The Girl with the Make-Believe Husband
I can always count on Julia Quinn! Her books are full of likeable characters, amusing tête-à-têtes and she skillfully uses romantic plot devices, making them feel so believable that a character’s illogical behavior easily becomes relatable. In her newest release The Girl with the Make-Believe Husband, heroine Cecilia Harcourt tells one little white lie. Her intentions are good but it snowballs around her changing the course of two lives forever.
Cecilia wrote to her beloved brother Thomas as often as the mail between her home in Derbyshire and his posting in the American colonies would allow. When rebellion broke out in 1776, Cecilia was glad to hear how her brother and his fellow officers were faring against the upstart colonists. As the war continued and Thomas remained far away from England, Cecilia’s letters became a glimpse of home for him that he willingly shared with his closest friend Edward Rokesby. Little by little, Edward became a third party in their correspondence and Cecilia used to write to her brother’s friend almost like she knew the man personally. It was easy to share a part of her soul with someone almost a world away because the chances of ever meeting Edward were slim.
When a letter from Thomas’ commander arrives saying he’s been injured in the line of duty it spurs Cecilia into action. The recent death of their father and a slimy cousin sniffing around the property had already made her uncomfortable staying alone at her estate, but the possibility of her brother being hurt and alone in America is too much to bear. On her own, she travels to New York to find the hospital where Thomas is, hoping she will arrive in time to care for him. Unfortunately, the army can find no record of Thomas being wounded but Cecilia learns that Edward Rokesby has just been admitted with severe injuries of his own. Needing to find a way to be useful, Cecilia tries to get into the hospital to help Edward but the army will not allow a civilian into a military building, especially one with no ties to the officer. Angry at being dismissed a second time Cecilia makes the rash declaration that she is Edward’s wife. With Edward in a coma there is no one to call her bluff and Cecilia finds herself caring for a virtual stranger.
A week after he was found unconscious on the shores of Kip’s Bay, Edward slowly comes out of his coma confused by the conversation he overhears. A man and a woman seem to be talking about him but the man keeps referring to the woman as “Mrs. Rokesby.” That wouldn’t be his mother and none of his brothers is married, so who could this mysterious woman be? Opening his eyes, Edward comes face to face with a person who seems familiar; she looks a little like the miniature of Thomas’ sister Cecilia Harcourt with a few subtle differences. Speaking for the first time Edward, correctly identifies the woman as Cecilia but unfortunately that’s about all that he can remember. Due to his injuries Edward has forgotten everything that has happened to him for two whole months. It’s almost impossible for him to imagine himself married; however his superior officer is treating Cecilia like she’s his wife and he did have some affection for Thomas’ sister because of the notes they’d been exchanging. If their marriage is one of the events he’s forgotten it is imperative for Edward to start piecing his memories back together.
Edward’s recovery is slow, but having Cecilia at his side gives him an incentive to get better. She provides him with a sense of home as well as something precious that he can protect and care for. Their shared concern for Thomas brings them closer and soon Edward is ready to accept that he truly is married to the incredible woman who braved so much on her own to protect her family. For Cecilia, the guilt of lying to Edward gets worse the more she comes to know and love him. The weight of his name and position helps her get closer towards finding the truth about her brother’s disappearance but it also puts her heart at risk. She knows Edward will be furious to learn their marriage is a pretense; however the more their relationship becomes real for the two of them the harder it is for Cecilia to reveal everything to the honorable man she wishes were her husband in truth.
The Girl with the Make-Believe Husband is chock full of the tropes I adore. Some may cringe at amnesia being a catalyst to the main characters coming together, but it’s a useful device which enables the author to strip both principals down to the basics. Without his memory, Edward has to trust Cecilia and let himself be vulnerable. He feels safe revealing his fears for his friend’s wellbeing and discovers that while he may never have seriously thought about marriage it’s something he enjoys because Cecilia is right for him. Cecilia is conflicted about using Edward’s amnesia to her advantage, but she, too, finds that being “married” to him is unexpectedly wonderful. On paper Edward is just the charming rogue whom she could picture as anyone. The real Edward surpasses her imaginings not only in looks but through his cleverness and the way he makes her feel safe. As ironic as it sounds, without his amnesia there might never have been a way for them to truly get to know each other.
What keeps the book from DIK status is the way in which many of the problems within the story are resolved. Thomas is an important background character and yet he always feels like a MacGuffin, created just to put Edward and Cecilia in contact. The search for him is a driving force to keep them together, but when they learn the truth all I was left with was an empty feeling that I wasted time caring for him. The mission that led to Edward’s amnesia was also a bit of a letdown considering everything it cost him while he was missing. The behavior of Edward’s commanding officer toward him and Cecilia is always conveniently vague in order to best serve the plot. One moment he’s a man desperate for answers that only Edward’s lost memory can provide, then towards the end of the story he’s a fount of knowledge. Once again it felt as if I’d invested time with Edward and Cecilia to learn of some horrible event that had changed Edward’s life- only to find it was a nonstarter.
Fortunately most of us aren’t reading Julia Quinn for an intricate, suspenseful storyline. We come for the romance and she delivers it in spades. Once you get past the idea that Cecilia is lying to Edward for most of their courtship, all of the other conversations and emotions they share feel genuine. It’s wonderful how Edward listens to Cecilia and takes her concerns to heart while she is patient and kind to him as he struggles against his feelings of weakness both in body and mind. Both characters are good people who already had a tight bond through their letters. Meeting in person just gives them the opportunity to see that closeness translate from the written word into real life.
I enjoyed The Girl with the Make-Believe Husband very much. It subtly matches up with the previous Rokesby & Bridgerton book but can stand by itself for any reader who perhaps skipped the introduction to this earlier generation of Julia Quinn’s most recognizable family. Hints at who will be finding love next have me counting down the months until this great series continues.