I’m fairly new to Lucinda Brant’s books though I’ve quickly discovered what I like best about her writing – exquisite period detail, slow burn romances, and principals who are both engaging and appealing. Proud Mary, the fifth book in the Roxton Family Saga is romantic, charming, low on angst and slowly and steadily draws you in. Broken into three significant parts, I enjoyed everything about it until I reached the final chapters where Ms. Brant loses sight of the romance – and Mary – and instead digresses into a veritable Roxton family reunion highlight reel. Because I’m reviewing only Proud Mary (which the author markets as a standalone) and not the series, I’ve lowered my overall grade for this reason. The story should be about Mary! And when Ms. Brant redirects and refocuses the narrative on the Roxton family, my interest and attention shifted as well. While the novel can be read as a standalone, I don’t recommend it, since the entire Roxton clan features strongly in the concluding chapters.
For a couple of days each fortnight, Mr. Christopher Bryce acts as steward for Abbeywell Farm, the home of Lady Mary Cavendish, whose husband, Sir Gerald, died two years earlier, leaving his wife and daughter nearly destitute. Mr. Bryce is elegant, handsome, single, and wealthy; he’s also a major local landowner, merchant and gentleman farmer. Sophisticated, intelligent and private, there’s no lack of local (feminine) interest in him, but he’s never reciprocated that interest and remains a bit of an enigma.
Sir Gerald left Mr. Bryce in charge of the estate and made him co-guardian (with the Duke of Roxton) to his young daughter, Theodora – Teddy to everyone but Lady Mary’s uptight mother. He’s been in love with Mary for years, but has carefully and consistently hidden his feelings, although now she is a widow, he begins to hope perhaps there could be something more than friendship between them.
Mary was never happy in her marriage to Sir Gerald and his death has brought her a sense of both relief and freedom. Beautiful, kind, and intelligent, Lady Mary both resents and admires the steward and his role in her life. Though she finds herself drawn to the handsome Mr. Bryce, she also knows that when she remarries, her spouse will have to be someone from the nobility and that falling in love with a mere squire is inadvisable.
Mr. Bryce is surprised when Mary pays a rare visit to his office to tell him that she believes her late husband’s rooms to be haunted. While he expresses doubts about whether a ghost actually exists, he offers to investigate that same evening, and Mary invites him to join her and Teddy for dinner beforehand. She’s prickly, he’s charming but firm, and the conversation sparkles with chemistry and tension. Mr. Bryce is very correct with Mary, and Mary is very correct with Mr. Bryce, but via a few judiciously used PoV asides, we get to know that while Mary isn’t quite sure what she thinks about him, her thoughts are decidedly less chaste than perhaps they should be.
The ghost – and Christopher’s late night investigation -provide both the means and opportunity for him to start to change the relationship between himself and Mary, and he seizes it. By the end of the evening, they’ve shared a passionate kiss and Christopher has confessed he’s always had feelings for her. When they’re interrupted by the ‘ghost,’ he’s frustrated but determined to convince her to give him a chance. This first – and best – part of Proud Mary beautifully chronicles the mutual frustrated longing Christopher and Mary feel for each other.
The arrival of Mary’s not-so-mysterious ghost sets in motion the second part of the novel, in which Christopher pursues Mary and attempts to prove to her they’re meant for each other. Christopher knows that Mary’s feminine hopes, desires and dreams were subsumed by those of her cold and hurtful mother, and then her horrible husband, but he’s determined to reawaken them and show her how happy they could be together.
Reluctant to pressure Mary but also unwilling to lose her, Christopher hides himself away at his cottage in the forest, and waits for her to come to him. After several days pass with no sign of the Squire, Mary, anxious to see him and unable to stop thinking about their passionate kiss, discovers his location and, after a long walk, discovers a solitary Christopher fishing – and waiting for her. Sigh.
Mary, scared but secretly pleased to find herself alone with him, follows Christopher’s lead and proceeds as if there’s nothing unusual about their hiding away alone together. The attraction between them simmers, and Ms. Brant ratchets up the tension and longing until Mary finally initiates another passionate kiss. Knowing Mary’s sexual experience is much more limited than his own, Christopher wills himself to go slowly and wait for Mary to tell him what she needs. His patience is rewarded when she finally gives into her desires and asks Christopher to make love to her. A blissful week of lovemaking, confessions and quiet companionship follow, and the couple fall deeply and passionately in love. It’s a delicious bit of storytelling, but ends much too soon.
Just as it seems Christopher has convinced Mary they belong together, they receive disturbing news regarding Teddy, who has been staying with Mary’s starchy, snobbish mother. When they return from the cottage, they discover Mary’s cousin Antonia, the Duchess of Kinross, and her husband waiting for them. Their developing relationship is put on the back-burner as they travel to the Duke of Roxton’s estate to recover Teddy and reunite with Mary’s extended family. The resolution of Teddy’s storyline, and a long delayed visit with Mary’s Roxton relatives, make up the balance of the third and final section of Proud Mary and unfortunately, it’s not nearly as successful as the rest of the novel. I wanted more of the newer, happier Mary, but instead Ms. Brant refocuses the narrative on the various members of the large Roxton family. Perhaps if I’d read those stories, I might have liked their overwhelming presence in these final chapters, but I haven’t and I didn’t like the diversion.
Although I most enjoyed most of this novel, especially the evolution of Christopher and Mary’s relationship, and I liked both of them very much, their happily ever after is diminished by the intrusion of the life and times of the greater Roxton family, and more specifically, cousin Antonia. Mary’s decision – whether to accept or reject Christopher’s marriage proposal – reads like a footnote. Unfortunately, Ms. Brant’s fondness for her earlier creations, especially Antonia, blinds her to their faults and borders on overkill, especially since they essentially abandoned Mary to Sir Gerald’s machinations when she most needed them. Even the Duke of Roxton’s passionate defense of Mary in the face of her mother’s ugly criticisms is too little, too late. Where was he when Mary was forced to wed the despised Gerald? Ms. Brant’s unwillingness to find any fault with the Roxtons alienated me, as a reader new to the series, and leads me to this last observation: the author seems entirely unable to write nuanced characters. Characters are unbelievably good or downright horrible and there’s no middle ground. Once Ms. Brant decides to like or dislike a character, there’s no limit to the good or bad qualities she can attribute to them.
Proud Mary is a loveable heroine and her story is a charming addition to the Roxton Family Saga. I just wish the novel had retained its focus on her and her love story. But fans of novels containing lovingly researched period detail, lush storytelling and slow burn romance will love Christopher and Mary, and root for them on their road to happily ever after.