This 1991 title by Mary Balogh has engendered very mixed reactions over the years, and although I can understand why, I enjoyed it, principally because the author is so skilled at portraying the emotional lives of her characters in a way that makes them feel very real to the reader.
The book opens as Lady Rebecca Cardwell is saying a fond farewell to her husband, Julian, before he departs with his regiment for Malta, and then the Crimea. He is accompanied by his foster brother, David, Viscount Tavistock, whom she dislikes and blames for Julian’s joining the army. Julian is eagerly reassuring his anxious wife that he will be in no danger, and it’s clear that he is keen to be on his way and sees the whole thing as an adventure.
The glimpses we see of Julian’s life in the army very quickly reinforce those initial impressions of his character. We learn some of his and David’s backstory, and see that Julian is one of those happy-go-lucky types who breeze through life with no care for anyone but himself. He’s not evil, per se, just incredibly selfish and immature. But his devil-may-care attitude, and particularly his womanising eventually has disastrous consequences which ultimately result in his death.
David returns home a decorated war hero, haunted by the death of the man he’d loved like a brother, and looking to settle down to a useful life at his country estate. He very quickly realises that Rebecca is in a difficult situation; even though she regards the Earl of Harrington as a father, she is not actually related to him and since his remarriage, feels the awkwardness of being the house’s former mistress in the presence of its new one. David has been in love with Rebecca for years, since long before she married Julian, and even though he knows that she will never love him, he offers her marriage, telling her that he can provide her with a home of her own and a purpose in life. He makes it clear, though, that while he is proposing a marriage of convenience, he wants a wife to share his bed and, hopefully, give him children.
Initially, Rebecca is stunned and turns him down. She doesn’t really like David, believing him guilty of a slew of misdemeanours in his youth and of having fathered a bastard child and refused to marry the mother. Yet she has to admit that since his return, she has seen a much quieter and more thoughtful man, and believes that perhaps he has outgrown his youthful exuberance. She also can’t deny that the prospect of a home of her own and having tasks to fill her days is an attractive one, so she eventually agrees to David’s proposal, assuring him that she will be a good wife to him and that once she is married to him, she will put Julian out of her thoughts.
At first, David thinks he has made a fairly good bargain, although his father is sceptical and warns him that he wants more than Rebecca will be prepared or able to give him. The marriage takes place and the newlyweds travel to their new home where Rebecca is delighted to discover that there is plenty for her to do and looks forward to being useful and taking her place as the foremost lady of the local community.
But their married life gets off to a rocky start. Rebecca’s version of “being a good wife” is letting her husband do as he wishes in bed with no thought for her own wants – and David is bewildered. He knows Julian and Rebecca were very much in love and thinks Rebecca must have experienced passion; but not only does she not respond to him, it’s clear she is having to force herself to endure his lovemaking. David believes that she is deliberately holding herself back from him because she doesn’t love him and because, in spite of her promise not to think of Julian, she is doing just that. Their relationship becomes incredibly strained until, after their third night together, David snaps, says some cruel things and then tells Rebecca he won’t be bothering her again.
Rebecca is equally confused. She has been brought up to believe that sex is for a husband’s pleasure and for procreation, and that she should just lie there and let him get on with it. She is surprised by her attraction to David, but is ashamed of her response to his kisses and lovemaking, feeling things she’s never felt before and desperate to control herself to make sure he isn’t disgusted by her wantonness. But after that night, she finds she misses the bonding that had begun between them in bed and also that she needs the reassurance of David’s presence there, and of his lovemaking, too. The couple settles into a way of life that sees them living and working together as little more than business partners, but Rebecca wants a real marriage and has no idea how to achieve it while David distances himself from her; his jealousy of Julian and the guilt, the secrets and the lies that shadowed their relationship distort his view of the situation and lead him to believe that Rebecca is disgusted by him. It’s a stalemate for quite some time until at last, it seems as though they have finally found a way through … which is when (of course) disaster strikes.
I am not normally a fan of stories in which so many misunderstandings and secrets abound, but I did enjoy Tangled. True, there were times I wanted to beat both protagonists over the head with a big stick and tell them to just be honest with each other; but somehow, Mary Balogh has made their reluctance to confide in each other believable. It’s frustrating to read at times, but is understandable, especially given that Rebecca’s upbringing has conditioned her to propriety and submission and that David is driven to protect the people he cares about. The deeper emotions are brilliantly illuminated, and the author has very skilfully illustrated the importance of sex in the development of the central relationship. Without it, David and Rebecca are almost strangers, and because they are both hiding things from each other, they don’t have any other way in which to achieve closeness on an emotional level.
It’s difficult to say much more about the plot without giving away spoilers for the last third, but there are several places in that final section of the story that deliver a real emotional punch to the gut, as David and Rebecca struggle to adjust to a huge upheaval just as they were beginning to make something real out of their marriage. I especially liked the way in which the author shows that Rebecca is falling in love with David while being completely unaware of it, and how she shows the depths of his quiet, unrequited love for his wife, but as individuals, they are complex, flawed and not always easy to like. Rebecca puts Julian on a pedestal and is unable – or unwilling – to see any of the shortcomings of which the reader – and David – is aware. She elevates him practically to sainthood after his death, and there are times when her continual harping upon his perfection gets very irritating. David, too, is not without his faults; for the most part, he’s one of those honourable, quiet men who are driven to protect, but I did have to ask myself how he could bear to let so many people think badly of him for so long. But with those things said, both characters feel very much like products of their time, and I applaud Ms. Balogh for creating and keeping them that way in spite of the sometimes negative effect on their overall appeal.
While the secret-keeping is frustrating and the central characters could sometimes be a bit irritating, my principal criticism of Tangled is with the ending. Granted, the outcome was a foregone conclusion if David and Rebecca were to get their HEA, but the action that leads up to it is so completely out of character for the person concerned, that I had to read and accept it as a necessary plot device rather than a natural direction of the story.
This is an angsty and emotional book, and I can understand that the secrets, misunderstandings and – for want of a better word, passivity – of the protagonists may mean it is not one that everyone will like. But the depth of the emotion contained within its pages and the skilfully developed, strong connection between the protagonists are sufficiently compelling as to allow me to overlook any weaknesses and commend it as an absorbing and thought-provoking read.