Return of the Runaway
Return of the Runaway is a book which I wanted to enjoy far more than I effectively did. For one thing, last year’s A Lady for Lord Randall by the same author was both unusual and utterly gripping, and I couldn’t wait to read more by her. For another thing, Sarah Mallory has the courage to leave the more well-trodden paths of Regency-set romance, and there are many elements in this novel that I really like. But somehow matters didn’t quite add up, and the result is a romance that was still enjoyable, but not as interesting as it had promised to be.
After the peace treaty of Amiens in 1802, many among the British aristocracy flock to France, from whence they have been barred for so many years. Alas, the peace lasts little more than a year, and those men who still find themselves on French soil when hostilities are resumed are interned in towns like Verdun. Among them are Gerald Witney and his young wife Lady Cassandra. But Gerald is dead now, and Cassandra has a passport that will permit her to return to England. She has hired a villainous courier, however, and is about to robbed and raped in the woods when a stranger arrives and saves her, stealing the courier’s horse.
The stranger is Raoul Doulevant, a surgeon born in Brussels but lately from Paris, who is on the run after incurring the wrath of a corrupt official. Cassie has lost her papers but is still in possession of most of her money, and so she and Raoul form an uneasy alliance, travelling together because it will give both of them a better chance to reach their goals, England and Brussels respectively.
Uneasy at first, because Cassie and Raoul are as different as chalk and cheese: She is the spoiled daughter and sister of a marquess, who ran away with a charming rascal (hence the title of the book) and only began to grow up in the later months of her unhappy marriage. He is proudly bourgeois and a supporter of the ideals of the revolution, and served as a ship’s surgeon in Napoleon’s navy. Neither is prepared to be particularly tolerant of the other at first, but they can’t help realizing how resourceful the other is. At the same time they are attracted to each other, but know that nothing can come of it – Raoul thinks that Cassie’s husband is still alive (she lets him believe so because she feels safer this way), and they have different goals and stations in life.
The set-up of this novel is completely intriguing. Sarah Mallory explains with great care what a surgeon’s life is like, and points out that the social barrier between hero and heroine is huge. I also liked the setting a lot, travelling from village to small town, all the time trying to avoid their pursuers. Raoul is a lovely hero, with a biting tongue that hides a caring heart. Cassie is also likeable, sometimes arrogant but mostly very practical. You can see them dealing together.
But somehow the second half of the novel was a bit of a let-down. There are more coincidences than I thought necessary, and suddenly out of the bushes (literally) jumps a minor character who wholly overshadows both Raoul and Cassie while he is around (the hero of the next book in the series, as you might have guessed).
But what was worst in my eyes was the way in which the author deals with the differences between Cassie and Raoul. The chasm between their political stances, for example, is closed with Cassie remarking that her grandmother’s chef is a great bully in the kitchen. The social gap is mentioned several times, but what it would mean for Lady Cassandra – that she would be expected to adapt to a wholly middle class life among the middle classes – is not really explored. A possible religious dilemma is not even mentioned, but with the background described Raoul should be a Catholic or, as a revolutionary, an atheist. Instead of making the most of these very real dilemmas, in the second half of the novel Sarah Mallory wholly concentrates on a worry Raoul entertains about a possible marriage to Cassie that may resonate with 21st century readers, but which feels totally ahistoric in an early 19th century context. Talk about wasted potential!
That said, I did enjoy the way the growing attraction between Cassie and Raoul is described, and the way Cassie matures in the course of her adventures. So all in all Return of the Runaway is a book that I spent a pleasant enough evening reading, and I plan to read more romances by Sarah Mallory. But if you are new to her, I recommend you give Return of the Runaway a pass and pick up A Lady for Lord Randall instead.