2009, European Historical Romance
Dell, $6.99, 388 pages, Amazon ASIN 0440244226 Part of a series
It’s amazing that I have read only four of Mary Balogh’s books in light of her vast selection of titles and the fact that I consider her one of romance’s best. It is probably due to the length of her interconnected Slightly and Simply series since I could never shake the feeling that I needed to start with the very first book. So, I find myself thrilled to review the first of her new Huxtable series and must say that I am also excited about the release dates for succeeding entries in this series. The second is scheduled for March 24, the third for April 28, and the fourth for May 19 - and all in 2009!
As the introduction to this new series, First Comes Marriage does bear the heavy responsibility of presenting a multitude of new characters (future leads, of course) while giving the reader a delicious yet solid romance that still consumes most of the pages – and, believe me, it does deliver.
The Huxtable family lives in the quiet village of Throckbridge, enjoying a life of limited means. Margaret, the eldest of the family of four, has lovingly cared for her siblings for the past eight years. Vanessa, the middle sister is now widowed while Katherine, 20, and Stephen, 17, remain home with Margaret. Although gently raised and educated, they have no fear of hard work and their exposure to the outside world has been limited. When it is rumored that a viscount is in town for some unknown business, the Huxtables are as awed as their neighbors at the prospect of possibly seeing him at their St. Valentine’s Day assembly.
Elliott Wallace, Viscount Lyngate, has a duty to fulfill in this backward village and he is determined to finish his business as quickly as possible and leave. When Elliott discovers that the townspeople expect him to attend their assembly, he fervently wishes he had timed his arrival differently. Dancing with ferret-faced matrons and their plain simpering daughters, while being forced to endure the lame conversation of dull-minded gentlemen, is not Elliott’s idea of a congenial evening. In today’s language, Elliott is quite the snob.
When Vanessa first sees Elliott as he enters the assembly, she imagines falling headlong in love with the gorgeous, perfectly attired gentleman…that is, until she notices that he looks insufferably arrogant as well as bored. The townspeople act as though they have been favored by some god, but Vanessa realizes the viscount finds her world inferior as well as undesirable. Well, quash the headlong thought - she will certainly not fall in love with such a man. If this causes images of Pride and Prejudice to appear in your head, let me assure that the similarity ends there. The story that follows is both imaginative and distinctly entertaining.
It seems that Stephen Huxtable is the viscount’s business in town and, much to the family’s amazement, Elliott announces that Stephen is now the Earl of Merton after the death of a distant cousin, leaving him not only wealthy but also the owner of a number of prosperous properties. Elliott further informs the bewildered family that he is now Stephen’s guardian and will arrange his extensive training and education to prepare him for his place in society. Finding resistance to the idea that he plans to remove Stephen from his three sisters, he reluctantly moves the entire family to the earl’s new home. He doesn’t welcome the stress of preparing, outfitting, and introducing the three sisters to society in addition to the young earl.
As Elliott spends time with the family, he soon discovers that Vanessa neither holds him in high regard nor thinks he is the man her brother should emulate since he is a proud, overbearing, impatient, disagreeable man. A pattern of delightful repartee develops between these two who know no other way to communicate than complete honesty. Vanessa’s numerous set-downs for Elliott are direct, factual statements lacking anger or cruelty. I found myself rereading many of these scenes and I always did so with a smile on my face.
From her first introduction, it is clear that Vanessa is the plain one of the family and she’s quite self-conscious of the fact despite her portrayal as a strong, confident woman. Frequently Vanessa refers to her lack of beauty and rarely chooses to believe Elliott when he gives her any compliment regarding her appearance. Her constant contention that she “is not pretty” and therefore not worthy in some manner became a little tiresome and is the reason for the A- grade rather than a solid A.
Elliott and Vanessa’s romance develops slowly and, therefore, realistically. Although neither intend to fall in love (they are truly reasonable characters), there were times I felt their love growing for one another. Elliott remains a contrary and pessimistic man for the most part while Vanessa remains true to her sparkling personality. I am always thankful for such consistencies.
As secondary characters, Margaret, Katherine, and Stephen each make significant impressions but, by far, the strongest secondary character is Constantine Huxtable, the man who missed becoming the Earl of Merton by a mere two days. The first six pages of First Comes Marriage concentrates on Con’s character and I foresee quite a bit of reader anticipation as Con reappears throughout the series before claiming the final book (but not until 2010!).
There is one more observation I dare not forget and that is that this is truly a character driven romance with nary a villain in sight. That is the equivalent of hitting a home run in my world.
Now I am thinking of all the wonderful reading ahead of me as I explore Balogh’s backlist. I just discovered she has 18 DIKs here at AAR! Aren’t I the lucky one?
-- Lea Hensley
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