Christmas With His Wallflower Wife
Christmas With His Wallflower Wife is the sixth and final book in Janice Preston’s two trilogies featuring two generations of the Beauchamp family, and it focuses on Alex, younger son of the Duke of Cheriton and his struggle to find out the truth of his mother’s death almost two decades earlier. If you’ve read any of the other books in the series, you’ll know that Alex is a very troubled young man whose relationship with his father is strained and who has deliberately distanced himself from the other members of his family for reasons that have never been fully explained. In presenting Alex’s story, Ms. Preston does an excellent job of slowly unpacking his damaged soul and bringing to light the truth of the trauma he suffered that prompted his withdrawal from his family; Alex is both flawed and compelling, and while there were times I wanted to tell him to get over himself and stop behaving like an idiot, his thoughts and motivations are so very well examined that it was easy to sympathise with him even as I was disagreeing with his methods and seeing the pitfalls marking the horizon.
It’s been several years since Alex visited the family seat, Cheriton Abbey. When he was just seven years old, Alex discovered his mother’s dead body in the summer house by the lake there, and was so severely traumatised that he didn’t speak for a year afterwards. Even though he’s now in his twenties, Alex still avoids the place like the plague and continues to maintain the emotional distance he has painstakingly manufactured between him and the rest of his family. But he’s persuaded to return there for a garden party at which all his family members will be present – a rare occurrence – intending to leave as soon as he can. Another of the guests is his oldest friend, Lady Jane Colebrooke, who is present with her father and dragon of a stepmother, who dislikes Jane and is determined to marry her off to the odious Sir Denzil Pikeford by hook or by crook. It seems that she’s chosen the latter option when Alex hears screams coming from near the lake and immediately dashes to the rescue to discover Jane struggling under the weight of an inebriated Sir Denzil. Jane’s stepmother gleefully insists that Jane must marry Pikeford or be ruined, but Alex won’t hear of it. He’s always liked Jane, they get on well and have many interests in common… he’ll need to get married at some point, so why not marry a woman he already knows and likes? Jane has loved Alex for years and is aghast at the idea of his being forced to marry her, but he manages to overcome her objections and the couple is married without delay.
One of my favourite things about this sort of story is seeing how the relationship develops between two people who had had no thought of being married, watching them adjust to life as part of a couple and learning to compromise and take another’s feelings and wishes into account. Not surprisingly, it’s often the man who has most to learn about compromise and adjustment in these situations, and that’s true here. Ms. Preston writes the early days of Jane and Alex’s marriage very well indeed, showing them developing an awareness of each other and enjoying each other’s company. Alex is surprised at how well his marriage is turning out – Jane is a wonderful companion, an enthusiastic lover and he’s clearly very fond of her. But the rot sets in when he begins to experience nightmares in which Jane’s ordeal at the hands of Pikeford and the death of his mother start to overlap, and later, starts experiencing waking visions, flashes of memory about the past which seem to contradict the story he’s always believed – that he found his mother’s body. Jane wants desperately to help him, but recognises the signs of the return of the ‘old’ Alex, the one who keeps everyone at arm’s length and allows nobody to truly know him – and can only watch as he retreats farther and farther away from her, the relaxed and more open Alex she’s come to know disappearing under the weight of his burdens.
As I said at the outset, Ms. Preston does a marvellous job of conveying Alex’s increasing confusion over what his dreams and flashes of memory might mean, his fears that maybe he’s losing his mind and his desperation to keep it all bottled up for fear of being thought weak. Jane is presented equally well, her fears for Alex, her refusal to give up on him and desperation to help him… all of them portrayed with subtlety and nuance. I was thoroughly engaged by the story and eager to get back to it, although somewhere around the middle of the book the pacing slowed and I felt that we were treading water for a while, waiting for the next phase of the story to start. I also realised around the same time that while Alex’s story is, without doubt, an extremely well-written and interesting one, the romance is very much in the back seat. This is the story of a young man finding out the truth about a traumatic event which has shaped his life – which, to be fair, he probably wouldn’t have done without Jane’s staunch support – rather than one about two childhood friends falling in love. It’s clear that Alex thinks highly of Jane and there’s no doubt he’s sexually attracted to her but there’s not a great deal beyond that sexual attraction for most of the book; there’s no real indication he thinks of her as anything more than a great friend he happens to lust after, and I never really felt him as a romantic hero.
Christmas With His Wallflower Wife isn’t really a Christmas story – it ends at Christmas but the bulk of the action takes place before, so don’t go in expecting lots of Christmas cheer and festive spirit! It is, however, the engrossing tale of a man’s battle against what we might today call PTSD in an era where therapy was unheard of and men were expected to be strong and protective and to never show any sign of weakness. I’m giving the book a hearty recommendation because, even though the romance is perhaps not quite as strong as I’d have liked, the story as a whole held my interest and I was completely invested in discovering how everything would turn out.