Desert Isle Keeper
Fair as a Star
Have you ever finished a romance novel and needed a few moments of quiet reflection before you can rejoin ‘the real world’ again? Time to sit and savor the pleasures of a well written story? If you haven’t – or, if you’re eager to do it again – I recommend you read Fair as a Star. Gentle, tender, poignant and deeply romantic, it’s the best romance I’ve read this year.
After a year’s sojourn in Paris with her Aunt Hortensia, Beryl Burnham is returning to her home in the small village of Shepton Worthy, near Somerset. The year away was meant to help her recover from the periods of melancholy that have plagued her since childhood, but Beryl knows the sadness – the unhappiness – is never far away. She’s anxious about her return and ruminating on whether she’ll ever truly be well again, when she spots the local chapel in the distance. When she spies the doors to the chapel thrown open, she impulsively orders the carriage to stop. Ignoring her aunt’s admonishments to remain inside, she jumps out and tells her she’ll walk the remaining distance. Surely, if the doors to the chapel doors are open, Mark Rivenhall, the village curate, must be nearby?
Mid-conversation with a parishioner, Mark stills when the woman calls out a greeting to the person behind him. It can’t be Beryl – his older brother would have told him if she was returning earlier than expected. But it is. Momentarily thrown by her sudden appearance, he can’t control his smile as she happily greets him and admits the chapel was her first stop. Beryl never revealed what led her to leave Shepton Worthy so quickly, and Mark ignored the rumors – that she was pregnant and/or was nursing a broken heart after his brother Jack was killed in Bhutan (he knew for a fact it wasn’t possible or true) – but he worried about her. He also hoped he might finally stop loving her while she was away. He didn’t.
When Mark first sees her, Beryl thinks for a moment that he’s angry, until he smiles and offers to walk with her to the Grange. She thanks him for his letters during her year abroad, and apologizes for not telling him she was arriving home sooner than expected. They enjoy a companionable walk until they reach a fork in the road; Mark proceeds on to Rivenhall and a visit with Sir Henry Rivenhall, his brother. Beryl walks home to her family at the Grange, and contemplates her own delayed visit to Rivenhall and Sir Henry… her fiancé.
Beryl tries to reacclimate herself to life in Shepton Worthy. Although the local doctor recommended more aggressive treatment and suggested she ‘acted sad’ to gain attention, her mother and aunt disagreed. The trip to Paris was meant to give her time to recover – and she did – but Beryl worries what might happen if she succumbs again. Her horse-mad younger sister Winnifred is a happy and welcome distraction, as is her friendship with Mark, and her volunteer work at the church. She tries to ignore the gossip and rumors about her abrupt departure, and is hopeful neither her mother or Dr. Cooper shared the true reason for her absence. But when her mother reveals that she spoke to the vicar about Beryl’s condition, she mistakenly assumes Mark must also know. The news sends her in a tailspin. She’s weeping, hidden away off the beaten path, when Mark discovers her.
When he follows the sound of someone weeping during his walk home from the chapel, Mark is horrified to discover Beryl in tears. After she reveals the cause of her upset, he assures her he didn’t know anything about her reasons for leaving the village, and then asks her why she’s so unhappy. When she reveals that she’s been unhappy for a long time and that she doesn’t know why, his heart breaks for her. He gives her solace and a shoulder to lean on. Mark doesn’t try to fix her or tell her she’ll get over it, but offers to help whenever, and however, he can.
“This burden of yours – this sadness – I want you to leave it with me for a day or two.”
Her chest constricted. She was grateful for his kindness. It was well meant, however wrong-headed. “It’s not something I can hand off at will. And even if I could…” Her eyes met his. “You can’t fix this, Mark. You can’t fix me.”
He gave her a brief, lopsided smile. “Of course not,” he said. “You’re not broken.”
Le sigh. Mark is so lovely and wonderful, and he’s deeply, irrevocably in love with Beryl. He tries valiantly to repress his love because he knows it’s wrong… but he can’t. Instead, he’s a stalwart friend who looks for ways to support and help her, and tries to provide the light Beryl needs to see her through her darkest moments. Reader, I want to marry Mark. Unfortunately for me, he finds his perfect match in Beryl. Beautiful, generous and good, Beryl hides her sadness behind a happy facade. With Mark’s support, she begins to believe her sadness doesn’t define her, and that it isn’t something that needs to be cured, or fixed. He encourages her to seek out things that lift her spirits, and to ignore outdated advice that suggests she’s selfish or damaged. With his encouragement, she embraces the people and things that make her happy, and stops pretending her sadness isn’t sometimes overwhelming. Friends, Mark makes her happy. His affection and tender regard remind Beryl why she loves Mark, but as they grow closer over the course of this novel, Beryl slowly realizes she’s fallen in love with him, too.
I want to tell you more about this charming pair, but though the central relationship is rich and satisfying, there’s so much more to Fair as a Star. Matthews does a superb job rendering Shepton Worthy – an idealized imagining of rural country life – and the interesting secondary characters who inhabit it, and I especially loved her characterization of horse-mad and headstrong Winnifred, who falls passionately in love with a horse (while the new local doctor not-so-secretly pines for her), and of Henry. While most writers would be quick to paint him as the villain of the story, Matthews takes a much more nuanced approach. Henry is a product of the events and experiences that shaped him, but he also loves his brother and wants the best for him. By the end of the novel, I liked him, too.
Fair as a Star is a deeply romantic, low steam love story that captured my heart. Profoundly moving, tender and lovely, it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year.