Desert Isle Keeper
My Dearest Enemy (#77 on AAR's Top 100 Romances)
An AAR Top 100 Romance
originally published on March 4, 2003
Connie Brockway is a goddess. Talk about your buried treasures; while many people are familiar with her more recent historicals – The Bridal Season and Bridal Favors – her unique skill and imagination most shine through for me in some of her earlier stories. Three of my all-time favorite romances ever are Brockways: All Through the Night, As You Desire, and My Dearest Enemy. The latter two books are much “lighter” than the dark and sexy ATTN, but never light-weight, merely utterly romantic and a bit whimsical.
My Dearest Enemy starts in 1887 with the will of one Horatio Algernon Thorne, who leaves guardianship of his underage heir, Bernard, to his bank trustees and stewardship of his Mill House estate in Devon, England, to Lillian Bede. According to said will’s provisions, Miss Bede, a 19-year-old suffragist and distant relation, will inherit Mill House if, after five years, she has managed it profitably; should she fail, the estate will then go to the dead man’s nephew, Avery Thorne.
Horatio expects Lillian to fail, and believes unequivocally that when she does, she will be ready to publicly renounce her liberal beliefs in exchange for the yearly stipend from his estate which she will desperately need – there aren’t many job opportunities for even well-educated young women in the society they inhabit, especially those who spout outrageous notions about the equality of the sexes. As for Avery, Horatio considers him a weakling, unfit to run Mill House, and a poor role model for Bernard, who is already showing “the same unfortunate inclination toward physical feebleness.” Lily takes on the challenge after the other family members encourage her to accept the bequest; all except for Avery, who hies off for a five-year expedition into remote corners of the world without ever meeting her. Since failure to deliver Avery’s quarterly allowance into his hands might be used as grounds to invalidate her eventual claim on Mill House, Lily uses every resource at her disposal to track him down over the years. The ensuing correspondence between she and Avery is not only delightful for the reader, but moves them from a relationship of competitive enmity to one of wary mutual tolerance. It is, in reality a epistolary courtship, and I wanted more of it!
It isn’t until Avery arrives at Mill House in the months before its final disposition will be decided, however, that he and Lily really get to know each other. Despite everything, they have certain erroneous notions about each other, and seeing them dispelled is much of this book’s charm. Lily looks nothing like the caricatures Avery had seen in the newspapers, and is neither as strident nor as arbitrarily contrary as he had expected. In fact, he is a bit humbled by the care with which she has stored the numerous artifacts and specimens he had sent home over the years. He sees the good that Lily has done with the estate, and as he deals with the neighbors and the curmudgeonly farm manager, he gets a firsthand glimpse of the challenges and scorn she has had to endure merely because she was born female and illegitimate. Avery also comes to see that her opposition to marriage is not mere lip-service to radicalism, but is founded in her own mother’s victimization by the laws that govern a married woman’s legal standing and parental rights.
For her part, Lily begins to realize that she was as wrong in accusing Avery of an arrogant superiority and sense of entitlement as she was in concluding, from his family portrait, that he was an “attenuated scarecrow” incapable of the “feverish athleticism” which the news articles about his exploits extolled. Avery is a to-die-for hero: no Duke of Slut he, not a tortured soul so much as one who has been underestimated, with a strong sense of responsibility and enough confidence in the abilities he has cultivated to be his own man. There’s a recurring joke around his insistence that is the epitome of a gentleman, while those who know him insist he’s too brusque and lacks subtlety. In resolving this contradiction, Brockway touches very nicely on the notion that it is not clothes and manners that make the man, but the code of honor by which he governs his own actions.
There are aspects of this story that some readers may find predictable or cutesy, such as Lily’s hiring of unwed, pregnant girls as servants, whom she then trains and sends off to other households with glowing references. I found it believable, totally consistent with her character, and the “girls” were never portrayed as “poor victims” prostrate with gratitude and redemption; they’re a pretty cheeky lot, in fact, who still gladly fall prey to any male’s charms. Bernard is a delight, working so diligently toward becoming a gentleman who protects the women in his world while battling the same severe asthmatic condition which afflicted Avery in his youth. Horatio’s unmarried, middle-aged daughter, Francesca, is the secondary character who most intrigues me, though. Independent, easing her restlessness with impromptu trips and discreet liaisons, there’s an underlying sadness in her, and I would love to eventually read her story and see her get an HEA of her own.
The snippets from Avery’s and Lily’s correspondence are great fun (if Brockway ever decides to put together a book of their complete correspondence, I will be first in line to buy it), but what is so sweet about it is how Brockway subtly shows the growing importance of Lily’s letters to Avery. Avery is simply one of the most romantic heroes I have ever read, and more than the mutual attraction that he and Lily share is the sense of yearning Brockway achieves that makes this one stand out for me. When Avery, in confessing to Lily how he was affected by her letters and by meeting her in the flesh, tells her, “Then you kissed me and I can’t begin to tell you the havoc that played with my heart,” I sighed loudly and melted into a contented little puddle. And even though Lily’s and Avery’s story might have benefitted from at least one more love scene, it’s so nearly a perfect romance for me that I find I cannot quibble on that score.
My Dearest Enemy earns DIK status from me for the reasons above, and because it is one of the books I frequently revisit; sometimes I only reread favorite passages, but sometimes I crave total immersion in Lily’s and Avery’s story. Whether I need the relief of a brief crying spell or a taste of satirical banter or the warm fuzzies that come from Romance with a capital “R”, I can always find it in abundance here.