Desert Isle Keeper
This is the fourth installment in Mary Balogh’s Survivor’s Club series, and while I have enjoyed each of the other books, Only Enchanting is the best to date. It’s a beautifully wrought and gently moving story of two emotionally wounded people trying to navigate their way through the issues that have shaped them in order to forge a lasting and loving relationship and I adored every minute of it.
Flavian Arnott, Viscount Ponsonby, returned from the Peninsula unable to speak or understand much of what was said to him as the result of a severe head injury. His terrible frustration at both his inability to express himself and at the large gaps in his memory manifested itself in frequent bouts of savage violence and his family were planning on having him confined to an institution. Fortunately for him, George, Duke of Stanbrook, heard of his situation and arrived to bear him off to his Cornish estate, Penderris, where Flavian lived for three years while he recovered, thanks to the patience and understanding of his host and the other members of the “club”.
Mrs. Agnes Keeping is a widow of twenty-six who married an older man when she was just eighteen. She was not unhappy in her marriage (although she would have liked children); her husband was a decent, kind man and she cared for him. She never wanted to fall in love, believing love and especially passion to be destructive forces, and far preferring the safety of unromantic companionship.
Agnes and her sister Dora, who is the local music teacher, live close to Middlebury Park, which is the home of Viscount Darleigh (hero of The Arrangement), and his new wife Sophia. Agnes and Sophia have become good friends, and the new bride invites the sisters to attend the ball they – the Darleighs – are giving in order to celebrate their recent marriage, which will also be attended by some of Vincent’s fellow Survivor’s Club members.
After two dances with Flavian, Agnes is stunned and annoyed to discover herself in the grip of an unexpected and unwanted emotion – love. But the charming viscount is leaving the next day, and she is confident that as she is unlikely to ever see him again, those feelings will soon fade.
A few months later, Flavian is returning to Middlebury which has temporarily replaced Penderris as the venue for the Survivors’ annual gathering due to the fact that Vincent is reluctant to leave his very pregnant wife. Approaching the house, Flavian passes a young woman he recognises – but can’t for the life of him remember her name. The one thing he can recall is that, for some reason, he’d called her enchanting.
Agnes and Flavian spend some time together during his visit, exchanging stories and kisses, and when Flavian suddenly proposes marriage, it’s as much a surprise to him as it is to her! She tells herself she would be a fool to accept, that her feelings for Flavian pose a real danger to a peace of mind – yet Agnes just can’t bring herself to turn him down. For his part, Flavian tries to convince himself that what he really wants is someone to take to bed on a regular basis, although it’s clear to the reader that he’s been smitten with Agnes from the very start.
After the wedding, the couple travels to Arnott House in London where an unpleasant surprise is awaiting them. Flavian’s mother, sister, and brother-in-law have all descended on the house in expectation of his arrival, but their precipitate departure from the country means they have not received the letter advising them of his marriage. To turn things from bad to worse, also present is Velma, Lady Hazeltine, the beautiful young woman to whom Flavian had been betrothed before going to war, and who had jilted him for his best friend when it seemed as though he was never going to recover.
Flavian is well aware that his mother had hoped they would finally marry, which leads to some unpleasant realisations for Agnes. At first, her inclination is to flee back home to safety and her old life, but then it’s as though a switch flips and she realises she has something worth fighting for. And fight she does, making it clear to Flavian’s mother and to Velma that she’s here to stay. Together, she and Flavian talk to each other and work through their problems – quite a refreshing change in a romantic novel! – and with her support, he is able to regain some of the missing pieces of his memory.
I admit that at the start of the book, I wasn’t sure I was going to warm to the rather dour, overly practical Agnes. But I needn’t have worried, because the author has created a multi-layered, very human character, who quickly begins to emerge from her shell and shows herself to be a passionate, clever and determined woman with a backbone of steel.
Flavian is a man whose wounds are not visible, but which nonetheless go very deep; and not all of them are attributable to his wartime experiences. He’s beautiful to look at, witty and kind, but his laconic, affable exterior masks a man who is still prone to anger and frustration, for all that he has learned to control them more effectively. He speaks with a slight stammer, which worsens when he is upset or angry, and is still haunted by his older brother’s death, the fact that he wasn’t with him when he died, and because he can’t remember why.
One of the things that works really well in the book is the way the author explores what happens after the marriage (and not just in terms of the sex, which is not explicitly written, but pretty hot nonetheless). While Flavian and Agnes do share a deep connection, they don’t know each other all that well, and there are moments when each of them displays emotions towards the other which might not be particularly appealing, but which feel very real given their situation. There’s a moment, for example, when Flavian resents Agnes for the feelings she’s stirring up in him – “nothing like this ever happened at Penderris”, and one later in the book when Agnes believes he married her simply to thwart his mother’s matchmaking scheme and she hurls at him: “There was nobody worth knowing inside that beautiful body after all, was there?” In both cases, they are able to see past those feelings of resentment and anger and to move on in a way that “real people” have to do, which adds notes of depth and maturity to the story.
Another strength of the novel is the way Ms. Balogh writes the relationships between the survivors. The unconditional love and mutual understanding they feel for one another is palpable; here are people who know when someone needs pushing and when to leave them alone, and the way they support each other is lovely to see.
Only Enchanting is beautifully written, the characters are fully-rounded and the romance is emotionally satisfying. Flavian and Agnes are engaging characters who make a well-matched couple and their HEA feels all the more deserved because of the difficulty of the journey they have undergone in order to achieve it. I really can’t recommend it highly enough.