This latest installment in Cecilia Grant’s Blackshear series is as different from the two titles that preceded it (A Lady Awakened and A Gentleman Undone) as those two books are different from each other, but is every bit as good.
Nicholas is the middle Blackshear brother and has been making his living as a barrister in London. But owing to his brother Will’s marriage to a woman of poor reputation (as told in A Gentleman Undone), Nick’s practice has begun to suffer and he is receiving fewer briefs. At a time when reputation was all-important, even the merest whiff of lack of respectability or scandal in one’s family – regardless of who is actually responsible – was enough to tar all family members with the same brush.
Kate Westbrook is struggling with similar problems. Although her father is the son of an earl, her mother used to be an actress, and as at the time the word “actress” was pretty much synonymous with “whore,” Kate’s family is also struggling under the weight of society’s disapprobation.
It is Kate, however, who feels this disapprobation the most strongly and who is determined to do something to restore her family to its proper place in society. In the beginning, she comes across as a terrible snob, shallow and concerned only with propriety and appearances. She is resolutely trying to gain the attention of her father’s family in the hopes that their eventual recognition will result in a rise in social standing for her parents and siblings. She is so determined that she is willing to bear insult and to abase herself in the eyes of others in order to obtain her goal.
Kate is also well aware of the fact that she is quite stunningly beautiful – although she is not vain. She knows men look at her and are drawn to her and deep down, is rather tired of it; but she is determined to use her beauty as a way to make a good marriage and advance her family.
Nick Blackshear was a protégé of Kate’s father, and at the start of the book, has known her for about three years. Like all the young lawyers and students who regularly visit her father’s house, Nick found himself enthralled by her beauty and was very quickly infatuated – to the point of making a proposal which Kate, having had much experience of such things, cleverly deflected, sparing his feelings as best she could.
Even though Nick still finds himself drawn to Kate, he tells himself it’s simply a normal, male reaction towards such a beautiful girl, and for the most part, they have settled into a sincere friendship. He is the one man she feels comfortable actually talking to, one she feels has no expectations for her to live up to, and Nick rather likes the fact that she feels able to be herself around him, even though he doesn’t relish the thought that she might think of him in a brotherly way.
As the story progresses it becomes clear that the feelings between Nick and Kate are anything but brotherly/sisterly, but she is determined to make a marriage to help elevate her family’s standing, and he is convinced (or rather, has convinced himself) that Kate would not be the sort of wife he needs – one who shares his interests and would support him through thick and thin.
Nick is fully aware of Kate’s intentions and while he can’t completely approve them, he does recognize her true motivation. Kate is not anxious to marry well simply to secure her own future comfort. She wants to make things easier for her sisters (the youngest of whom is being picked on at school simply because of her parentage) and to try to effect a reconciliation between her father and his brother, the current Lord Harringdon.
On the surface, one could be forgiven for thinking that the basic premise of the book – the heroine’s determination to overlook the man who loves her in favor of landing herself a rich and titled husband – is a flimsy basis for a novel. Despite his protestations that his feelings towards Kate are now ones of friendship, it’s clear that Nick is very much in love with her, and that trying to support her in her quest is tearing him apart. So all she needs to do to bring things to a satisfactory conclusion is own up to her feelings, et voilà! – The End.
And I suppose, in a roundabout way, that’s what finally happens. But despite the outward simplicity of the story, it’s filled with very real emotion and longing, which is what drew me in so completely. The familial relationships in the Westbrook household are well written and there’s a terrific sense of warmth and affection in their interactions. The minor characters –Mr. Westbrook, Kate’s sister Viola, Lord Barclay, Miss Smith – are all very clearly drawn characters, and the author expertly draws the contrast between Mrs. Westbrook, the “disreputable” ex-actress, and Lady Harringdon and the others of her ilk – leaving the reader in no doubt as to which is the more estimable.
When I started reading, my immediate thought was that there were bound to be readers who were less than happy with the characterization of the heroine. I have since read a few reviews and discovered that I was correct in my assumption – but I have to disagree. I found both Nick and Kate to be engaging, but imperfect characters who had made inappropriate and difficult decisions in their lives, but who were nonetheless mature enough to be able to own their mistakes by the end of the book, and to try to make amends. I can understand why many readers disliked Kate, but she comes a long way throughout the course of the story, from thinking she is doing the right thing for herself and her family (regardless of the fact they are content with things the way they are) to realizing that there are other ways in which she could help them, and - more importantly - be happy herself. Nick is a more static character, although he does make the first move towards a reconciliation with Will, having accepted that refusing to have anything to do with his brother was a stupid, wasteful thing to do. Not only did it not make any difference to Nick’s employment situation, it cost him a companion he truly valued.
The writing and characterization is every bit as good as I’ve come to expect, and Ms. Grant’s economic, restrained style works beautifully to allow the depth of emotion that bubbles under the surface throughout the story to speak for itself. There is no verbiage for the sake of it; this author pays her readers the huge compliment of trusting us with her material and letting us work things out for ourselves.
I suppose one could say that the moral of A Woman Entangled is “to thine own self be true.” Both Nick and Kate come to realize by the end that they have allowed themselves to be blinded to what was under each of their noses because of their own ambitions and preconceptions.
While I think A Woman Entangled was less “weighty” than the other two books in the series, there is much to enjoy and there is no question that it is just as well crafted. The hero and heroine were likeable – if at times misguided – and despite their assertions that they “did not suit,” their mutual respect, understanding, and (eventually) love really shone through. Also – the “friends to lovers” trope is a favorite of mine, and I think it was handled beautifully.
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