REVIEW: The Deserted Heart by Mary Lancaster
Dear Ms. Lancaster:
I was motivated to pick up this 2018 book by the description in Pam Rosenthal’s October guest column – the pull of a new-to-me author and the book’s description were enough to draw me in.
Charlotte Maybury is used to being in the background – she’s sandwiched in age between two beautiful sisters, and a stutter and history of frailty are enough to relegate her to the status of “manages everything” daughter. (The other two, Thomasina and Henrietta, are destined for the marriage mart with the notion of improving the family’s finances, so it’s not like they have it that much better). Charlotte considers herself unmarriageable, to a degree that never quite made sense to me, but whatever.
It’s while performing one of her many duties – bringing her younger brothers back from school – that Charlotte comes upon a deserted inn, a mystery, *and* a mystery man. The Hart is not far from the Maybury home, but a sudden and overwhelming fog causes the family to stop at the inn for the night rather than chancing trying to get home and running off of a cliff. They discover the place open but entirely deserted, with every appearance that the family who runs the inn left abruptly. Soon another visitor appears, a Mr. Alexander, and Charlotte pauses in her feeding of her brothers (and her elderly nurse, who has accompanied them for propriety) to play maid to Mr. Alexander with the food the innkeepers have so conveniently left. Her ruse is quickly discovered, and Mr. Alexander joins the Maybury family for dinner, being charmed by them (and their energetic dog, Spring), and charming them in turn.
Later in the evening there is an altercation when several men invade the inn, one of the armed with a pistol. Their motives are unclear, though both Charlotte and Mr. Alexander surmise, reasonably enough, that there’s a connection between their appearance and the absence of the innkeepers. The two of them form a sort of connection based on their interest in the mystery; when Charlotte hears a noise in the night and investigates, she finds a slightly tipsy Mr. Alexander downstairs and they engage in some light flirtation.
The parting the next day is somewhat regretful on both sides, but they are reunited quickly (and rather predictably). It turns out that “Mr. Alexander” is actually Alexander, the Duke of Alvan, and he turns up at Charlotte’s home shortly after she returns; he has been expected for a planned visit to her sister Thomasina. Thomasina and Alex had met during the London season and the Maybury family have been given every hope that he will propose to her. (This struck me as a little odd, because he’s a duke, and their family is respectable but not lofty, and they’re poor to boot. My knowledge of such things comes solely from other historical romances, but he seemed like an almost-too-good-to-be-true suitor given that it’s not a love match.)
Again, predictably, Charlotte and Alex spark more than Thomasina and Alex, for all that Charlotte tries to stay out of the way and not drawn any attention to herself. Alex is natural and seemingly happy when out and about on walks with Charlotte, her younger brothers and the irrepressible Spring; in the drawing room with the whole family he tends to be more aloof and stiff. Charlotte, naturally, wonders about this dichotomy in his personality.
Alex had a lonely childhood; after the death of his parents, he was separated from his younger siblings and raised in relative isolation under the guardianship of his uncles, in the manner befitting a duke. He’s developed some defense mechanisms to deal with the discomfort he feels at the role he is forced to play.
Charlotte also has been forced into a role, more or less, though she seems more comfortable in it, at least at first. Her family has spent much of her life abroad, on their father’s diplomatic appointments. She suffered from an unspecified illness that left her out of the usual family activities for a time, and when she recovered she somehow fell into the role of family caretaker.
Charlotte is ostensibly self-conscious about her stutter and some bodily weakness left over from her illness (she references having been “lame” at one point). What made all this a little frustrating to read about how vague it was. The nature of the illness, the time that she was ill, how she recovered – none of that is clear.
Her stutter comes up several times, but the physical infirmity – I thought it was a limp but when I did a search I realize the word “limp” is never used – gets such short shrift that I don’t know why it was even included. I would’ve really liked a better understanding of what made Charlotte the person she was. Was it just that she wasn’t the beauty her sisters were? Was it something in her character? The stutter and/or the illness? I’d have really liked to have that aspect teased out more. Alex’s past is also sketched lightly but it fits together in a way that made more sense in my head, so it didn’t need as much explanation.
In spite of these niggles, this was overall a very pleasant and enjoyable romance. It had a quiet sort of charm; neither Alex nor Charlotte are given to sturm und drang, but when they are parted, their pain is well conveyed. I liked that they *liked* each other, and that Alex had respect for Charlotte’s capable nature. There is a mystery subplot involving the events at The Hart and an old frenemy of Alex’s that helps bring everything together.
This is the first in a series and I’m definitely interested in reading the next book. My grade for this was a B+.