A Midsummer Bride
This is the second book in Ms Forrester’s Marriage Mart series that began with A Wedding in Springtime. It started well; the author has a nice, light touch and I’m never averse to reading a well-written piece of romantic fluff, but somewhere before the half-way point, I was starting to get a bit irritated. By that time, the book was in danger of sinking beneath a surfeit of exposition; there had been so many different plot strands introduced that the whole thing was starting to feel disjointed because of the constant switches from one aspect of the story to another.
To be fair to Ms Forester, however, she did pull everything together quite skilfully towards the end.
The book opens on the high seas. Miss Harriet Redgrave is travelling from Boston to New York when her ship is boarded by an English sea-captain who promptly impresses the American crew into the British Navy – something which, according to the author’s note, isn’t as unlikely as one might think. Being American – and therefore outspoken – Harriet has no qualms about giving the captain a piece of her mind and then, knowing she now has no way of getting home, accepts passage to England aboard his ship. Arrived, she makes her way to her grandfather’s estate. She has never met him because he cut all contact with her mother after she ran away to marry an American naval officer who was of inferior social status. At first, Lord Langley is hostile and refuses to believe Harriet is who she says she is – but the sensible intervention of a friend helps Harriet to prove her identity.
The friend is, in fact, a Scottish earl, Duncan Machlachlan, Lord Thornton, who had been meeting with Langley to discuss a business proposition. He extends Langley and Harriet an invitation to a house party he is holding at his estate, which Langley, seeing an opportunity to find a husband for his granddaughter and therefore keep her in England, accepts with alacrity.
Being American – and therefore unconventional – Harriet is not like the other young ladies of the ton. She’s refreshingly different in that she says what she thinks, and her passion is Chemistry rather than husband-hunting. She is also in possession of a dowry of fifty-thousand pounds, a fact she likes to keep quiet as she has no desire to be trapped into marriage by an unscrupulous fortune hunter.
Needless to say, her breezy, uncomplicated nature does not endear her to the other ladies she meets at the house party, all of whom turn their noses up at her lack of town bronze and her open manner and who take no pains to hide their snide comments. Harriet’s one friend at the party is her host, a man who, by his own admission, isn’t comfortable around women and hasn’t the talent for flirting and flattery displayed by so many of his peers.
But Thornton doesn’t need to flatter and flirt because he’s not looking to marry anytime soon. His estate is deeply in debt and as he has nothing to offer a wife, he has resolved not to find one until he’s turned things around, which, given the state of the family finances, will probably take a good many years. But he can’t help feeling drawn towards Harriet, who he senses is as much of a fish out of water as he is among the superficiality of the tonnish guests. He’s a lovely beta hero – kind, honourable and a bit shy – who is trying to do right by everybody, especially his selfish mother who is making their financial situation even worse by her continual high-stakes gambling. She is in serious debt and insists Thornton marry an heiress to pay off her debts, first of all, and then rescue the estate.
But the one thing Thornton has sworn never to do is marry a woman for her money.
You can see where this is going. It’s rather too big a flaw in the story to ignore because it’s pretty much the entire basis for the element of conflict in the romance, and is flimsy at best.
I don’t find admitting that this sort of conflict-for-no-real-reason annoys me no end. Like the Big Misunderstanding, all it needs is for the people concerned to talk to each other and try to work something out, rather than enduring heartbreak simply because of their own misconceptions. I realise that without such plotlines, there would be many fewer romance novels out there, but it’s a contrivance too far in my book, even when the rest of the novel is as well-written as this one is.
This, however, is where the abundance of side-plots Ms Forester has set up comes in, because there are many other things going on to prevent the reader from getting headaches as the result of too much eye-rolling. The principal sub-plot concerns the Duke of Marchford (one of Thornton’s closest friends) and his work for the government as a spy-catcher. In fact, it’s as his behest that Thornton has held this house-party, as Marchford needed somewhere out of the way for a gathering of military leaders to take place, and the remote Highlands are about as far from the hotbed of London society as it’s possible to get.
There is also rather a nice secondary romance being developed between Marchford and his grandmother’s companion, Penelope (who will be the central couple in the next book), which I actually found more appealing than the main romance at times.
The characterisation of the main characters is strong, although I feel that Harriet, being American – and therefore breezy, unconventional, outspoken and untutored in the ways of polite society – is a little stereotypical, as are the snooty ladies of the ton, with their frequent gibes at Harriet’s colonial ways and her lack of conventional beauty. I did, however admire Harriet’s spirit and really felt for her when she felt homesick and as though she had been abandoned; and I liked the way she refused to be cowed, even when she was at her lowest ebb. The secondary characters of Langley and the dowager duchess are rather delightful, the villain(s) of the piece are suitably smarmy, and Thornton is a dreamy hero.
The writing flows well, there’s plenty of humour and some terrific dialogue; but the pacing in the first half suffers for the reasons I outlined at the beginning – too many different plot points being crowded in at once to the detriment – sometimes – of the characterisation or continuity.
Despite my reservations, I’m giving A Midsummer Bride a qualified recommendation, as Amanda Forester is clearly a talented writer and there is always room in the market for well-written fluff. But the non-existent conflict, pacing problems and the too perfect ending prevent me from rating it more highly.