In Mimi Matthews’ Appointment in Bath, the Burton-Smythe family and the Beresford family hate each other, but when Ivo Beresford sees Meg Burton-Smythe in need of assistance after falling from her horse, it’s love at first sight. Two households, dignity, fair Verona, yadda yadda.
Ivo and Meg are the children of the protagonists of a novella I haven’t read (we get the standard sequel content reassuring us that Ivo’s parents are still super into each other). Meg’s father attempted to exploit his guardianship of Ivo’s mother to force her to marry him and merge their neighboring estates, but instead, she eloped with Ivo’s dad. Now, as they meet-cute by the river, Meg is eighteen, a virtual prisoner of her father, and Ivo is in his mid-twenties.
Seven or so years isn’t a huge age gap, but at eighteen and twenty-five/six, it’s an enormous experience gap, which translates into a dynamic of inequality. Worldly Ivo is a college graduate who has traveled the Continent, coming back to his hometown to pitch a railway venture he is developing with fellow sons of nobility. Meg is without a governess for the first time and not permitted to dine on her own at the vicar’s. No wonder Ivo sweeps her off her feet.
Compounding this is a confidence gap. Ivo is a dashing blonde god. He’s often specifically described as Adonis-like, and his major imperfections are needing glasses, and collecting and helping less perfect people sometimes in a way that comes off as pushy (he has, for instance, brought an alcoholic Anglo-Italian back from Italy with the intention of finding him employment). Meg, who is shy and stutters, can’t believe that Ivo is interested in her, and unfortunately, neither could I. When Meg confronts him and asks what he sees in her, Ivo says:
“[Y]ou don’t see yourself as I do. You’re too caught up in worrying over your stammer and your other imagined shortcomings. It’s distracted you from noticing what anyone else can perceive quite plainly.”
Nice start, Ivo! What is it, pray tell?
“You’re stunning,” he said bluntly.
“And you’re kind. The way you handle that fractious mare with so much gentleness and devotion? [side note: and without much success; see: being thrown from said mare at meet-cute] The way you smiled when we crossed the bridge together? The way you held my hand?”
Nothing on this list demonstrates that Ivo has considered Meg in any depth at all. It’s even more concerning when he talks about how he’s imagined her, the child of his parents’ enemy, and confesses, “As a boy, I daresay I made you into a bit of a fairytale.”
So we have two options here, and neither is particularly romantic. Either do-gooder Ivo has made lonely and socially awkward Meg his new project, or daydreamy Ivo sees Meg as an idealized Rapunzel manifested in a stunning, shy, untouched pre-Raphaelite beauty. Even as Ivo’s presence inspires Meg to stand up to her father and to ask for more, it still seems as though Ivo sees her as one or another type of object.
So what makes this one a B-? Mimi Matthews is always a competent writer. The pacing is good, and the sentences are well-constructed. I appreciated the scenes where Meg calls Ivo out on making a “project” of her, and the author adds complexity by constructing a situation where he is genuinely wrong. Matthews’s Victorian settings are always well-developed, and I both appreciated the research and detail about railway permitting and construction, and admire the seamless way she integrates it into the plot. You’ll never get a plagiarized info-dump from Mimi Matthews.
I’m not generally a fan of time skips. At about two-thirds of the way through, however, I thought to myself, ‘Wow, a time skip here is PRECISELY what’s needed’. Ivo has opened Meg’s eyes to the world and empowered her to insist on better for herself. Great! Now let’s see her fly for a while. If she has a true chance to see the world, develop some interests, and meet other men, and THEN decides Ivo is right for her, well, wonderful! And there would be more to Meg for Ivo to fall in love with – more than just her need for him and her physical appearance.
As it is, there is just too much inequality in Appointment in Bath for me to be truly happy with it. But what works in a Mimi Matthews novel is still present here, so I have no qualms about coming back to her again for her next release.
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