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A Pandora’s Box: Mary Balogh’s Only a Promise

Today, Dabney and Maggie tackle the latest Survivor’s Club by Mary Balogh, Only a Promise. The book comes out on Tuesday, June 9th. We’ve tried to avoid overt spoilers.

Maggie summarizes the novel here:

As a schoolboy Ralph Stockwood, Earl of Berwick, was a natural born leader. When he convinced his friends to join him in glorious combat he had no idea that he would be the only one returning. Guilt ridden and heart sore Ralph has been able to move forward with life only by deadening himself to emotion. When he is ordered by his grandmother to find a wife and get an heir to secure the family title and fortune, he is reluctant to do so. On the outside he is a fine catch; A handsome man with a long established title, prominent position and great wealth. Yet he fears he has nothing to truly offer a wife, for he cannot give her love or real companionship or affection and what kind of woman would want marriage on those terms?

A desperate one. Chloe Muirhead had not one but two Seasons end in disaster and is (very reluctantly) resigned to spinsterhood. The last fiasco resulted in a wedge being driven between her and her beloved papa and she has taken refuge at Manville Court, home of the Duke of Worthingham. The duchess was a dear friend of her grandmamma and has invited Chloe to spend some time with them. When she overhears the duchess order her grandson to marry a crazy idea takes root in Chloe’s mind. What if Ralph were to marry her? He has no love to give, she has no expectation of any. A bargain is struck and the two wed. But when circumstances change and Ralph reneges on part of their deal, will Chloe be able to forgive him and make a real marriage out of their sham of a wedding?


Maggie: I’ve loved the Survivor’s Club novels. The ProposalThe Arrangement and Only Enchanting have all made my keeper shelf.  What have you thought of the series?

Dabney: This is not my favorite series by Ms. Balogh, though I am enjoying it. My favorite of this batch is Only Enchanting.

Perhaps the best thing about these books is their unflinching look at the trauma war leaves on the bodies and souls that fight it. Each survivor has struggled in different ways and all have been tragic, powerful, and intellectually engaging.

Maggie: Yes! Well said. I’ve found seeing the affects war has on the survivors one of the best aspects of the series. I’ve also enjoyed how each story involves overcoming a serious challenge – such as being blind or memory loss – to arrive at an HEA.

Only Enchanting was my favorite as well. I felt the romance in that story had more spark than this one did. Ralph and Chloe were sweet together but I never got a sense of chemistry. What did you think of their love story?

Dabney: Ah…. not much. I didn’t feel any urgency in their emotions or passions for one another. Additionally, I found Chloe and Ralph to verge just the teeniest bit in frustratingly self-indulgent rationalizations for their behaviors. I wanted Chloe to say, “OK, things have changed, I can step up to this plate,” and for Ralph to quit berating himself for asking Chloe to change especially given that neither of them had any choice in the circumstance that cause their circumstance to change.

Maggie: I suppose I sympathized with Chloe just a bit regarding the circumstantial change. She had her reasons for not wanting to go back to London and justified or not she had made her position clear. To me circumstances hadn’t really changed – the timeline had changed but not the circumstances. Ralph admits that neither of them had really thought out that portion of their agreement. If they had, they would have realized that it was impossible. So I empathized with Chloe’s position because she had been clear and he had been thoughtless.

And I don’t think either was that concerned with the actual decision but with the emotional turmoil they were putting the other through. Chloe had said some nasty things in the initial argument over London and felt guilt over the hurt she inflicted. Ralph seemed concerned with the trauma he was putting her through and the fact that he couldn’t control what would happen once they arrived in London. Perhaps the scandal surrounding Chloe really would make her something of an outcast. For me the resolution was good.

I have to admit, though, that I have a fondness for marriage of convenience tales and I thought that aspect of the story was handled fairly well. They had a quiet, practical type of love story which can seem flat but which I found sweet and heartwarming enough to enjoy. I can definitely see why it wouldn’t work for everyone though.

What did you think of the interaction with the other survivors and the characters from the Bedwyn Saga? Too much, too little or just right?

Dabney: I too like marriage of convenience stories but I so like Only Enchanting better that perhaps this one paled in comparison.

I am almost embarrassed to admit that I read the Bedwyn Saga long ago and haven’t read it again so I think I missed a lot of that.

One thing I thought was unique and well-handled in this book was the issue of Chloe’s father. No one was made to be a villain and Ms. Balogh wrote beautifully about heartbreak in the past and how it so shaped the present.

Maggie: We saw Lauren and Kit (A Summer to Remember) and Lily and Neville (One Night for Love) very briefly.  The first couple in this series is related to those two couples so I felt the encounter was natural and handled well.

Do you mean Chloe’s biological father?

Dabney: Yes. I loved how that story was told. At first you thought one thing, than another, and the resolution was charming.

Maggie: I’m so glad you mentioned that as it actually segues toward the topic that inspired us doing a Pandora’s Box on this book. In a comment made on the Politics and Romance blog MD stated that:

I was once discussing Mary Balogh with someone who is skilled in literary criticism, and she said, “She is so Christian!” I was surprised, because I would not have identified it as such. She broke it down for me – don’t remember it all, we were talking about her earlier regencies, and it was both the topics (sin, forgiveness, rebirth) and even things like character names (Adam = first man). Now, I have to say that the more recent Balogh’s novels have become more “preachy” in my opinion, and I now enjoy them less. But that’s just the feature of the writing quality.

I found myself reading Only a Promise at the same time as the blog was published and I think reading this comment made me hyper-aware of certain themes in the book I wouldn’t otherwise have noticed. For example, how very forgiving everyone is to the mother, sister and father. All of them had taken actions that greatly affected various people’s lives and there was no resentment or accusation of thoughtlessness or anything. It was like no one, especially the heroine, had a right to harbor so much as a negative feeling.

I’ll add that I don’t find that to be necessarily a feature of Christianity or even faith. This is far from the first book I’ve read that encourages unquestioning forgiveness on the part of the heroine nor is it the worst (that honor belongs to Lois Lane Tells All) and most of them don’t involve religion or faith

What are your thoughts on that? Is there, as MD mentioned, an element of Christianity or preachiness to the subject matter in Balogh novels? What about this one specifically?

Dabney: Well, as an utterly non-religious person, I wouldn’t define being forgiving as primarily a Christian value. (I’m sure she didn’t mean to imply any such thing.) I see the behaviors championed in the Survivors series as those we hope we are all capable of. To forgive–and they don’t always forget in these books–is a way for all of these men and women to free themselves from the pains of their past whether the horrors of war or the slights that come from the cruelties created by the rigid hierarchies of the Ton. To me, these books don’t read as “preachy” but rather as hopeful. Balogh tells stories in which humans overcome their limitations by being generous and able to let go of memories that limit their abilities to be happy. I’d go a step farther and say these books are less forcibly instructive than much I see in contemporary romance where attitudes often strike me as proscribed.

Maggie: I’ll admit that I found the scene at the time of the funeral with Graham, the heroine’s brother, a mite preachy. Especially the portion where he describes his faith and says: “For that is what my religion is,” he explained without any suggestion of pious pomposity, “and what it impels me to do with my life. Simply to love and accept without judgment.”

Was that scene noticeable to you at all or did it blend into the framework?

Dabney: The world is full of people who refer to their faith. I’m watching the NBA semi-finals now. The greatest three-point shooter in the history of the game, Stephen Curry, says he thanks Jesus after every one he makes. This seems unexceptional to me. Leaders say “God bless America” in the States almost reflexively. So, this scene didn’t strike me as forced or preachy but rather as true for that character. I’m sure I’m influenced by my own non-Christian values here as well. I’m a big fan of forgiveness so Graham’s statement to me seemed right.

It is interesting how things like this strike us as romance readers. There are many things in the genre, when I encounter them (the lack of discussion about abortion as an option in contemporary romance insta-pregnancies, character with silver or violet eyes, the consignment of anyone over 50 to the elderly pile), push my buttons. Those are things I notice because they are so patently fake to me. But the steadiness of faith in this book didn’t throw me. Graham’s statement read to me as ethical thinking.

Maggie: It is interesting how things strike us differently as readers. I noticed the forgiveness theme primarily because of MD’s comments being fresh in my mind. When I did a re-read recently I didn’t notice it nearly as much.  And as a Christian I have to say that with the exception of A Gift of Daisies I’ve never found Balogh to be an overtly Christian writer.

The scene with Graham stuck out to me primarily because the line about loving without judgment seemed to be a way to hammer home the forgiveness theme. I’ve had some, for lack of a better term “issues”, with how often heroines are asked to forgive in novels while it is often perfectly okay for heroes to seek vengeance. In this case the hero didn’t seek vengeance but he was the one that had to be forgiven – by the parents of the other boys and most especially by himself. On the other hand, Chloe was the victim of other people’s carelessness and/or cruelty and she was expected to forgive them. It’s not that I want a plethora of evil, hateful heroines who never forgive. But I would like to see some apologies, some acknowledgment that wrong was done to others and not just a demand that heroines be sweet, forgiving angels who always make the best of things.

What did you think of the novel overall? I definitely didn’t feel the love like I did with Only Enchanting but quibbles aside, I felt a very, very strong like. How about you?

Dabney: Oh… I love that point. Another thing that irks me in romance is men who never forgive slights against their women–and often punch or stab those who commit them. The angry male does little for me especially given the prevalence of the all-forgiving female.

I liked this book. I always enjoy reading Ms. Balogh–her prose is routinely arresting in the best ways–but the story here didn’t draw me in. I’d give it a B-.

Maggie: It was a B/B+ for me. I am already anxiously awaiting Only a Kiss, just three more months! and then finally after that we get the Duke’s story sometime in 2016.He the character that has interested me most in this series, right from the beginning.


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