REVIEW: Someone to Care by Mary Balogh
Dear Mary Balogh,
I hardly know how to start with this review. I mostly liked it. I was uneasy about one aspect of it. I found some of it subversive in delightful ways and some of it just subversive. I expect it will be a controversial book. I expect it will be polarising and there will be lively debate about it but the polarising thing is a major spoiler and I’m not going to give it away here. I have so many thoughts about it though!
I will say that you have history with writing what could perhaps be called …provocative protagonists. In Heartless (my favourite of your books), you wrote a hero who had been exiled in France because he had (accidentally) killed his elder brother in a duel. In A Christmas Bride, you wrote a heroine who had to deal with her guilt about attempting to seduce her stepson, who was at the time a teenager. You’ve written at least three heroines who were prostitutes (well, technically one was a courtesan) – and not just in name only either; actual prostitutes who had had sex for money with men other than the hero – The Secret Pearl, A Precious Jewel and No Man’s Mistress.)
I think you take risks in your writing and I can admire it at the same time as not always being comfortable with those risks.
I was so looking forward to this book because it features Viola Kingsley who was formerly the Countess of Riverdale. Then she found out her marriage to the Earl was bigamous (he was a lying liar who lied about not already being married when they wed). She is 42 years old. Her hero is the Marquess of Dorchester, Marcel Lamarr. He is 39 and turns 40 during the story. So we have older protagonists and the heroine is older than the hero! AND, the heroine has GONE THROUGH MENOPAUSE already!
Also, the hero had a lesbian great-aunt.
Viola and Marcel decide to run away together.
All of these things I loved. I mean, they’re all wonderful and largely under-represented in mainstream historical romance. So I say brava for those things.
When Viola was ‘married’ to the Earl, about 14 years before the book begins, she was unhappy in her marriage and the mother of three young children. She met Mr. Marcel Lamarr who was a known seducer and he set about having a flirtation with her. He has a strict (if somewhat wonky) code of honour and does not seduce married women (Viola didn’t know that at the time however) but he’s not averse to a little flirtation, a little dalliance. He was powerfully attracted to Viola and she to him. But Viola is all about duty and responsibility and sent him away. He went.
Now, Viola is an unmarried woman. She found out two years earlier that a large portion of her life had been based on a lie. She pushed down her feelings about it and carried on with a stiff upper lip but recently, at the christening of her grandson in Bath, she had a bit of a meltdown and ran away from her family. She wanted to be alone. She was rude to her family but she needed to be away from them. She felt smothered and uneven, and the whole of what she’s dealt with since the death of the old earl has just hit her like a ton of bricks. She is stranded in an isolated inn after a mishap with her hired carriage and there she meets again with Marcel. He’s now the Marquis of Dorchester, having inherited the title from an uncle around the same time Humphrey, Earl of Riverdale died.
Marcel’s first words to Viola are thus:
“You told me to go away,” he said. “But that was fifteen years or so ago. Was there a time limit?”
There is something perfect about that line. It says so much about his character and his personality.
Marcel persuades Viola to accompany him to a village fete and there he buys her gaudy paste jewellery and she buys him a poorly embroidered, scratchy handkerchief, monogrammed with the letter L. They dance in the evening and waltz in the sunset, apart from the other dancers. The afternoon and evening is full of silliness and flirtation and the courtship evident in it was a delight.
After, Marcel offers to make it an “even better night” but gives her every opportunity to change her mind. He does not want her to be unwilling or to be able to pretend she was coerced. He wants a partner in intimacy.
And the next morning, Marcel asks Viola to run away with him. And to the surprise of them both, she says yes.
She had said yes. She might not repeat it when the time came to change carriages, of course, but he would take the risk and give her the choice. It had never been his way to drag women about by the hair just to cater to his lusts. But, however it was, she would complete her journey in a carriage that offered both cleanliness and comfort and under the protection of a competent, deferential driver. If she chose to return home alone, he would also send a maid with her. Her family had obviously not insisted. He would.
There is clearly honour in Marcel. He expressly asked for consent. When Viola sent him away 14 years earlier, he went. He does not play the practiced seducer and it is clear, even when he does not necessarily admit it, even to himself, that he cares for her.
Viola is clear-eyed about what she is doing and why.
And so Viola waited to run away. To disappear where no one would find her. To do something just for herself. She was not going to think any longer about whether she was being selfish and self-indulgent. She was not going to think about the moral implications of what she was doing—and had done last night. She had not harmed anyone—except perhaps herself—and was not going to do so by going away for a while. She was not going to think about being hurt or about what would come after. She would think of that when the time came. She had lived a life of the utmost rectitude and propriety and been hurt anyway. And she had no illusions. The affair would come to an end and that would be that. If she ended up unhappy—well, what would be so new about that?
I loved the section of the story where they were in their idyll. They travel to Devonshire, stopping wherever they please along the way, buying each other silly gifts, buying some things for themselves.
She bought him a black umbrella with hideous gold tassels all around the edge that dripped water everywhere, mainly down the neck of the holder when he tried to keep it over himself and his companion on a rainy day. She suggested that he keep it for future use as a sunshade. He suggested that he cut the tassels off but did not do so. He bought himself a gnarled and sturdy wooden staff with which to trudge about the hills of Devon like a seasoned countryman. It snapped in two with a loud crack when he put the smallest amount of weight upon it in their inn room later that evening. Fortunately for his dignity, he maintained his balance, but she collapsed into giggles anyway on the side of their bed and he shook the jagged stump at her and would perhaps have fallen in love if he had been twenty years younger and twenty times more foolish.
“I paid good money for this, madam,” he told her.
“You paid almost nothing for it,” she reminded him. “Even so, you did not get your money’s worth, and I sympathize.”
“A great deal of good your sympathy does me,” he grumbled.
“You poor dear,” she said, opening her arms wide. “Let me show you.”
He cast aside the remnants of his rustic staff and let her show him.
I liked that Viola bought him things. It said something to me about her independence. I liked that he accepted her buying him things, even trivial, silly things, without a demur.
Through Viola, Marcel learns in a new way how very privileged he is to have been born male.
“I have never done anything like this before,” she told him. “Virtuous women do not, you know. We are taught that our happiness is to be found in virtue and in doing our duty with cheerful dignity. Only men are allowed to do what they want while their women look the other way and … endure.”
“Why do more women not simply shoot themselves?” he asked.
I enjoyed Marcel’s dry humour and the way Viola never let him get away with anything.
She turned to smile at him. He was lying naked in her bed, his fingers laced behind his head, the bedcovers bunched about his hips.
“Are you a hothouse plant, Marcel?” she asked him. “I want to go out there. I want to run in the ferns. I want to run through the mist. I want to stand in the middle of that bridge and twirl slowly about and breathe in the wonder of it all. Such a feast for the senses.”
“I perceive a compatibility problem,” he murmured, and closed his eyes. But he made no move to cover himself.
“It was you,” she reminded him, “who wanted to dance on the village green.”
“Ah, but that was a means to an end,” he said, his eyes still closed. “I hoped to lure you into bed.”
“It was a trick that worked like a dream,” she said, turning back to the window. “I hope you are proud of yourself.”
“Indeed I am.” She jumped slightly, for his voice came from just behind her, and his arms came about her and drew her back against him. “It was one of the greater successes of my life.”
I don’t generally count myself as one who is good at reading subtext but perhaps I speak ‘Balogh’ well. I loved the way Marcel often said or did one thing and clearly meant another. I even liked the way that there were times I couldn’t tell. Or perhaps, more accurately, when I wanted there to be subtext but there was not. Because those times Marcel was being a bit of a dick. He’s definitely a flawed hero. I found him similar in some ways to Avery (Someone to Love) and Luke (Heartless) but he was more ambiguous than either of those two men. His sense of humour is the same, as is the way he communicates, which is probably why I liked him as much as I did. He has, however, certainly done some non-heroic things. For instance, after the death of his first wife, he basically ran away and left his twin children, then aged about one, to be raised by their maternal aunt and uncle. He supported them financially and did a duty visit twice a year but he had little to do with them. There were reasons for his actions but they were nonetheless harmful to his children and to others. During the course of the book he has to grapple with the damage he did, own it and try and do better. He does apologise but he doesn’t seek forgiveness; he knows his behaviour was not what it ought to have been and he knows there are consequences from that. He and his children will never have the relationship they could have had. It is his loss, and theirs. But he decides to do better and then, he does. It may not be enough for some readers though I note the narrative does not suggest he was a good parent when he was absent, far from it in fact.
Viola has little experience in running away. She is a woman of duty and responsibility. And she has a good relationship with her children. She misses them. She does not want to disappear from the lives of her family. Marcel has plenty of experience keeping himself away from family and so there is a tension which builds between them; even though both still enjoy the other very much, even though it is clear to the reader that they have strong feelings for one another. But Viola cannot be away from her life forever and be happy.
Marcel does not behave very well initially when she tells him it is time for her to go home. He feels rejected and lashes out.
For almost twenty years he had been free, safe, his own master and master of his world. He liked it that way.
He deeply resented the fact that Viola Kingsley threatened his world.
And then they are found out the the fallout is something which changes everything.
There is some examination of the lot of women and of Viola’s quest for individuality. She wants to be seen as herself, not someone’s mother or daughter or sister.
Marcel takes his place within his family and deals with the fallout of years of bad decisions.
And eventually, Marcel and Viola find their way to a HEA – but not without some interference from their loved ones.
All of this was wonderful. I was so there for all of it. But there is a reveal late in the book – which is, I’m sure, quite deliberately late in the book – which was a shock. It took me time to reconcile it and there will be some readers who will not be able to. There will be some readers, who will question why you chose to write this book this way. It’s a fair question. I guess I took it from the perspective that all authors manipulate their readers’ emotions. That is part of the point of fiction I think and certainly romance. So I understood why you left the reveal late. I understood why the circumstances were presented the way they were. They almost had to have been for readers (certainly this reader) to accept the outcome I think. But still, there will be readers who cannot. And it is all entirely open on the text and entirely valid.
I came down on the side of Marcel still being a hero deserving of a HEA. But it wasn’t a slam dunk and it took me some time to get there. You don’t give readers an easy way out. I think you ask if a flawed person can be deserving of love. And, perhaps you also ask “how flawed?” I admit I’m fascinated by the question.
As much as I don’t want to give away the spoiler, there is something potentially triggering in the book so I will allude to it behind a spoiler tag.
Spoiler (spoiler): Show
I don’t know quite how to grade this book. There was so much about it that I loved. It contains some of your best writing. But there is the controversial thing which isn’t possible to discount entirely (or at all). I thought a little about not grading it at all. I did a similar thing in my review of The Fifteenth Minute. However, my reaction to that book is not the same as here. But it’s still not easy for me to grade. If not for [redacted] I think I’d end up at a B+.
But with [redacted]? Well, I did decide, after some thought, that Marcel deserved his HEA. I did like him even though he was not the perfect hero. And I loved Viola. The last line in the book is perfect for them and gave me even more confidence that they would continue to be joyfully happy with one another. There’s no science to it… I guess I’ll go with a B.