy was her search for herself; she plainly didn’t seem that lost on what she wanted out of life and when she named it I thought she should have known it all along.
Kaetrin: All of the heroines in the Westcott series are seeking to assert their personhood in some way so this fit with my expectations.
Janine: In that sense it fit with mine as well. I just didn’t feel it was well-executed. On the whole, though, Estelle was believable and more than a prop.
Kaetrin: I admit I was a bit surprised at how she didn’t seem to be under any pressure from society or her family to marry. At 25 she’s practically on the shelf! Given the interference the Westcotts tried with Harry I’m a little surprised they weren’t banging down Estelle’s door about it. I did like her too though. Justin needed someone a little more mature to walk beside him in life and Estelle’s own history meant that she had a personal understanding of difficult family dynamics and the pain caused by an errant father. While their circumstances were very different, it gave them some common ground.
Luckily for Estelle, Justin’s own unusual trajectory in life meant that he’s especially open to women being independent and capable and deserving of self-determination.
Janine: There is more focus on physicality than usual for Balogh. Estelle notices Justin’s huge hands, wide shoulders, and powerful thighs. That kind of thing often feels rote and costs me patience but here it was fresh because Estelle’s awareness of Justin unsettled her. He was sometimes dour, clouded with darkness, and reluctant to open up, all things Estelle didn’t want in her life, yet she still desired him. That gave the attraction stakes and made Justin’s hotness palpable.
Kaetrin: I had mixed feelings about this. On the one hand Justin has the kind of physicality I find very attractive on a personal level. However, I found the repeated references to his bulk and his calloused hands and his muscles as a bit othering. Those things only developed after he was sent away and had to work manual labour to support himself. (On that note, I did wonder just how all those muscles had been maintained in the six years since he’d inherited. A couple of months a year wouldn’t seem to be enough?)
Janine: Yes—it *is* othering–but I saw in a way that was similar to how Alexander was put off by Wren’s “mannishness” when he first met her in Someone to Wed. Alexander needed to see her as other in order to come around to seeing (and Balogh frequently does this well) her and realizing he’d been wrong. Estelle saw Justin as other because his unusual physicality stemmed from his missing years and his (in her eyes) dark and unknowable past. This initial othering underscored the resolution of their inner light/darkness differences. Instead of being someone so different as to be almost alien to Estelle, Justin became the man beside whom she wanted to live her life. (And LOL, I had the same thought about his muscles.)
Justin is, in my opinion, one of Balogh’s better heroes. His past backstory and actions him likeable. I loved how he put Maria first whenever faced with a choice and that his selflessness never felt like martyrdom.
Kaetrin: I agree with you about the martyrdom and I really liked Justin too. But… he’s almost too good. He’s almost always noble and self-sacrificing. If not for that his pursuit of Estelle turned out to be mainly for selfish reasons (i.e., that he wanted her for himself, that he was attracted to her and then that he loved her), he’d have been a saint. But Justin’s romance with Estelle, notwithstanding his initial proposal mostly being about how it would help Maria and be good for the earldom and, given Estelle’s age he’d almost be doing her a favour (he said it a little more nicely than that but he really mucked things up that first time) was really all about him. I was happy to see Justin wanting something for himself. It made him far more relatable. To further that theme (and going back to the first proposal) it was really only with Estelle that Justin was less than perfect.
Janine: I felt past thoughtlessness toward loving (extended) relatives made him imperfect too. Also, Justin knew that he might not be able to make Estelle happy, yet he didn’t let that deter him. She was what he needed (as welcoming and cheerful as he was dour and closed) more than he was for her. Balogh walked a fine line between making Justin needy and making him strong enough to stand on his own but she pulled it off.
Kaetrin: And that brings me to what I see as the main theme of the book. There are many overt references to perfection and how what something (or someone) looks like from one perspective may not in fact be as perfect and amazing as it first appears. How the pursuit of perfection can lead to alienation, sadness and despair. Indeed, even [Justin’s stepmother] Lilian didn’t lead the happy life she really wanted I gather. Rather than perfection, seek love and relationship and honesty is the book’s thesis.
Janine: The part of Justin’s backstory that connects to why he was banished didn’t fully work. It was tragic and although it and its resolution made sense in context, I didn’t buy that it would allow Justin complete happiness.
Justin and Maria lost twelve years of sibling love. Justin had some compensations, though he suffered, but Maria had none. And there are also all the loving extended relatives who, during Justin’s absence, missed him and worried over him and suffered.
Kaetrin: I felt bad for Maria. What happened to her wasn’t Justin’s fault.
Janine: Absolutely. It still made the book very melancholy, though.
Janine: I also really did not love the way a disabled character was portrayed and used in the story. First, the depiction of disabled people as noble-hearted and innately good is stereotypical and othering. Second, I do not like it when a character with a disability is portrayed as a figure in need of the protagonist’s rescue or intervention. Typically, the disabled character is there to make the hero or heroine shine or catalyze them into action, rather than developed with genuine personalities of their own. That was the case here too. This whole aspect of the book was just…ugh for me.
Kaetrin: Yes, I had misgivings about the portrayal here as well. Additionally, there was some language used to refer to this character that I was dubious about.
Janine: I felt the same but made allowances for the vocabulary of the period.
Early in the book, it’s mentioned that Avery (hero of Someone to Love) became Justin’s friend after making a cryptic remark to Justin. I was certain the strangeness of the remark would be explained (I had a theory about what the reason for it might be) but it never went anywhere.
Kaetrin: Oh yes. I expect we have the same theory. It may even be correct! But nothing was ever made of it. I think the broader point was that Avery liked and approved of Justin despite rumors of a very nefarious and unsavory past and readers could feel assured that Justin was really a good guy as a result. (I mean, he’s the hero so I sort of knew that already but, okay.)
Janine: I wondered if maybe Balogh did more with it in an earlier draft and that plot development had to be cut to make room for things to play out differently, but who knows.
Kaetrin: I really was expecting Avery to waltz in and save the day like he usually does.
Janine: I noticed more anachronisms than I typically do in Balogh’s novels, including glaring ones such as, “family unit” (1860, per the Oxford English Dictionary), “therapeutic” in a psychological sense (use from 1970 according to the OED), “drive me mental” (this usage of “mental” is from 1927 per the OED), “I stepped out of my own…bubble,” “stereotypical” (1949), “by getting ahead of rumors,” “his head hit the pillow,” and “super finder of the missing” (this usage of “super” is from 1932).
Kaetrin: For the most part I don’t get too fussed about this stuff. I tend to assume that I’m wrong if anything strikes me as too modern (I see so many threads and tweets where things that seem really modern turn out to be really old) but I know it’s an issue for some readers.
Janine: I have a good ear for anachronistic language and when I look stuff up in the OED I usually am correct! And if I can look things up, so can authors. I realize anachronistic language is a nonissue for many but I see it as part of the world-building. I’m okay with a few misplaced words and a bit of artistic license but it got jarring here. Most examples (“get ahead of rumors,” for instance) could have been conveyed in the period’s language just as well. It was unnecessary to disrupt the reading experience by using them.
There was also hymen misplacement. Not uncommon in Balogh novels, and not actually a big pet peeve for me, but I know that it is for other readers, so I’m mentioning it.
Kaetrin: I’d be very happy if everyone could agree that the hymen is outside the body. *sigh*
Janine: Someone Perfect is a strong book on many fronts but there were the disability issues and the tragedy and melancholy overwhelmed the joy a bit. Despite all that was said to the contrary, I feel the past could still shadow Justin’s future happiness. It’s a B-/B for me.
Kaetrin: I didn’t mind the melancholy so much – It’s not uncommon in this series or with Balogh books in general. I did dislike what Justin’s dad chose to do and I had those misgivings about the disability representation. The romance however did work for me. Someone Perfect gets a B from me.