I’ve read a few books by Susanna Ives over the past couple of years and have come to the conclusion that she is at her best when she’s doing something a little different to the norm in historical romance. Her début novel, Rakes and Radishes turned the reformed rake trope on its head, and Wicked My Love was an entertaining enemies-to-lovers story featuring a gregarious hero and an awkward, maths genius heroine. In fact, the least successful of the books of hers I’ve read was one in which she pursued a more conventional storyline (How to Impress a Marquess), so when I read the synopsis for Frail, I was pleased to see that Ms. Ives has opted once again to follow a less well-trod path by centering the story around a romance between a hero with PTSD who likes to garden, and a socialite heroine brought low by her father’s criminal activities.
Theo Mallory, second son of the Earl of Streswick, returned from fighting in the Crimea a very different man to the sociable, charming one who left. He knows he is a disappointment to his father, who is anxious and awkward around him, clearly not knowing what to do or say, and Theo can’t blame him; sometimes he doesn’t know what to do or say either. His return from the war angry, frustrated, unable to sleep, suffering hallucinations and nightmares that he tried to quiet by indulging in drink, drugs, women and violence was difficult for all of them, his family’s belief that they could somehow find a doctor who could ‘cure’ him irritating him as much as it made him feel guilty that their hopes were dashed time after time. Things were going from bad to worse, the earl starting to wonder if an asylum was the safest place for his unpredictable son, when Theo retreated to a property in Snowdonia, North Wales, where he has lived quietly for the past five years, pursuing his love of gardening and regaining his equilibrium and his sense of self. He still suffers bad memories and bad dreams, but he has learned to cope and feels he has at last found his place in life.
Returning to London after five years away is difficult for him, but he is led to do so in order to meet with an officer from Scotland Yard to whom he has given evidence of a fraud being perpetrated on a number of former soldiers with whom Theo had served by a London banker named John Gillingham. At the urging of his father and stepmother, Theo attends a ball with them – and comes face to face with Gillingham’s beautiful, vivacious daughter, Helena, who teases him a little and then, most unconventionally, asks him to dance with her. Already off-balance in the hot, crowded ballroom, Theo’s control slips further during their dance as he finds it impossible to contain his anger at this “vain, ignorant and selfish girl”, whose beautiful gowns have been paid for with money swindled from former soldiers and hard-working people. He accuses her of being cruel and uncaring and stalks away, leaving Helena wondering what on earth she has done to deserve such treatment, and feeling vaguely sorry that such a handsome young man should be so clearly unbalanced.
A day or so later, however, Helena’s life is shattered when her father commits suicide, leaving her alone and with nothing. She comes to understand the truth; that her father had committed a massive fraud and took his own life when threatened with exposure – and that he has escaped the consequences while leaving her to face scandal and public vitriol. Helena has no close relatives; her ‘friends’ no longer want to know her and her only means of supporting herself it to sell everything she can. Months pass, she is running out of things to sell and will shortly have to leave her home, and still she has no inkling of what to do or where to go – when she remembers her cousin Emily in Wales, who happens to be a neighbour of Theo Mallory’s. She writes to Emily more or less begging her to take her in, and is relieved to receive a letter filled with kind words and compassion, inviting her to make her home with Emily and her daughter.
Helena is not well-received by the majority of the local villagers, many of whom either lost money, or know someone who lost money in her father’s scam. Emily, who is liked and respected by all, proves to be her staunch champion, as does Theo, who surprises Helena by showing himself to be relaxed, confident and comfortable in both himself and his surroundings – in short, a completely different man to the one she’d met in London.
Helena, having at first believed that the best thing she could do for the woman who has shown her such kindness and generosity would be to leave the village, gradually finds herself settling into the rhythm of daily life there, and doing what she can to prove herself worthy of Emily’s faith in her. As she spends more time with Theo, she finds herself drawn to his quiet strength and truly, deeply moved by the beautiful gardens and outside spaces he has created, places she is able to find the sort of peace and tranquillity she craves. Theo starts to let Helena know him, telling her something of his wartime experience and of his subsequent illness and the effect it has had on his family. These are two people struggling to come to terms with traumatic experiences who come understand something of the other’s pain and to enjoy each other’s company. A strong mutual attraction develops between them, but as Theo realises he is falling in love, he has to ask himself if Helena – who has no idea of his part in her father’s downfall – could possibly love the man ultimately responsible for it. He is torn between a desire to tell the truth and his desire for Helena, and in his desperation, makes some poor decisions that could ultimately cost him dear.
Theo and Helena are both strongly characterised and Ms. Ives does a splendid job in conveying the perilous nature of Helena’s situation following her father’s death. Her disconnectedness and fears for her future are palpable, as are her disorientation and confusion when she arrives in Wales. I also appreciated that she doesn’t fall into the trap of having Theo suddenly and miraculously cured by the love of the right woman. It’s true that he finds a degree of comfort in Helena’s presence and finds himself going to those dark places in his mind less frequently, but it’s clear that the mental scars he bears are not going to heal easily or completely.
Frail is not a fluffy, easy read; the emotions are messy, complicated and often strung taut as a bow-string, and the author doesn’t sugar coat some of the descriptions of Theo’s hallucinations. But ultimately, it’s one of those books where the execution doesn’t quite live up to the intriguing premise. The first part of the book is stronger than the second, and the pacing in the middle is a little stodgy as things get bogged down in the preparations for an event that it is hoped will smooth Helena’s path to acceptance by the locals – which then seems to happen rather easily. There is a rather needless subplot concerning Emily’s pregnant maid-of-all-work, some of the language in the love scenes is a bit clumsy, and the disclosure of Theo’s involvement in Gillingham’s downfall takes place so late in the book that the entire final section feels rushed and the ending abrupt.
Even with those provisos, I’d say that Frail might suit readers looking for a slightly darker, more emotionally fraught story than is usually found in historical romance. I can’t give it a wholehearted recommendation, but if you’re on the look-out for something a little different to the norm, it’s worth your consideration in spite of its flaws.