After the Wedding
I’m a big fan of Courtney Milan’s – her Brothers Sinister series is comprised of six of the finest historical romances written in the last decade or so, and hers are books I always recommend to people who want to read entertaining, character-driven historical romances that are well-grounded in actual history and which don’t blithely ignore the inherent inequalities and prejudices of the eras in which they are set.
We’ve waited a couple of years for a new full-length novel from Ms. Milan. After the Wedding is the second book in her Worth Saga which is currently projected to be eight books and which will largely take place outside British shores. This is great news for those of us who have frequently wished for more historicals that take place away from the rarefied atmosphere of Georgian or Victorian London, and with that, comes the promise of more diverse characters and stories, both of which are welcome prospects.
I will admit, however, that I wasn’t wild about the first two books in the series, Once Upon a Marquess and the novella, Her Every Wish. I felt the romances were rather underdeveloped in both; and in the novel in particular, as though the author had rather lost sight of the fact that it was supposed to be a romance amid the sheer ‘busy-ness’ of the book as a whole. I didn’t connect with the protagonists and, more importantly didn’t feel they had much of a connection to each other, which isn’t a good place for any romance to find itself in. Still, the premise of After the Wedding – a (literal) shotgun wedding – reeled me in (arranged/forced marriage stories are my catnip) so I pounced on it, hoping that perhaps those earlier novels had been anomalies and that this one would once again provide the richly developed, engaging characters and stories I have found in the author’s previous work.
Sadly, that didn’t happen.
Our hero, Adrian Hunter, is the son of a widowed duke’s daughter and a black abolitionist; he is one of five brothers, three of whom perished fighting in the American Civil War. He’s good-looking, clever, compassionate and well-to-do; his one source of discontent is that his mother’s brother, Bishop Denmore, has never publicly acknowledged their familial relationship. The bishop took Adrian into his household when he was a boy, where he acted as his uncle’s page, and then, once grown, as his secretary, but nobody knew he was anything other than a servant. Still, the man’s frequent expressions of affection for his ‘favourite sister’ give Adrian hope that one day, the bishop will own him as his nephew, and it seems that day is imminent when Denmore asks Adrian for a favour. He wants Adrian to pose as a valet in order to enter the household of his rival, Bishop Lassiter, whom Denmore suspects of something underhand. Adrian will gather evidence which the bishop will use to expose Lassiter and then Denmore will acknowledge Adrian. It’s clear from the outset that’s never going to happen – and it’s hard to credit that Adrian, whom we’re supposed to believe is intelligent and a good businessman, could be so credulous.
Anyway. Adrian takes the job as valet and accompanies Lassiter on a visit to one of his cronies, Rector Miles, which is where he encounters Camilla Winters, one of the housemaids. She’s pretty and inclined to flirtation, which Adrian thinks might work to his advantage if she knows anything useful – but before he can find out, they are set up to be discovered alone together and forced to marry. Clearly the intention has been to discredit one or both of them – but why?
We know that Camilla Winters is in fact Camilla Worth, younger sister of Judith, heroine of Once Upon a Marquess. Their father, the Earl of Linney, had been executed for treason and their eldest brother, Anthony, has disappeared; Judith and her younger siblings, Theresa and Benedict, lived, until recently, in very straitened circumstances, and it was this life on the edge of poverty that Camilla wanted to escape when, aged, twelve, she decided to go to live with their uncle. She might not have her family, but she would have plenty of new dresses and lemon tarts. Judith, for whom family is incredibly important, was angry and upset and said some very nasty things, Camilla left, and they haven’t seen each other since. Unfortunately for Camilla, things didn’t work out with her uncle and over the past nine years she has been passed from pillar to post, working as a companion to an elderly lady, then descending lower in the pecking order to become a domestic servant. Humbled and cowed, she now works for Rector Miles for half-wages, which is all she’s worth on account of her sins, but through it all, she’s been sustained by one thing – hope. Hope that one day, she will be loved, one day someone will choose her for her own sake.
Adrian is lovely – a thoroughly decent, kind man who takes his responsibilities seriously and wants to do his best for everyone around him. The trouble is that at times he’s perhaps a little bit too good to be true – so much so, in fact, that he’s at risk of crossing the line between ‘understanding and forgiving’ and ‘gullible’. Camilla, however, proved to be a major stumbling block, with her repetitive, ‘woe-is-me-I-just-want-to-be-loved’ introspective navel gazing – and her contradictory self-flagellation and ruthless optimism. And I just couldn’t buy the situation she’s in when we first meet her. She decided to leave her family home when she was twelve and then, when her life started to fall apart, never attempted to contact her siblings. It made no sense to me, regardless of the fact we’re told Judith told her never to come back; if you literally have nowhere else to go, you would at least make the attempt, wouldn’t you?
The romance, while it does have moments of tenderness and humour, is ultimately lacklustre. Adrian and Camilla spend a decent amount of time together on the page, but not much of that time is spent actually building their relationship and there isn’t a great deal of chemistry between them. When one of them realised they were in love, it came so much out of the blue that I was actually startled, and although their mutual honesty is refreshing, Camilla is such a one-note character that it was impossible to become invested in her. She thinks she doesn’t deserve love because she abandoned her family in favour of a regular supply of lemon tarts – and if I never again read the words “long, slow falling-in-love”, it’ll be too soon.
There’s a lot going on in After the Wedding. We’ve got a mixed-race hero, a heroine who has had romantic feelings for another woman, the rich, powerful men of the church being exposed as the petty hypocrites they are (and the casual racism of Adrian’s uncle is truly disgusting), the eternal struggle of women not to be oppressed, a woman of the upper classes having fallen on hard times to become a maid, and probably other things I either missed or can’t recall. And as with the earlier books, the romance feels as though it’s been squashed to make room.
The novel is well-written, and the author’s way with words continues to impress. But while it’s technically accomplished, the story lacks heart (for want of a better term) and ultimately falls flat. I am sure there are many readers out there who will find more to enjoy in After the Wedding than I did, but much as it pains me to say it, I was sorely disappointed.