JOINT REVIEW: Someone to Love by Mary Balogh
Back in August, after Someone to Love came up on Twitter, Kaetrin and I decided to review it together. -Janine
Janine: Someone to Love, Mary Balogh’s latest historical romance, launches a new and intriguing series. The novel begins with a meeting between Mr. Brumford, solicitor to the late Earl of Riverdale, the new earl, twenty-year-old Harry Westcott, Harry’s mother, and Harry’s guardian, Avery Archer, the Duke of Netherby.
Avery, a jaded, seemingly indolent aristocrat, isn’t pleased to have to listen to Brumford drone on. Things get interesting toward the end of the meeting, though, when Harry is dismissed and Lady Riverdale asks Brumford to track down the illegitimate daughter her late husband supported for years, so as to give her a final payment and inform her of her benefactor’s death. Brumford and Avery are surprised to learn of the girl’s existence but agree to keep it secret.
Anna Snow is now twenty-five and a teacher at an orphanage in Bath. Aside from a few vague memories, life there is all she has ever known. She has never been outside of Bath and knows little of the world. But she loves the orphanage children and her best friend, Joel, another orphan, whose marriage proposal she has declined.
Brumford writes Anna, asking her to prepare to journey to London to discuss her future. A carriage and a hired chaperone arrive to take her there. The chaperone can tell her nothing, but delivers her to a family meeting Brumford has called.
Avery, at whose house that meeting is held, is surprised so much of the family is present. Even more shocking is Anna’s arrival there. The solicitor soon reveals a surprising fact to the family: Anna is legitimate. Not only that, but her mother was still alive when the late earl married the countess, and his bigamy invalidates the later marriage.
The earldom must now go to Anna’s cousin Alexander, who never wanted it, while the family’s unentailed fortune goes to Anna alone, even after she offers to share it with her half-siblings. Overnight, Anna’s life changes, but what she wanted most, the love of her closest relatives, is lost to her. Her shocked half-sisters and their mother leave London in disgrace, while her half-brother goes on a drinking binge.
The remaining family members gather again a day later. Anna will have to hide in her new and lavish house while she is educated in how to be a lady, her aunts tell her. Anna feels stifled by her new, well-meaning relatives, but surprisingly, Avery comes to her rescue.
Thus begins Avery and Anna’s courtship, if a courtship it is. Avery annoys and challenges Anna who in turn stirs something inside him. He admires her poise, but she is not sure what to make of him. A man of average height, narrow frame, and blond beauty, Avery isn’t anyone’s masculine ideal, yet under his sleepy-eyed façade lurks an observant and perhaps even dangerous person.
I loved Anna’s early observations of Avery, which illustrate just how different he is for a romance hero:
He was barely of average height and slight of build. She was surprised at that. He had seemed far larger when she first set eyes upon him. He was as elegant as the handsome gentleman in the back row, but while the other man was quietly immaculate, he was…not. There was something exquisite about the folds of his very white neckcloth, about the close cut of his dark blue coat and the even closer fit of his gray pantaloons. There were silver tassels for his supple, shining boots, heavy rings on at least four of his fingers, which even from this distance she could see were perfectly manicured. There were chains and fobs at his waist, a silver stud in his neckloth. His posture as he leaned against the wall was…graceful. His hair was fair—no, it was actually golden—and had been cut in such a way that it hugged his head neatly and yet seemed to wave softly about it at the same time, like a halo.
Can Anna succeed in society? Will she see through Avery’s veneer of boredom? Will she be reunited with her family, and will Avery willingly show her his true self, which few others have seen?
I enjoyed Someone to Love quite a bit. The first few scenes that lead up to the lawyer’s revelation about Anna drag some as the various family members are introduced, but once the cat is out of the bag, the book becomes a page-turner.
It didn’t make sense that Anna’s half-siblings and their mother, who stood to lose so much from the late earl’s bigamy, just rolled over and accepted their fate, without even attempting to contest the marriage between Anna’s parents in court, but I went with it, because a legal battle would have made for a completely different story.
Kaetrin: I didn’t think of that. I just assumed that as Mr. Brumford had categorically stated that the first marriage was valid, there was nothing to be done. Certainly no-one in the story ever suggested it. My impression was that if it could have happened, someone would have brought it up. But perhaps I’m just naïve!
Janine: I thought in a real life situation like that, they would at least try before giving up, rather than take his word for it, especially as he seemed to consider himself Anna’s solicitor, not Harry’s, from that point on (something else I found odd, but I’m no legal expert).
Despite reading the early explanations of who all the members of the extended family were and how they were related, it still took me the better part of the book to get them all straight. Several of the secondary characters have potential as protagonists, and I especially hope we get books about Anna’s half-siblings, because their journeys should be interesting.
Kaetrin: Oh yes. There was a cast of thousands in this book! It took me a little while to work out that Viola was Avery’s stepmother, the Duchess of Netherby and Althea was Alexander’s mother and the dowager countess of Riverdale and that they were sisters. It was hard to keep them all straight in my head. I’d have liked a family tree actually.
Janine: A family tree would have been useful!
Anna’s Aunt Matilda, who pulled out the smelling vinaigrette on every possible occasion, provided nice comic relief. So did some of Avery’s witticisms, which Anna frequently called absurd.
“I will not take much of a hand in the education of Lady Anastasia Westcott,” he told her, “partly because my connection to the Westcott family is purely an honorary one and mainly because it would be a crashing bore and I avoid boredom as I would the plague.”
“I am surprised, then,” she said, “that you came to Westcott House today. I am even more surprised that you invited me to walk with you instead of escaping alone.”
“Ah,” he said softly, “but I suspect you are not boring, Anna. And yes, I did invite you to walk, did I not? I did not invite you to stand thus with me on the pavement outside your house, snapping at me and calling me absurd and very probably being peered down upon by a number of your relatives. Allow me to contribute my mite to your education, then, even against all my better instincts. When a gentleman walks with a lady, Anna, he offers his arm for her support and expects her to take it. If she does not, he is first humiliated beyond bearing—he might even consider going home and shooting himself—and then shocked by the realization that perhaps she is not a lady after all. Either way, actually, he may end up shooting himself.”
“Are you always so absurd?” she asked him.
Janine: As for the romance itself, I enjoyed it greatly. I loved the contradictions Avery presented, from the contrast between his smaller size and pretty exterior with the sense of danger he exuded, to the sleepy-eyed and bored expressions that hid keen interest, to his kindness to Anna which belied his skill at sharp rejoinders and the cut direct.
At times, Avery was almost too artificial and affected to come across as a fully believable person, but since the central romantic conflict in the book is that he hides his true self behind that elegant veneer, his artifice works for this story.
Kaetrin: I was completely charmed by Avery. I enjoyed the subtext of much of his conversation and I loved his connection with Anna. Perhaps because Heartless is my favourite Balogh (and perhaps because I have a hammer and therefore everything is a nail), I saw some parallels with it and Someone to Love. The obvious is that the heroines are both names Anna but they have little in common apart from that. No, what struck me the most was the similarities between Luke, Duke of Harndon and Avery, Duke of Netherby. Given Luke is my favourite Balogh hero, it is not a surprise that I enjoyed Someone to Love so very much. Heartless is Georgian set while Someone to Love is a Regency, but both heroes are not very tall (Avery is in fact described as short), both are slight and both demonstrate languid affectations to hide themselves in plain sight. Luke and Avery both dress in the first stare of fashion – while Luke uses a fan, Avery prefers his quizzing glass (an homage to Wulfric, Duke of Bewcastle perhaps?).
Luke is an expert swordsman while Avery has become expert in martial arts (more about that later). Both men are dangerous and have such an air of authority about them that they command the attention of all around them.
Janine: Don’t forget Avery’s snuffbox! Avery was such a fun hero.
I too was reminded of Lucas in Heartless, though I like this book better than Heartless. The way Avery was underestimated by others yet proved them wrong made him remind me of Hartley, Marquess of Carew, from Lord Carew’s Bride, as well.
Kaetrin: Avery is not a cardboard cutout of Luke however. At age 11, he was sent away to school and there he was horribly bullied. Small and slight and effeminate, he was targeted immediately.
His character shone through during this ill treatment though and he became determined to hold his own.
“Are you so all-seeing, then?” she asked him. “And so all-powerful that you can rescue him from whatever depths he may have sunk to?”
Avery thought about it. “I am,” he said.
He had made himself all-powerful. It had not been easy. He had had an exceedingly unpromising start to life when he had been born resembling his mother rather than his father. His father had been a robust, imposing, manly figure, who had stalked and frowned and barked his way through life, commanding terror in inferiors and respect in his peers. His mother had been a tiny, blue-eyed, dainty, sweet-natured, golden-haired beauty.
One day he comes across an elderly Chinese man practicing forms in an alley – perhaps Tai Chi? Avery asks the man to teach him. He learns discipline over his mind and body and he learns how to kill with his bare hands. Having learned it, he finds he does not need to actually use that power. It is enough that he knows he has the ability. People start treating him differently and it is not just because he is heir to a duke.
This was one of only a few aspects of the book I did not like. The Chinese man, his “master” was not even given a name. I felt his representation was too stereotypical and I detected some orientalism. I’m certainly no expert on the topic but I had serious misgivings about it. I made a note that there was a touch of “Regency Karate Kid” about this part of the book (which is not an endorsement).
Janine: Yes! Avery’s teacher was a mysterious cipher. I also had misgivings about the way Avery’s martial arts skills were presented as alien and exotic to Anna, although I can see why someone of her background might have felt that way.
On a more minor note, I had an unanswered question about Avery as a martial artist – namely, if his teacher passed away long ago, as he said, then how was he still so good when it seemed he hadn’t had anyone to spar with for years?
Kaetrin: I see you picked up on the use of the word “exotic” too Janine! I’ve learned that this word is very othering when it is applied to people. And you’re quite right. No-one else knows about Avery’s martial arts skills when the book begins – he’s been practicing alone for years. Avery’s skills were presented as very mystical which was not great but also it allowed a certain vagueness which doesn’t give any answers to your questions.
Janine, did you find the many textual references to Avery’s size (or lack thereof) a little overdone? I became a little impatient with the heavy-handedness of it. Was that just me?
Janine: My memory of that is getting fuzzy, but I think I agree.
Anna too is an appealing character, observant and kind, with a strong sense of herself that she does not allow others to shake. If Avery’s arc is to change into a less hidden, less artificial person, then Anna’s is to remain true to herself.
I did feel, however, that Anna was a little too much of a goody two shoes. An orphan who spent most of her life dispossessed of family, fortune and identity through her own father’s actions, yet harbors no resentment whatsoever, a kind teacher of other orphans who instills self-worth in them and who finds positions for her former pupils even when they don’t behave appropriately for those roles — it got a little saccharine at times.
Kaetrin: I liked Anna. I liked how self-possessed she was. She was determined to remain herself and not lose the Anna Snow she had been as she learned how to be Lady Anastasia Westcott. It seemed to me that strength of character had got her through her life at the orphanage (it helped that she was not in any way mistreated there) and it was that which first attracted Avery.
Lady Anastasia Westcott, he suspected, did not find him either fearful or irresistibly attractive, and for that he admired her too. She had even called him absurd. No one ever called the Duke of Netherby absurd, even though he frequently was.
Janine: Anna’s self-possession was her most appealing trait. Don’t get me wrong, I liked her too. But I just can’t imagine a real human being who could go through all of her discoveries about her father without greater turmoil than Anna seemed to feel.
The romance works because we can understand why Avery is drawn to Anna’s integrity and strong sense of self, and what it is that they, despite their very different lives, have in common: neither will allow others to diminish them.
We can understand, too, how their differences make them complementary. It makes sense that Anna, new to high society, is drawn to Avery, a living demonstration of how not to let other people’s opinions matter overmuch. It makes sense that Avery, who hides himself under layers of affectations and adornments, would be drawn to Anna, who isn’t afraid to present herself exactly as she is, unvarnished.
Kaetrin: Yes – I was very happy Anna’s romance was with Avery and not Alexander. Alexander is nice enough (very much the stereotypical tall, dark and handsome aristocrat with an extremely strong sense of duty; he came across as a bit of a stick in the mud. I think he needs a Christine (Slightly Dangerous) to shake him up a little!)
Janine: Alexander is heading for a marriage of convenience plot, I think. I love those, especially in Balogh’s hands, so I am looking forward to his story.
Kaetrin: The courtship between Anna and Avery was almost subtle with much of their attraction lying below the surface of their conversation. I could tell what was happening (and I often don’t get subtle so perhaps others will consider it all very obvious) and I was delighted as I watched it unfold. Avery and Anna are both good people and there wasn’t really a lot keeping them apart.
Janine: The romantic conflict is a subtle one, while the conflicts within Anna’s family are more pronounced. Therefore, there are times when the romance comes close to being overshadowed by the subplot about Anna and her new family.
Kaetrin: I’d describe Someone to Love as being almost completely driven by external conflict. There was no big misunderstanding (hooray!) and not dire black moment. It was much quieter than that. I (mostly) loved it. It turned out to be exactly what I wanted to read.
Janine: I partially disagree. The romantic conflict here is quiet, but internal / external has nothing to do with the size of the conflict. Rather, it has to do with whether the conflict stems from the actions of antagonists, events or circumstances (external) or whether it comes from the protagonists’ own baggage, issues or doubts (internal).
In this case, the romantic conflict was almost entirely internal, one that took place in Anna and Avery’s hearts and minds. At first, Anna can’t decide what to make of Avery and struggles with what to think of him and even whether she likes him. Avery’s conflict is initially more subtle, but he also surprised himself with his reactions to Anna. Later in the book, the conflict shifts from Anna’s heart to Avery’s, as he struggles with how much of himself to reveal.
Their relatives don’t interfere in the relationship, a villain or a natural disaster doesn’t threaten their lives, and their different backgrounds don’t come between them. Those would be external conflicts, but that’s not what we have here.
Kaetrin: For me, I just didn’t see a lot keeping them apart at all, notwithstanding their individual baggage. I didn’t really see it as any kind of meaningful conflict.
Janine: On a separate note, I would have liked more scenes in which Anna and Avery were both present, especially in the middle of the book. For a while I wondered if they were spending enough time together for the falling in love to be convincing, but later in the book we get to see a lot of them together, and the fact that they don’t know each other well yet turns is integral to that portion of the story.
Kaetrin: I’m usually very sensitive to that kind of thing but it didn’t bother me here.
Janine: The family reunion plot held my interest throughout, but I don’t want to spoil it. Suffice to say that some of it is resolved here, and some is left for later books—books that I look forward to reading.
Kaetrin: Did you think that some of it was a bit too easy? I was half hoping at one point that it wouldn’t turn out quite so storybook. That said, I am all in for this series. I want Elizabeth’s story and I’m hoping Joel will get one too (I have a sneaking suspicion about who his heroine might be.)
Janine: Spoiler (“spoiler”): Show
Spoiler (“spoiler”): Show
Kaetrin: Another thing I didn’t love was, strangely enough, the (very) ending. It was a little too saccharine to me and there was a link to that orientalism thing there too. While I was grateful there was no big misunderstanding (I am always grateful when characters talk to each other like adults), I thought the last few pages needed…something. The stakes didn’t seem high enough maybe. Or perhaps it was just that it was all a bit too sweet and there hadn’t been enough piquancy to the story to make it feel quite right on my palate.
Janine: Yes. I loved the last scene between Anna and her family but the final conversation between Anna and Avery was a little treacly, and I agree on the orientalism. It’s hard to discuss without spoiling it, but I was uncomfortable with some of it.
I also agree on the stakes. An internal conflict comes up for Avery late in the book but we were told about it when I think it would have been more effective to show it. And I would have liked to see Anna sense it and be affected by it more than she was, too. The ending was a little anticlimactic because I didn’t feel that their happiness was at stake.
Kaetrin: Yes – this exactly!
Janine: Overall, though, Someone to Love was thoroughly entertaining. In some places it could have been tighter and I’ve read shorter Balogh novels that dug deeper, but even so, this book, like Avery, was both unusual and fun. Like you, I plan to read the others in the series.
Kaetrin: What grade would you give it Janine?
Janine: Some things bothered me, and there’s no question that problematic elements are present, but I enjoyed reading the book even so. B for me.
Kaetrin: While there were a few things I felt pretty uncomfortable with and there was perhaps a slight lack of conflict near the end, I was thoroughly delighted by Avery and Anna (but especially Avery – I am, after all, a very hero-centric reader). We can like problematic things but we should still talk about them is my starting place. I did like the book and I, as big fan of Luke from Heartless, had stars in my eyes about Avery, because I saw many similarities (without him being the same character). So I gave him more weight than the problems. I realise that is my privilege showing. I was able to hive off the problematic things and think about the book’s other aspects as separate things. I’m not always able to do this and I expect there will be readers who don’t feel the problems can be compartmentalised and will therefore have a vastly different opinion on the grade. Me, I’m going with a B+ because Avery
Janine: It was the same for me — I compartmentalized and enjoyed the rest of the book — but I’m aware that some readers don’t have the privilege of being able to move on. If I grade it based on how much I enjoyed the book, I have to give it at least a B, but it won’t be that for every reader.