Redeeming the Reclusive Earl
Redeeming the Reclusive Earl is an enjoyable read from an author who knows her audience (me!), and delivers what I like to call ‘comfort food,’ novels. Virginia Heath is reliably good, and sometimes exceptional (see: The Wild Warriners, and His Mistletoe Wager). In this book, I liked the principal characters, and how Ms. Heath develops their feelings for each other within the context of the overarching story – which is low angst, but compelling and timely (the lack of female agency is a big theme). It doesn’t break any new ground in historical romance, but is nevertheless a quiet and tender love story with much to recommend.
Maximillian Aldersley, Earl of Rivenhall, is a recluse. He once happily spent his days in the Royal Navy, captaining his own ship (after he ran away from home as a teenager), until his naval career came to an abrupt and horrific end after his ship was attacked at sea by privateers and caught fire. Despite Max’s heroic last minute attempt to save his crew and ship, it sank – but fortunately all aboard were able to get away. Max barely escaped; with flames licking his body, he dove overboard and nearly drowned. Following a painful, laudanum-laced convalescence under his sister’s patient ministration, he recovered. But when the burn scars proved too much for his fickle fiancée, Max released her from their engagement. That set-back was followed by a disastrous outing with his sister… and when Redeeming the Reclusive Earl begins, Max is the newly minted Earl of Rivenhall, convinced his outward appearance is repellent, emotionally and physically scarred, and determined to live the remainder of his life hidden away on his estate. He’s lonely, but unwilling and unable to ask for help. Out for a ride one afternoon, he spots a strangely dressed man digging holes on his land. He approaches to order the man to leave.
Oh romance reader, you know what he’s about to discover don’t you? He is a she, and she – Miss Euphemia Nithercott (Effie), daughter of Doctor Henry Nithercott of Hill House (the neighboring estate) – has no intention of going anywhere. Since the death of her father, a close friend of the previous earl, Effie spends her days digging at Rivenhall Abbey, unearthing artefacts from earlier civilizations. Blessed with a doting Papa, a don at Cambridge for thirty-five years, Effie was encouraged to pursue her love of history and learning from an early age. Brilliant and odd (her word), Effie’s photographic memory has both helped and hindered her. Although she can easily recall information, her relentlessly active mind rarely gives her peace. Lonely and eager for friends and companionship, her strong desire for both sometimes overwhelms new acquaintances; if it doesn’t, her keen intelligence usually does. She lives alone at Hill House, filling her days and hours excavating at Rivenhall Abbey (with the former earl’s permission). She isn’t about to let the sullen and rude new earl force her to quit.
Max can’t stop thinking about the strange woman in the distracting body-hugging breaches digging on his property, and he knows she hasn’t stopped – new holes keep appearing! Effie, after trying and failing to convince Max to allow her to continue her work, digs alone in the dark with lanterns. Reader, Max can’t resist a late-night visit, and Effie can’t resist trying to convince him her work is necessary. This awkward, non-war goes on a tad too long, until a fortuitous visit from Max’s sister Eleanor finally breaks the stalemate and forces a change.
The novel purports itself as an enemies-to-lovers story, but friends, it’s clear Ms. Heath’s heart isn’t really in it. Max, even at his supercilious best, is more bark than bite, and Effie, despite her inability to stop talking or teaching Max about his land and how to fix what ails him, thinks he’s a babe and never has any intention of staying away. And they both, not so secretly, lust after each other when they think no one is watching. (Eleanor’s watching!). I was happy to see them flirt/fight with each other, and then, once Max starts helping Effie with her digging, it’s a pleasure to witness them ‘dig’ out their truest selves and become the best of friends, who also secretly lust after one another. He’s a gentleman with a heart of gold; she’s a lady who yearns to love and be loved. They’re both lonely and slightly damaged, and once Heath puts them regularly in each other’s path, she doesn’t present many obstacles to their well-deserved happily ever after.
But there are a few, and these obstacles feel authentic and organic to the story and these characters, and provide just enough depth to support the story and romance.
Max is recovered physically from his injuries, but his scars are more than skin deep. He lost his fiancée and a career he loved; he also can’t bear to look at himself. He’s resigned to life as a recluse, and resents anyone who challenges that view. Effie isn’t afraid to tell Max she thinks he’s wrong and why, or to stand up for herself when he uses hurtful words to keep her away. Effie doesn’t pity Max; she understands he was dealt a bad hand, but helps him recognize and understand he has a choice – to give up, or try again – and her love and affection provide him with the impetus to go on.
Meanwhile, Effie is fighting her own demons – professionally and personally. Despite her brilliant and clever mind, and her amazing discoveries at Rivenhall Abbey, her work is rejected because she’s a woman. Effie dreams of one day publishing her findings in the journal Archaelogia, relentlessly submitting her work and hoping for change, but nothing ever comes of it. She’s resigned to a life without a husband or children and tries to make peace with it, but she secretly longs for a family of her own. Heath’s characterization of this slightly odd, but mostly lovely woman is remarkably well-done. She doesn’t beat readers over the head with Effie’s lack of agency and its inherent frustrations, or belabor how ‘unique’ and ‘quirky’ she is. Instead she paints a picture of a woman well aware of her own shortcomings and the obstacles to the future she envisions for herself, but perseveres anyway. I found much to like and admire in her, and Ms. Heath’s subtle – but powerful – characterization of this intelligent woman is particularly well done.
One of nicest surprises in the book was Heath’s deft handling of a potentially polarizing character: Eleanor, Max’s well-meaning, but definitely meddling sister. She’s wise and patient and kind, and instead of positioning her as an all-knowing fairy godmother-esque character, she’s the perfect balance of tart, frustrated, generous and good, who isn’t infallible. She’s determined to help her brother find happiness and a friend to Effie. On the flip side, I hated the way Max purposefully mangled Effie’s last name, and the joke quickly grew tedious. I wish the author had just given her her a different one!
Redeeming the Reclusive Earl is another solid love story from the talented Virginia Heath. Enjoyable, romantic, and smart, it will please new and existing fans alike.