Review: Someone to Wed by Mary Balogh

Review: Someone to Wed by Mary BaloghSomeone to Wed (Westcott #3) by Mary Balogh
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook
Genres: historical romance, regency romance
Series: Westcott #3
Pages: 384
Published by Berkley on November 7th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A very practical marriage makes Alexander Westcott question his heart in the latest Regency romance from the New York Times bestselling author of Someone to Hold.

When Alexander Westcott becomes the new Earl of Riverdale, he inherits a title he never wanted and a failing country estate he can’t afford. But he fully intends to do everything in his power to undo years of neglect and give the people who depend on him a better life. . . .

A recluse for more than twenty years, Wren Heyden wants one thing out of life: marriage. With her vast fortune, she sets her sights on buying a husband. But when she makes the desperate—and oh-so-dashing—earl a startlingly unexpected proposal, Alex will only agree to a proper courtship, hoping for at least friendship and respect to develop between them. He is totally unprepared for the desire that overwhelms him when Wren finally lifts the veils that hide the secrets of her past. . . .

My Review:

I’m a little early with this review, but this was the book that was calling my name. So I decided to listen to that little voice and just read it now anyway. And I’m so very glad I did.

Someone to Wed is the third book in Balogh’s historical romance Westcott series, and just like the first two books, Someone to Love and Someone to Hold, it is an absolute treat from beginning to end.

The stories are all tied together, loosely enough that you don’t HAVE to read them in order, but I think it adds a bit more depth if you do. In the beginning, Humphrey Westcott, Earl of Riverdale, was an ass. Just how big an ass was only revealed after his death, when it was discovered that his countess wasn’t really his countess, his heir wasn’t really his heir, and that his only legitimate child had been raised in an orphanage with no knowledge of her heritage whatsoever.

He left a big, huge, stinking mess. But he didn’t have to deal with any of it, because he was dead. This is probably a good thing, as most of the participants in the drama he left behind, and many readers, would cheerfully wring his neck if it wasn’t already six feet under.

Each story in this series deals with the human fallout from the late Humphrey’s assholishness. This time around it’s his cousin Alexander Westcott turn. Alex, as now the next legitimate male heir, has become the very unwilling Earl of Riverdale.

While one might think that anyone would love to inherit a title, this is definitely not true in Alex’s case. Because Alex has inherited the title and the quite frankly failing entailed estates, but none of the money that should go with them. Alex has inherited a title and a money pit. Money that he does not have.

Just plain Alexander Westcott had just managed to restore his own inherited patrimony to profitability after decades of neglect on his late father’s part and years of hard work on his own. Becoming the Earl of Riverdale means that he has the same work to do all over again, with the same resources he had before spread over much, much larger (and more seriously neglected) lands.

Plain Alexander Westcott could have afforded to marry for love. The new Earl of Riverdale must marry money. And that’s where Wren Heyden comes in. Wren has inherited a fortune and a very successful glassworks from her late and much beloved uncle. Nearing 30, her year of mourning for her uncle’s (and aunt’s) deaths over with, she wants to marry.

But Wren believes that her fortune is all she has to recommend her. Why? Because Wren has a large port-wine stain, in other words a big purple birthmark, covering much of the left side of her face. Long ago, someone convinced her that she was so ugly that no one could ever possibly love her – or even manage to look at her without running screaming from the room. Years of her aunt and uncle’s unstinting love and unwavering support never managed to convince her otherwise.

Wren attempts to buy Alex’s hand in marriage. He needs a rich wife, and she needs a man who will give her children. She begins by believing that she can maintain her life as a hermit, while giving Alex the money he needs to restore Riverdale.

While Alex feels that marrying for love is a now a dream out of his reach, he is still offended by the crassness at the base of Wren’s proposal. He does not want to be bought. But he recognizes the injustices of his feelings – after all, he was planning to present himself in the marriage mart with the hope of contracting just such an alliance.

Even more, Alex wonders if they will suit. He may not be able to marry for love, but mutual respect and eventual affection are surely not out of reach.

But can there be anything else between two people after such an inauspicious beginning? Can there be anything at all?

Escape Rating A: I swallowed this book in a day. Someone to Wed is marvelous because it throws so many of the standard historical romance tropes over within its first pages.

Of course, the thing that makes Someone to Wed so different is that Wren is the mover and shaker of the story. In the beginning, she acts, and Alex is the one who reacts – not always terribly well. What makes it work is the way that he thinks about his reactions, and reminds himself just how unfair so many of them are.

What makes the romance work is the way that both Wren and Alex bend over the course of the story. As unexpected as her proposal is, and as much as all of Alex’s instincts urge him to reject it and her, he does his best to be fair. She is both right and reasonable in her actions – he’s just not used to seeing a woman exhibit that much cold-blooded logic.

That Alex discovers that he actually enjoys talking with a woman who is his intellectual equal and is not afraid to show it – or who is completely incapable of hiding it – comes as a revelation.

Another thing that made this story work for this reader is the way that Wren’s birthmark was handled. It, and her mother’s reaction to it, scarred her, seemingly for life, much more than the birthmark itself does. She feels ugly and unlovable because that’s how she was made to feel as a child – not because either of those things are true. Her journey towards acceptance of herself is marvelously hard won.

Alex’ reaction to her birthmark reminds me of a quote from science fiction writer Robert Heinlein’s Notebooks of Lazarus Long, “A man does not insist on physical beauty in a woman who builds up his morale. After a while he realizes that she is beautiful–he just hadn’t noticed it at first.” While there is definitely some sexism in there, the point is still valid. Think of it as a more pleasant version of the old saw about beauty being skin deep, but ugly going clean through to the bone. Beauty is as beauty does. And beauty shines from within.

Wren is beautiful. And it takes Alex much less time to realize that fact than it does Wren herself. But when she finally does, it’s even more beautiful than their romance.

Reviewer’s Note: I don’t always envision the hero or heroine as any person in particular, but Alex is described as incredibly, perfectly handsome so many times that I kept seeing him as Yannick Bisson from the Murdoch Mysteries TV series. Particularly in the early years of the series, Bisson seemed too beautiful to be real. Your imaginary mileage may vary.

Review: Someone to Hold by Mary Balogh

Review: Someone to Hold by Mary BaloghSomeone to Hold (Westcott, #2) by Mary Balogh
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance
Series: Westcott #2
Pages: 400
Published by Jove Books on February 7th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Humphrey Wescott, Earl of Riverdale, has died, leaving behind a fortune and a scandalous secret that will forever alter the lives of his family—sending one daughter on a journey of self-discovery...
With her parents’ marriage declared bigamous, Camille Westcott is now illegitimate and without a title. Looking to eschew the trappings of her old life, she leaves London to teach at the Bath orphanage where her newly discovered half-sister lived. But even as she settles in, she must sit for a portrait commissioned by her grandmother and endure an artist who riles her every nerve.
An art teacher at the orphanage that was once his home, Joel Cunningham has been hired to paint the portrait of the haughty new teacher. But as Camille poses for Joel, their mutual contempt soon turns to desire. And it is only the bond between them that will allow them to weather the rough storm that lies ahead...

My Review:

Someone to Hold is the “flip side” of the marvelous Someone to Love. The story in the first Westcott book was the story of Anna Snow, a teacher at the orphanage where she herself grew up. In Love, Anna discovers that she is the only legitimate child of the late and less-lamented-every-day Earl of Riverdale. She is suddenly and unexpectedly the sole heir to his fortune, while the title goes to a cousin.

But Anna’s unexpected rise encompasses the equally unexpected fall of the family that for 20-plus years has believed that they were the legitimate ones. The woman who has always believed herself to be the Countess of Riverdale discovers that she was never married at all. Her husband was a bigamist. And that makes her son and her two daughters all bastards, in the legal sense if not the behavioral sense.

That particular bit of opprobrium is saved for others.

So Anna is up, and Viola, Camille, Abigail and Henry are down. And out. Out of society and out of money and seemingly out of friends.

Someone to Hold is Camille’s story. Her response to her sudden change in fortune does not at first make her a likable protagonist. She was a high-stickler when she thought she was a lady, settling for nothing less than perfection in all things. Now she herself is considered imperfect, and the perfect life she expect is now far beyond her reach.

During the first book she was particularly waspish and ill-tempered. Her family does love her, but no one seems to like her much, and it is easy for the reader to see why.

By the time that this book opens, she has gotten past some of the early stages of grief. Her life has irrevocably changed, and she comes to the realization that she can’t remain hidden in her grandmother’s house and under her grandmother’s protection, cozy and comfortable as it is.

She has to strike out on her own, and make something of the life she must now live. But what she does is what makes this story so good. Instead of wallowing, or instead of marrying the first man who promises to protect her, Camille determines to find out who she is now, and what she can make of herself.

She does it by marching up to the orphanage where Anna taught and asking for a position as a teacher, just as Anna was. It’s the surprise of Camille’s life when she gets the job. And even though she feels herself gasping and floundering every single day, it turns out to be a job that she is good at, even if in completely unconventional ways.

Along with the job, Joel Cunningham comes into her life. Joel is also a graduate of the orphanage, and is also a teacher. Specifically, he’s the art teacher. He was also Anna’s best friend and fancied himself in love with her.

He is not best pleased with Camille taking over Anna’s classroom. Or Anna’s students. Or even Anna’s room. But as they get to know each other, they come to realize that the way that they upset each other’s apple-carts is the best thing that ever happened to either of them.

If they can just manage to get out of their own way.

Escape Rating A-: Those who have read Someone to Love will be unable to resist Someone to Hold. And anyone who loves historical romance and has not read Someone to Love needs to get thee hence to a library or bookstore and read it!

But there’s a reason why Anna’s story was someone to love and not Camille’s. Camille was not at all lovable in Someone to Love, and she begins her own story still not being all that lovable. Or even, at the beginning, all that likable. It makes her difficult to warm up to as a protagonist.

(I started this book three times before I got past that point. Once I did, it was terrific. But definitely a hard start.)

Camille’s world has crumbled. The society that she had been trained to be perfectly suited for has rejected her, and for an issue where she is completely blameless. Nevertheless, she understands why this is so. But her plans have turned to dust and her prospects are non-existent. She is too proud to claw her way onto the lowest rung of society’s ladder and be content with that, and she doesn’t know what to do instead.

One of Camille’s issues is that Anna Snow is so very likable. Camille wants to hate her and maintain a distance from her, and Anna makes that very, very difficult. It also feels to Camille as if her close family are attempting to pretend that nothing material has changed, when everything has.

She is not who she thought she was, and the world is no longer her oyster.

Taking Anna’s old position and Anna’s old rooms makes an interesting twist, both for Camille’s story and her life. Camille makes it seem logical in her own head, but it is far from logical to anyone else. However, her determination to make a new life for herself is admirable. And fascinating to watch.

Although the relationship that develops between Joel and Camille has a bit more heat to it than the one between Anna and Avery, it is still a relationship that develops first into friendship before becoming love. Falling in love with your best friend IS still a good foundation for a marriage.

Even if in this case it does seem a bit like Camille begins by trying to take over or erase Anna’s life, what happens in the end is that Camille stands in Anna’s shoes and finds her own life. And it’s a lovely story.

Review: Someone to Love by Mary Balogh

Review: Someone to Love by Mary BaloghSomeone to Love (Westcott, #1) by Mary Balogh
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: paperback, ebook, large print, audiobook
Genres: historical romance
Series: Westcott #1
Pages: 400
Published by Signet on November 8th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Humphrey Westcott, Earl of Riverdale, has died, leaving behind a fortune that will forever alter the lives of everyone in his family—including the daughter no one knew he had...
Anna Snow grew up in an orphanage in Bath knowing nothing of the family she came from. Now she discovers that the late Earl of Riverdale was her father and that she has inherited his fortune. She is also overjoyed to learn she has siblings. However, they want nothing to do with her or her attempts to share her new wealth. But the new earl’s guardian is interested in Anna…
Avery Archer, Duke of Netherby, keeps others at a distance. Yet something prompts him to aid Anna in her transition from orphan to lady. As London society and her newfound relatives threaten to overwhelm Anna, Avery steps in to rescue her and finds himself vulnerable to feelings and desires he has hidden so well and for so long.

My Review:

When a book appears on seemingly everyone’s best of the year list, there’s a natural curiosity about whether the book lives up to its hype. Someone to Love is one of those books that landed on everyone’s “Best Romance” or “Best Historical Romance” list, so I wanted to see whether it was “all that”.

And in the end, it definitely is.

Someone to Love is part Pygmalion, but also part journey of discovery for both the hero and heroine, as well as everyone whose life is turned upside down by the death of the not-at-all lamented Humphrey Westcott. He died and left his mess for everyone else to clean up.

And what a mess he made. The late Earl of Riverdale was a bigamist. While it’s not clear why he married his first wife, he certainly married the second one for her money. He just neglected to tell her, or anyone else, about the first wife.

Ironically, he could have. His first wife, although she indisputably died after his second marriage, shuffled off this mortal coil before the first of his bastard children was born. He could have married her again in secret and made all his subsequent children legitimate.

Instead, his son and his daughters all believe that Anna Snow is the bastard, and that they are high-and-mighty little lordling and ladies. While their initial treatment of Anna is fairly abominable, their comeuppance is also painful. Dad was obviously a bounder, and no one seems to have a kind word for him now that he’s dead.

Even before the mess he’s left behind has been fully excavated.

Avery Archer, the Duke of Netherby and a somewhat distant connection of the late Earl, is the only person to see Anna as she really is. She is not a fortune hunter. The rich and proscribed life of Anastasia Westcott is not the life she hoped for or planned on. The only thing she wants out of this mess is family, and while some embrace her, others reject her utterly. She has discovered the truth of the old adage about being careful what you wish for because you might get it.

And everyone wants to make of her something that she is not, and has no desire to be, whether that is the villainess of the piece or merely a pawn to be molded to their will.

Only Avery sees Anna Snow exactly as herself, no matter how much wealth is draped around her. What disconcerts Avery immensely is that Anna is the first person to see him as he truly is. To see the brave and scared little boy who has made himself into one of the most feared and respected men in England.

They are made for each other.

Escape Rating A: Someone to Love is terrific historical romance. While it plays with the trope of Pygmalion (My Fair Lady) quite a bit, it also turns it sideways in some really delicious ways.

Anastasia Westcott, formerly known as Anna Snow, is not prepared to enter the rarefied society of the ton. But while she is willing to learn what the rules of that society are, she is not willing to stop being herself. Anna is already 25, which in ton terms means she is very nearly on the shelf. But in her own terms it means that she knows who she is and what she wants, and most importantly, what things up with which she will not put. She bends, but only so far. Her sense of self is very strong, and she is willing to push against both the tide and the managing natures of all of her new relations.

Until her unexpected elevation, Anna was a teacher, and a damn good one. She knows how to manage herself, and she knows how to manage others. And unlike the popular version of Pygmalion in My Fair Lady, Anna, while not raised as nobility, was definitely given a good education as well as lessons in deportment and manners. She finds the ton absurd, and has the intelligence and knowledge to recognize and articulate those absurdities.

Avery Archer’s character also plays with tropes and stereotypes, in this case the figure of the affected, bored society darling who appears to be eternally bored and doesn’t let anyone get close to either his heart or his mind. He delights in pretending that nothing affects him at all. But like the Scarlet Pimpernel, or Lord Peter Wimsey whom he somewhat resembles, there are dangerous depths under that bored, affected surface. He is a dangerous man, and people both respect him and give him a wide berth, unconsciously aware that he is a predator and that all of them are prey. He doesn’t need to display his power to have it acknowledged.

Avery’s interest in Anna surprises them both. She is never boring, and he does enjoy watching her navigate her family and the ton. But it much more than that. She is never affected. Her honesty captivates him. She on the other hand, can’t resist discovering just what is below the face he shows to the world.

That they fall for each other seems inevitable, and yet it isn’t. There is no secret yearning. Instead it’s more of a secret discomfiture. They reach beneath each other’s surfaces and bother each other. A lot, and in more ways than just emotional or sexual. They fall in like before they realize that they are in love.

If you are looking for a historical romance that provides a hero and heroine who manage to be a part of their time while still transcending it, Someone to Love is a winner.

Reviewer’s note: This book has given me a terrible earworm. I can’t get Queen’s Somebody to Love out of my head. And it fits.