The 17th century is a fascinating time and it’s rather sad that more novels aren’t set in the period. In her debut novel, Anne O’Brien carries readers back to Restoration England, but instead of focusing on Charles II’s glittering Court, she shows readers how the political aftermath of the Civil War and Interregnum affected the countryside. Her romance is set against a land of uncertainty, where families and neighbors are still torn apart by the Civil War and even ownership of property, something modern readers take for granted, has been called into question.
Kate Harley’s Puritan family took ownership of Winteringham Priory during the English Civil War. Following the Restoration, Royalist Marcus, Viscount Marlbrooke, reclaimed the Priory and turned out Kate’s relatives. The Harley family, however, is determined to fight for the property in the courts when Marcus offers a solution to the dispute: he will marry Kate so the two feuding families can rest assured that all of their descendants will own the estate. Marcus does not believe in love but he needs a bride and figures Kate will be as suitable as any. But Kate is horrified by the notion of marrying her enemy and wants none of it.
The story takes off from here. Through a variety of circumstances I will not spoil here, Kate ends up under the protection of Marcus’ family. As she gets to know the household, she finds herself growing fond of most of them – and even infatuated with Marcus himself. This infatuation slowly blooms into love in a series of rather touching, fun scenes. Just as Marcus and Kate get to know one another better, so, too, does the reader get to know and like them more as the book moves along.
Many of the devices used in this novel would make readers’ eyes roll in the hands of many authors. However, O’Brien manages to combine over-the-top plot devices and some occasionally purplish prose with understatement and leisurely plotting in a way that lends the entire story a curious sort of grace. There is something a touch old-fashioned about O’Brien’s writing and, given the setting, it adds charm to her tale. This style falters at times, particularly as more attention is given to the suspense subplot near the end, but overall the book is very readable. The story moves a bit more slowly than the fast-paced adventures that seem to be the norm today, but I found it something to savor rather than being tedious.
The author manages to pack a lot of story into 297 pages. In addition to the romance of Kate and Marcus, a fair amount of time is devoted to showing readers the political realities of the time. O’Brien has clearly done her research and does an excellent job of inserting historical detail into the story without overwhelming readers or lecturing to them. She also manages to show Kate and Marcus interacting with their families and spending time actually living life both together and apart. This, together with the fact that the story is spread over several months rather than a mere week or two, makes the book feel like a compact, complete world in itself. It is not easy to create such a complex historical in only 300 pages, but O’Brien manages it. Readers who enjoy romances with actual historical detail in them should definitely give this one a try.