JOINT REVIEW: Someone to Wed by Mary Balogh
Since we reviewed the first two books in this series together, we decided to do the same with the third. ~ Janine & Kaetrin
Janine: Someone to Wed, the third novel in Mary Balogh’s Westcott series, begins with a social call. Alexander Westcott, the new Earl of Riverdale, has come to visit his neighbor, Miss Heyden, at her country house in Wiltshire. The scene is written in third person from Wren, Miss Heyden’s, POV, but even so it is immediately clear that Alexander did not expect to find himself almost alone with her (her maid is the only other person present).
Alexander also did not expect Miss Heyden to be veiled, but she is. And when a discomfited Alexander attempts to leave, she begins to tell him about her late uncle’s great wealth, which was bequeathed entirely to her. Alexander, she knows, is not so well off. And he has recently been encumbered with the run-down estate of Brambledean. Just as he is about to make his escape, Wren offers a solution to his problems: he could marry her.
When Alexander retorts that he hasn’t even seen her face, Wren lifts her veil and reveals the purple birthmarks that cover the left side of her otherwise beautiful face from forehead to jaw. Alexander covers his recoil, and realizes that this is the reason for the veil, as well as for Wren’s reclusiveness. Wren’s purpose in inviting him is eventually revealed to be the offer of a trade: her wealth for an end to her loneliness.
“I am a very wealthy woman, Lord Riverdale. But my life lacks something, just as yours lacks ready money. I am twenty-nine years old, very nearly thirty, and I would like … someone to wed. In my own person I am not marriageable, but I do have money. And you do not.”
Rather than accepting or rejecting her proposal, Alexander offers a counter-invitation, indicating that he is willing to get to know her better. Wren accepts and calls on him at his country house but holds herself aloof from his other guests. Alexander is initially put off by that, as well as by what he sees as her almost mannish ways. Nevertheless, he soon comes to feel empathy for her, too, realizing that she carries deep emotional wounds.
For her part, Wren wishes that Alexander weren’t quite so handsome. What he asks of her is almost too much; she does not know if she can bear to meet and socialize with others, much less to reveal her face to them. Wren was loved by her aunt and uncle (the latter also taught her how to help manage his glassworks business), but it’s clear that before she came to live with them at the age of ten, she suffered greatly at the hands of the people she was born to. Trusting strangers and revealing herself to them, both literally and figuratively, is therefore difficult for her.
When her first meeting with Alexander’s mother and sister goes awry, Wren calls off the tentative courtship and declines Alexander’s invitation to continue it in London. Alexander feels relieved; birthmarks are the least of Wren’s issues in his view, and the emotional effort and care their new relationship demanded of him was almost too great. But when he arrives in London, intending to court other heiresses, he finds no other woman as interesting as Wren. Wren, meanwhile, has begun to correspond with Alexander’s sister, Elizabeth, and she tells herself that perhaps Alexander is right, and she can find the courage to go to London, after all…
Structurally, Someone to Wed reminded me a bit of one of my favorite Balogh novels, Indiscreet. In both novels the heroine’s traumatic past is hinted at but not fully brought to light until late in the book. In both books, the hero aids the heroine in resolving relationships from her earlier years (and one of these relationships is particularly similar to one in Indiscreet) and reconciling her two identities/selves (from the before and after parts of her life). Both books are constructed around social issues, slut shaming in the case of Indiscreet and lookism in the case of Someone to Wed. Both books make for highly emotional reading experiences.
There are some notable differences, though; not least being that this isn’t a redemption story, so Alexander doesn’t share Rex’s early reckless selfishness, and is warm and kind to Wren once he gets past his first reaction. Wren is likewise very different from Catherine in character and initially doesn’t stand up for herself as well as Catherine does.
Kaetrin: Alexander is very much the beta hero. He’s a genuinely nice guy. A little stiff and proper perhaps but Wren is good for him there.
“We are us now.”
“It sounds ungrammatical,” he said at the same time as he was jolted by the idea of it—we are us now. “But I shall try. It will take a little getting used to, though. I have stood alone since my father’s death and managed my own affairs. In the normal course of things, I would have continued to do so after my marriage, and I would have provided for my wife too.”
“Then our marriage will be good for you,” she said briskly. “It will be a necessary lesson in humility. I need to have a say in all the decision making, Alexander, not because the money has come from me—I wish it could be otherwise—but because I want to be involved and like and need to be involved. I am not anyone’s idea of a typical lady, as you may have noticed.”
Alexander could have been boring I suppose because he is a nice guy but I didn’t find him so. When he is roused to protective passion on Wren’s behalf it felt a little more special actually because it takes a bit to get his dander up.
It was noticeable that she had not said he had nothing to bring her, though that would seem more to the point. He clasped his hands behind him and gazed at her for several moments, trying to fathom what was going on behind all that cool poise. He might have concluded there was nothing, but her eyes wavered for a moment before she focused them steadily on his again. And he could almost feel the pain behind the words she had spoken—I have nothing to bring you except pots and pots of money.
“If we wed,” he said, “I would draw from you the story of your first ten years, Miss Heyden. And while I am not a violent man by nature, I suspect I would thereby learn there are a few people I would dearly like to pound into the middle of next week.”
Janine: While I found the experience of reading Someone to Wed highly emotional, and enjoyed seeing Wren build friendships and other relationships, as well as find love and courage, I have mixed feelings about the book.
An early scene in which Alexander dwells on Wren’s otherness and ascribes it to her veil made me acutely uncomfortable. I have little doubt that many people of Alexander’s time would react this way to a woman as unusual as Wren, but reading this scene in 2017, I could not help but think about the bigotry hijabi women face today, and I wondered if Balogh had intended to allude to that, or not.
Kaetrin: I hadn’t considered that aspect Janine. I guess I placed more importance on passages such as this:
He had heard Jessica say—with great delight—that Miss Heyden must be looked upon as a mystery woman when she appeared in public, her face shrouded by a veil. But she was a mystery woman even without it, for she wore layer upon layer of inner veils.
It seemed to me that for Alexander in particular, it wasn’t the birthmark or the physical veil that was a barrier to him pursuing a relationship with her. It was that she held herself so aloof, her protective armour being so thick as to render her extremely difficult to know. Though of course, your reading of it is just as valid.
Janine: It’s certainly true that Wren’s figurative “veils” are at least as big an issue for her as the veil she wears, and that theme is emphasized far more than the point I brought up. But (and even though Alexander’s attitude changed soon afterwards) I nonetheless flinched in that moment when Alexander saw Wren as other.
Early on in the book, Wren also tells Alexander that she has begun to ask herself, “Why can I not be a woman as well as a person? Why can I not marry?” In this statement womanhood seems to be equated with marriage, and since I don’t look at marital status as something that determines whether one is a woman, I wasn’t happy with that, either. Perhaps a businesswoman such as Wren would have been viewed that way in the Regency era, even by herself? But I would have liked for at least one character in the novel to see this differently.
Kaetrin: I took the view that Wren had never really felt in touch with her femininity. And, for her, embracing that side of herself meant marriage and children. I didn’t really have a problem with the concept that for a woman of her time (and perhaps class also) those things equaled womanhood.
Janine: My problem wasn’t with that concept, but rather, that as a reader who lives in 2017, I wanted to see not just a Regency-era mindset (if that’s what it was) in the heroine, but also a mindset that isn’t so contradictory to the way I view womanhood in 2017 as to be jarring to me.
Kaetrin: The book does explicitly equate a lot of Wren’s life as being “mannish”. She is an independent businesswoman. She works. She is tall and strides about, matching her steps well to Alexander’s. She is slender and not very curvaceous. She is forthright in her views and not shy to tell Alexander what she thinks. In terms of the kind of women Alexander expects to meet when courting a bride, Wren is almost the antithesis of them. She does not simper or flatter, she does not use “feminine wiles” or play the kinds of games which are commonly coded as feminine.
What I liked, was that Alexander, even in having such thoughts, almost immediately challenged himself about them. He asked himself what was actually wrong with Wren having opinions or running her own business or being bluntly honest. And he answers himself, correctly, with “nothing whatsoever”. The things which challenge him about her at first are the very things he comes to appreciate and admire in her and which he, on further reflection, finds quite feminine indeed. He enjoys that she is tall and walking with her means he does not have to shorten his stride. He adores that she speaks her mind and does not play head games with him (although he doesn’t use that modern terminology of course). He likes being in partnership with her in a marriage even though part of him is a little put out that he cannot play the traditional husbandly role of providing for her financially.
She listened, sitting back in her chair, her arms folded beneath her bosom, her head tipped slightly to one side. And occasionally she spoke, either with a pertinent question or with an intelligent comment or suggestion. It was like talking to another man, he thought as he relaxed back in his chair—until he caught himself in the thought and was very glad he had not said it aloud. She was nothing like a man, except perhaps in her willingness to use her mind to its full capacity without fear of being considered unfeminine.
She was very feminine actually. There was something surprisingly appealing—sexually, that was—about a woman who demanded to be taken seriously as a whole person.
Janine: Yes, Alexander’s ability to grow past his initial narrow-mindedness was a nice, as well as necessary, touch. But to me it was Wren’s ability to grow past the initial confines of her life and to find the courage to push outward that was at the heart of the book.
The novel has an interesting relationship to lookism. On the one hand, we are reassured by multiple characters, Alexander first among them, that Wren makes too much of her birthmarks and has overreacted to them; in other words, that she has internalized the prejudices of those who abused her to an unhealthy degree. Yet the novel itself dwells so much on those birthmarks, and on whether or not Alexander has stopped seeing them, from the first scene to the last, that it ends up buying into lookism as much as it seeks to counter it.
Kaetrin: I had a different view of this Janine. I felt that the novel made such a big deal of it because it is such a big deal to Wren. For the first 10 years of her life, her strawberry birthmark had her being mistreated and abused by her family and cut off from almost all affection and even education. For the next nearly 20 years (the first 10 having had such a scarifying effect on her), she kept herself separate and only showed her face to her uncle and aunt and their staff. She did not ever leave the house without a veil, believing, entirely, that she was repulsive to look upon. Over the course of the book, she comes to a reconciliation with her physical self – Wren’s journey felt very much around her self-worth and her appearance and her confidence in those things.
My own misgivings are based on not having any personal experience of a facial blemish such as a strawberry birthmark. I would love to read the opinion of someone who does (or preferably more than one person) to know how the representation read to them. I tend to hesitate over representation issues a bit more these days, realizing that I am in no way qualified to comment authoritatively. However, as a reviewer, I’ll put my two cents worth in – with the caveat that I’m more than happy to listen to other opinions and revise my own upon receiving them.
I think Alex was right when he said this:
“I can understand that it makes you self-conscious. I can understand that as a young lady you must lament what you consider a serious blemish to your looks. But it is not altogether unsightly. Anyone looking at you will of course notice it immediately. Some will even avoid any further acquaintance with you. Those are people who do not deserve your regard anyway. Most people, however, will surely look and then overlook. Though I noticed the first time and have noticed again now, I would be willing to wager that after seeing you a few more times I will not even see the blemish any longer. You will simply be you.”
People I like, respect or admire tend to become more physically attractive in my perceptions on further acquaintance and those I do not, become less so. And it is true that after a time, whatever the appearance of someone, they just become themselves. Except for a very few people however, Wren had never allowed herself to test this on broader acquaintance. It felt realistic to me that not everyone she meets unveiled has no reaction – some people did gasp in shock or horror and even a few of the Westcotts remarked upon the birthmark upon initial acquaintance. Aunt Matilda, who is that somewhat embarrassing relative who always says the wrong thing (everyone knows someone like that I believe), even suggests that Wren wear a veil at one point. Happily, the rest of the Westcotts promptly informed Matilda that was a terrible idea and completely unnecessary.
The “did you notice?” conversation Wren and Alexander have on various occasions throughout the book seemed to me to be more about their burgeoning relationship with each other and Wren’s relationship with her own face rather than a reminder to readers. In the end, it became something of an in joke between them.
Janine: I agree with the points you make in the last two paragraphs, yet I remain uneasy with the novel’s treatment of this issue. I don’t have a facial birthmark either, but I’m extrapolating a bit from having a disability and being frustrated with some novels which feature disabled characters. In so many of these, the disabled protagonist has internalized the prejudices she or he faces from society at large, and cannot seem to value him/herself properly because of it. I wince when I read some of these books, because an ableist view is reflected in them.
In a similar way, Wren’s internalizing of the prejudices she faced, her inability to value herself properly because of it and look at herself through eyes free of prejudice, indeed, the very concept of a heroine who hides her face from the world because of a blemish, struck me as lookist.
Kaetrin: You may well be right on this Janine. With Wren’s particular history, I could understand her reactions. I didn’t understand the novel to be suggesting that Wren’s childhood was usual or appropriate (and I know you aren’t either). I’d have been very uncomfortable if Wren had been loved and accepted as a little girl but still believed she was hideous. That made a difference to me but it may be that it ought not to have.
Janine: You are absolutely correct that Wren is given a backstory to explain her behavior and that the words and actions of those who raised her to view herself negatively are condemned. That *is* a mitigating factor. I think my discomfort may have to do with the fact that not even nearly two decades in her aunt and uncle’s loving care were enough to discourage Wren from hiding from the world.
Kaetrin: Perhaps the question I had around Wren’s journey in this book is why it took Alexander and the Westcotts for Wren to believe what her aunt and uncle had been telling her for nearly twenty years. Perhaps it was just that Wren was ready? Perhaps it was that Alexander and the Westcotts were no relation to Wren and therefore their opinion was to be considered more impartial? And perhaps, it would have been easier for me to accept those things had the relationship developed over a bit more time. Most of the book takes place in a few short weeks, with Wren having to make significant adjustments to her usual way of life in about two of them once she is in London. It felt a little bit too much too soon.
I could have believed the romance in that time frame – but the entirely of Wren’s journey felt like it ought to have taken longer given what had come before.
Janine: Why it took Alexander and the Westcotts for Wren to believe in herself is a good question and one that ties back to my concern about lookism and how it’s dealt with here. My instinct is to say that it took Alexander and the Westcotts because the author wanted it that way, and not for any other reason. Maybe we are coming at the same problem from different directions? I could be wrong, but I don’t think it’s normal for a person to hide herself for nineteen years because of a birthmark as Wren did, and the book is only constructed around such a behavior because its perspective, too, is muddled to a certain extent.
On another, yet related topic, the details of Wren’s childhood, when they are finally revealed, are gut-wrenching, so much so that they called to mind Dave Pelzer’s autobiography A Child Called It. It is impossible not to sympathize with a character that has suffered so greatly at so young an age, but for me that backstory felt a little too intense (I was in need of a comfort read when I read this book, and that may have factored in my reaction).
As in Someone to Hold, the previous book, a plot point hinges on adoption. Wren even thinks that
“She had not been sure it was a legal adoption until after her uncle’s death, when she had found the certificate among his papers. Her father’s signature had been upon it—a stomach-churning shock at the time.”
This regardless of the fact that adoption was not given legal status in England until 1926.
Kaetrin: I know you raised this issue in our previous review Janine. This is one of those times where ignorance (or forgetfulness) is bliss for me!
Janine: Despite the fact that Wren was legally adopted and lovingly parented by Heydens for nineteen of her twenty-nine years, Wren and the other characters persistently refer to the Heydens as Wren’s aunt and uncle, rather than as her parents. I wonder if this was done to keep Wren’s mysterious biological parents on readers’ minds until Wren’s backstory was fully unveiled, and to heighten the impact of their abuse of Wren on the reader? Or perhaps it was a concession to the true historical facts around adoption? But it’s still an issue, because the absence of an overt recognition on anyone part that the Heydens were Wren’s parents unconsciously privileges biology over nurture and care.
Kaetrin: I’m going to have to disagree with you there. My own husband was legally adopted by his mother’s second husband but he has never called his legal father “dad”. He calls him by his first name and always has. So the notion of Wren calling Megan and Reginald aunt and uncle sat well with me. That is who they were to her. I didn’t think that there was any unconscious privileging of the biological relationship – in fact, I thought the opposite.
The entire series has an element of “found family” to it that privileges actual relationship and not just biology. And I think Wren’s feelings about Aunt Megan and Uncle Reggie and who they were to her were obvious even though she did not call them her parents.
Janine: That is a great point about the series. I’m going to take back what I said about this. It’s hard for me to know how this should have been portrayed, given that legal adoption didn’t actually exist in the Regency, but the handling of this issue also feels muddled to me.
I questioned, too, whether a loving mother such as Wren’s “aunt Megan” would not have found a way to nudge her daughter out of her self-protective shell for her own good. Wren was only ten years old when she came to live with the Heydens, and it seems unlikely to me that Megan would have coddled her to such a degree as to let Wren isolate herself from the world, something that did her more harm than good.
Kaetrin: Oh, I agree with you on that. It never quite made sense to me that they wouldn’t want more for her. Their actions – both her aunt’s and her uncle’s, whether consciously or not, seemed to reinforce that Wren was in fact too hideous to show her face in public. And perhaps that answers my question from before – Alexander’s actions were consistent with his opinion that her birthmark was not hideous and that showing her face in public was perfectly okay.
Janine: Yet the book also wants us to believe that Wren’s aunt and uncle were loving and supportive, and I don’t think it can have it both ways on something as central to Wren’s life as her need for acceptance.
As I read all that I’ve written above, I realize my review sounds harsher than I feel toward this book. I liked Wren and her gradual blooming process as she and her past were brought into the light by her relationship with Alexander. I liked Alexander’s steadfast kindness, and I liked seeing his family, the Westcotts, again. I look forward to the remaining characters’ stories. The book also got to me emotionally. Balogh is a stronger author than many in the genre, as evidenced by the fact that I keep coming back to her books, even though Someone to Wed isn’t a favorite for me.
Kaetrin: I’ve been struggling to read anything lately and I finished Someone to Wed in about two days, looking for excuses to read and staying up late to finish. The story certainly hit me in the feels. My own reservations, apart from the timeline being a bit too short for me, are more around whether the device of Wren having a strawberry birthmark is somehow… exploitative (if that’s the right word) and whether the representation was reasonable. As to the former, there is an element of it I think? What I’m not sure about is how problematic that is, either generally or in this case. Ultimately, books that hit readers in the feels tend to do so because a character’s pain is highlighted in a story. I suppose on one view fiction is full of exploitation. And, exploring such things in fiction is not necessarily bad. As to the latter, I think the representation was, for the most part, not terrible, but as I said above, I’m in no way an expert and I’d happily defer to those who are.
Janine: I’m no expert either but the representation made me squirm at times. I could be totally off-base and if so, I hope that someone who can speak to the lookism issue from personal experience will correct me, but my instinct says that there’s a problem here (likely unintentional on the author’s part).
Kaetrin: I, too, enjoyed catching up with the Westcotts again and I’m especially looking forward to the next book which is Viola’s. (Viola is the former Countess of Riverdale who found out that her marriage had been invalidated on account of the Earl’s bigamy. I suppose she must be in her mid-forties. Older heroines for the win!).
Janine: I look forward to Viola’s book too, but I hope Viola doesn’t spend her book thinking about how old she is. After reading Someone to Wed, I feel ready for a heroine who makes no apologies for her perceived flaws.
Kaetrin: I’d also love to read about how Aunt Megan and Uncle Reggie came to be married and so happily. There is only the merest glimpse in Someone to Wed and I’m so curious to know more.
Janine: So with you on that! Their marriage-of-convenience courtship could make a great basis for a book.
Kaetrin: I tend to grade on my emotional reaction to a book. Going on that, I’m giving Someone to Wed a B+.
Janine: On an emotional level, I enjoyed reading Someone to Wed more than my grade will reflect. But I had so many intellectual niggles and discomfiting moments that I’m giving it a C+.