A Return of Devotion
I read A Defense of Honor, the first book of the Haven Manor series, liked it very much, and immediately bought the second installment. I found A Return of Devotion a very different experience, one I struggled with as a reader. Whereas A Defense of Honor has a steady pace driven by the action plot woven with the romance, A Return of Devotion spends a little too much time in the character’s minds and too little time on the romance. This book can stand alone but reading the first will provide the necessary backstory for Haven Manor, its mission, and show the heroine in her element.
Fourteen years ago, gentleman’s daughter Daphne Blakemore and her best friend Kit established Haven Manor as a literal haven for illegitimate children unwanted by their noble families. Daphne, who is raising her own illegitimate son Benedict at the Manor, decides not to share Benedict’s heritage with him, not even the fact she is his mother, hoping this will help Benedict better integrate with the other children. As far as Benedict is concerned, her choices seem to have worked out. He has mixed well with the other children at Haven Manor and is now a happy and well-adjusted boy of thirteen. However, for Daphne, a shy and meek woman, losing her family in the scandal, moving far away from her London home, and keeping their relationship a secret from her son prove to be heavy burdens. She copes by focusing on mothering all the children, escaping into her imagination, and letting others make the active decisions for her in the real world.
But life at Haven Manor is about to change drastically. The absentee owner has died, and William Oswald, the new Marquis of Chemsford, has inherited the property from his father. He decides that its isolated location will make a perfect retreat and communicates his intention to visit the place, assess its current condition, and renovate as necessary. Faced with the imminent arrival of the new owner who knows nothing of the property’s use, the staff of the Manor scurry to find homes for each of their young charges, leaving a few older children in place who are training for service.
To Daphne’s shock, the newly arrived Marquis looks so much like her son, he could be mistaken for Benedict’s father. It was not William though, but his cousin who fathered Benedict. The dilemma now is to keep Benedict and William apart, at least long enough for Daphne, playing the role of housekeeper, to decide how she will explain the long-standing deception to her son without losing his affections.
William would simply like to get his new property in order, but the housekeeper is flighty, the cook is competent but vaguely hostile and the housemaids seem much too young for their responsibilities. Instead of the relaxation he had hoped for, the environment, especially the strangeness of the housekeeper, is giving William a migraine. He senses secrets under the surface but is unsure what questions will unlock the answers.
While A Return of Devotion is classed online as a “Christian Historical Romance,” it became clear early in the book that this is Christian historical fiction with a romantic subplot. The story is full of ticking clocks: When and how will Benedict and William meet? Will Daphne share the truth with her son, and if so, how? Will the real father appear, or will Benedict seek him out? Will Daphne be able to turn outward from her fancies of imagination, see the real world, and then adapt to it successfully? These questions push the story forward but are not used to demonstrate William and Daphne’s attraction. For the first third of the book, the possible meeting between Benedict and William and Daphne’s various ploys to keep them apart fill the book with humor and light tension, but very little romance.
In A Defense of Honor, the first book in the series, readers learned how Daphne’s love of pretend and her ability to create an imaginative narrative in her head which superseded reality led to her pregnancy. In this story, Ms. Hunter spends many pages showing us that Daphne’s imagination continues to land her into trouble, from moments when she loses her place in conversations she’s having in real life to a scene where reality and fantasy overlap for her resulting in a sweet, humorous encounter with William. It also leads her to an unfortunate habit of what her friends call prevarication; she exhibits a proclivity to lie to get out of trouble, an issue the text views with humor since she tends to be very bad at it.
The author also spends a good deal of time in William’s mind as he re-evaluates his preconceived notions about illegitimate children, the women who bear them and how he wishes to handle the rather peculiar situation he’s found himself in. Once he learns of Haven Manor and its original mission, he must determine if he wants to be part of the endeavor and if so, what role he wishes to play in it.
Overall, I felt the book was perhaps a hundred pages too long. The meeting between William and Benedict could have occurred earlier in the story, and the author could have spent less time on Daphne’s imaginative scenarios and on William’s introspection.
William and Daphne are intensely aware of each other, but that awareness serves to bring out Christian themes or the characters’ internal struggles more than increasing romantic tension between them. As a reader, after the first twenty-five pages, I had to reset my expectations into the author’s rhythm of characters focused on the external plot and not on each other, at least romantically. Once I did, I became engaged with these two people, both facing long-held assumptions about their class and their lives and growing into their best selves. However, I sorely missed the more consistent interplay and emotional spark commonly evident in the romance genre.
This is an Inspirational with a pro-life theme and that moral is woven generously throughout the story. Daphne serves as a focal point for this principle; her faith plays an important role in her life and we see her sharing her beliefs about God’s forgiveness, His love for all His creation and the joy He takes in every person He has made with the children. For her, these aren’t just lessons but serve as valuable reminders to herself that “Jesus didn’t come only for the perfect and accepted; He died for the lonely and forgotten, too.” Her conduct and convictions influence William as well. During his time at Haven Manor, he becomes aware of lifestyles outside his privileged class, and after consideration, acts to help those under his care with more sensitivity to their state in life and hopes for the future. It’s a timely lesson, and one the author develops with skill.
Fans of Ms. Hunter and readers looking for engaging Christian fiction will certainly enjoy A Return of Devotion with its interesting characters and important moral messages. However, if you’re in the mood for a story focused on the growing love between two people, this book may not be the right choice for you.