This first book in Mary Balogh’s new Regency romance Westcott series got off to a good start with a great heroine, a play on a familiar romance plot, and a somewhat inscrutable hero. About halfway through, the story lost steam and fell prey to a trope that’s day has passed.
Once again, a toad of an aristocrat has had the temerity to die and leave his estate in disarray as he failed to disclose a rightful heir to his fortune and rendered his own children illegitimate and impecunious. The Earl of Riverdale took the trouble to make Avery, Duke of Netherby the ward of his underage son, but not to mention that he was married as a callow youth, had a daughter, and remarried to begin another family. Avery keeps an eye on the boy, but finds himself very intrigued by the buttoned up heiress who has landed on the family doorstep.
Anna Snow has lived in an orphanage for 21 years, from the age of four as a resident and as a teacher since reaching maturity. When she is summoned to London and informed that she is now a Lady, and an obscenely wealthy one at that, the most her mind can encompass is to ask if there is enough money to cover her return fare to Bath. Her father’s sisters and mother welcome Anna, his now superfluous wife and three children are much less friendly.
As heroine’s go, Anna is a good one. Magnificently self-possessed simply by virtue of not thinking anyone is better – or of less value – than her, her personality lends itself to poise and dignity as a defense mechanism. Avery is fascinated and takes an immediate interest in her. For his part, Avery is an unusual hero. Shorter than average and slight, his physical description is that he is beautiful, but not necessarily the kind of testosterone triumph of so many of the men in these books. His part of the story is the one that falls down when the plot loses its way. Much is made of his ability in a non-specified martial art and its attendant lifestyle which he learned after a chance encounter with an Asian gentleman. This convenient exoticism struck me as a dated trope. Avery met a sole individual from a foreign culture and that one person just happened to be a master of a form of combat perfectly suited to the hero and he took the time to make Avery an expert? Codswallop. He’s a duke. Couldn’t he at least have gone abroad for a couple of years to educate himself? Balogh already portrays him up with an interesting, effete steeliness and wouldn’t having been AWOL for a couple of years doing god-knows-what have added to his air of mystery?
Another element of the book and common trope that bothered me was the portrayal of the wedding night: Anna ends up stark naked in the middle of the bedroom during the afternoon while Avery is still fully dressed. She’s been kissed exactly twice in her life, has consciously repressed her sexual impulses, and she’s in a house without central heating. I don’t care how much willing suspension of disbelief I bring to my reading, Balogh is better than this. Why can’t people in these books ever start out under the covers and dressed for bed? I think it would be sweet to read about the participants’ increasing comfort with intimate activities and each other.
As the first book in the Westcott series, Someone to Love lays a lot of groundwork for heroes and heroines to come. I had a bit of trouble keeping everyone straight at first and couldn’t tell if it was partly intentional to mimic Anna’s experience or just the introduction of the cast. Having paid full price for the novel and being disappointed, I will go back to my “library first” policy for Balogh’s romances and only buy the ones I’m sure I like such as the following: