The blurb for Thornbrook Park proudly trumpets: Fans of Downton Abbey will adore this brand-new Edwardian-period romance series. I detest such blatant marketing ploys. And the rest of the blurb is misleading, because I was promised tensions … simmering just beneath the surface which threaten to explode and shake the very foundations of Thornbrook Park.
Explosion? Damp squib, more like
To be perfectly honest, by the time I’d read the first few chapters of the book, I realised that the time and setting of the story were practically irrelevant, because what we have here is a generic historical romance. There are a few things which differentiate it from a Regency or Victorian story; the inclusion of rides in a motor car; the idea of women getting the vote is mentioned, as are shorter hemlines and hairstyles, for example, but otherwise, it’s pretty standard fare.
The heroine, Mrs Eve Kendal, has lived in India for the past six years and has returned to England following the death of her soldier husband, whom she loved deeply. Because he had been of a lower social standing, Eve’s family disowned her, so she cannot return to her family home and has instead been invited to stay with her oldest friend, Sophia, the Countess of Averford, at their Yorkshire estate, Thornbrook Park.
In London, Eve stays overnight at Averford House before continuing on to Yorkshire, and while there runs into the earl’s brother, Captain Marcus Thorne, who is bruised, bloodied, and much the worse for drink. Eve sits with him for a few hours to make sure he’s okay, and leaves in the morning.
Marcus has recently returned from the Boer War and suffers from “black rages” which he can only quell by punching things – so his hobby is prizefighting, which he does with some degree of success. Apart from on the night that Eve is staying overnight, when Marcus lets his guard slip and takes a beating from an opponent twice his size. The next day, he has a vague recollection of a woman by his bedside with “gas-flame blue eyes” – but dismisses his recollection as no more than a drink-induced hallucination.
Seeing as he doesn’t get along with his brother Gabriel at all, Marcus lives mostly in London, but is persuaded to travel to Yorkshire for a short period by an eloquent letter from his sister-in-law. Eve is nervous about meeting Marcus again – not knowing if he will remember her or not – which of course he does, but being a gentleman, doesn’t blurt out anything about her having spent several hours in his room alone with him.
The pair are instantly attracted to each other – which puts a spoke in the wheel of Sophia’s plans to marry Marcus to her sister, Alice – but neither is able to resist the strong pull between them. They embark upon an affair, which must of necessity be brief, because Marcus has agreed to court Alice, in exchange for which Gabriel will provide a home and employment for the widow and children of one of Marcus’ closest army friends.
While Eve is happy to accept her friend’s hospitality, she is keen to make her own way and live independently on the income from the investments made by her husband. Her enquiries, however, prove less than satisfactory – her late husband’s solicitor disappears shortly after her meeting with him, his wife is suspiciously cagey, and then Eve suspects that someone is watching her. When the solicitor’s body is found a few days later, it’s clear that there is something nefarious afoot, and that Eve could well be in mortal danger.
Unfortunately, I found both the suspense plot and the romance in the book to be singularly un-engaging. The mystery wasn’t particularly suspenseful, and I didn’t feel much in the way of romantic tension between the leads. The attraction between them is obvious (even to the servants, who feel it incumbent upon them to point it out at various times!) and, probably because Eve is a widow and thus allowed greater freedoms than an unmarried woman, the two are able to spend time alone together without the need for a chaperone; but there was little chemistry between them and little that led me to believe they were in love rather than in lust.
The writing is competent for the most part, although the characterisation is lacklustre (apart from batty Aunt Agatha who can see dead people), and some of the dialogue is very creaky, especially towards the end when the mystery plot is in the driver’s seat, and it is necessary for one character to give the “story so far” speech to another. Marcus’ PTSD miraculously disappears once he has found Twu Wuv, and there is no real basis for the animosity between Gabriel and Marcus, other than that Gabriel was their father’s favourite because he enjoyed “manly pursuits” as a lad, whereas Marcus was bookish, and the hints of a reconciliation to come fall flat.
Because this is a romance in which there is no real reason for the two protagonists not to be able to be together, (they are a widow and an army officer, not a couple of teenagers incapable of standing up for themselves!) the author has to find rocks to throw into the middle of the path towards Twu Wuv for Marcus and Eve. The roadblocks-for-the-sake-of-it get irritating very quickly, and the too-ing and fro-ing on Eve’s part reminded me of watching a game of ping-pong; so quickly does she change her mind about Marcus and change it back again that I was tempted to introduce my paperback to the wallpaper – but by that point, there were only a few pages to go so I decided to persevere.
On a tangential note, I was surprised at the speed at which the main characters journeyed between London and Yorkshire. I haven’t checked a train timetable, but back in my student days, I used to travel from London to Yorkshire fairly often by train, and the fastest journey I can remember was around three and a quarter hours, (the InterCity service) with the slower, “stopping” service taking up to five hours. Unless the trains in 1906 were faster than they were in the 1980s, I am at a loss to account for the fact that characters could take an early morning train from Thornbrook and arrive in London in time for breakfast, or for Marcus at one point to make three trips (one return and one single) in one day and still have some of the day left.
I finished reading the book with one word in my mind. Dull. There was too much telling rather than showing, too much emphasis on a non-suspenseful mystery and on the reasons Marcus and Eve couldn’t be together, which wasted time which should have been spent on exploring and developing the romantic and fraternal relationships.
Downton Abbey may be a soap opera that features posh people, but it has some memorable characters and a sense of humour, neither of which were on display at Thornbrook Park.