2008, European Historical Romance (Regency England)
Avon, $6.99, 384 pages, Amazon ASIN 0061456748 Part of a series
I read and reviewed a Suzanne Enoch book several years ago, and was not particularly impressed. Since it had been so long - and since Enoch has received may positive reviews in the meantime - I thought it might be time to give her another go. I'm glad I did, because I really liked Before the Scandal.
Phineas Bromley, an army colonel, returns home to his family estate because he believes his older brother to be on death's door. Years ago, a fight with his brother William resulted in a tragic accident - for which Phin was at fault. When he arrives, he finds that his sister Beth has exaggerated; William is fine, but it seems that matters on the estate are not so fine. William is somewhat less than welcoming, and has forbidden Beth to tell him exactly what is wrong. Even so, Phin resolves to stay for awhile and discover the source of the estate's continual problems. Over the last year or so, the property has experienced extraordinary bad fortune, including burned cottages, flooded pastures, and a number of suspicious accidents. Since no one will tell Phin directly what is going on, he settles on an unusual course of action. Donning antiquated garb and a credible French accent, he poses as "The Gentleman" - a highwayman who used to plague the area 30 years ago.
Alyse Donnelly grew up with Phin, and was both his friend and perhaps something more. But Phin left many years ago, and both their lives have changed since then. While he was simultaneously serving in the army and avoiding his family, Alyse's parents died. Her cousin Richard inherited her father's entailed estate, and she has been reduced to the status of poor relation. Currently she serves as an unpaid companion to her demanding aunt. Her status also fell because of a botched elopement, so she is more or less ruined in the eyes of society. Alyse and her family are dining with the Bromleys when Phin returns. She is completely shocked to see him, and surprised at the emotions his return kicks up. Richard is even more surprised at Phin's return; he didn't know a younger brother existed, and seems quite angry that Alyse never told him.
As Phin holds up coaches by night and tries to help with estate issues during the day, it becomes obvious that most people in the area dislike him. Even before his brother's accident, Phin was a bit of a rake, and people expect him to continue in the same vein. Soon he feels that the only person he can trust is Alyse. Unfortunately, the evidence seems to suggest that Richard has something to do with the Bromleys' misfortunes, and even though he's always been a jerk to her, Alyse does not believe him capable of base treachery. But eventually it seems she will have to choose between Phin and her family. Though the choice seems obvious, it's actually more complicated. Richard offers her a financial incentive, and she's not sure that she can depend upon Phin to stay. After all, he has an important army career, and he's been gone for years.
There is nothing, precisely, that is particularly new or innovative about this type of plot. Poor relations, scheming relatives, soldiers estranged from their families, suspicious accidents - these are all romance staples, elements we've seen many times before. However, they work very well here, for two reasons.
The first is that the main characters are both likable and interesting. Their situation may not be new, but they come across as believable individuals nonetheless. In between the scheming, robberies, and the like, they talk to each other and enjoy each other's company. They're nice people, both of whom are in tough situations. However, neither comes across as a saintly martyr, partly because both of them made some poor choices in the past, choices that shaped their respective characters and contributed to their present circumstances.
The second reason this book works well is that the conflict is strong, and not easily solvable. Naturally, you can tell the basic direction of the book, but it's not immediately apparent how it will get there. For most of it, Phin does not have his brother's trust, and for good reason. He is truly an outsider. Alyse is similarly on the fringes of society. All of this makes the book work, and keeps the reader turning pages.
Because I was engaged, I found the flaws of the book easy to overlook. The main one is simply that it makes no particular sense for Phin to become a highwayman. His protestations to the contrary, I was quite sure he could have come by the information he needed in a less outlandish and dangerous way.
That said, I'm really glad I gave Enoch another shot. Before the Scandal transcends the cookie-cutter Regency-set historical mold. Though it employs some popular conventions, they become something more. Enoch fans will enjoy it, and those who haven't read Enoch in awhile should give it a shot as well.
-- Blythe Barnhill
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