I didn’t have to look far to find a book to read for the “opposites attract” prompt this month. I’ve been meaning to read this one for a while, and as the two protagonists in Fearne Hill’s To Take a Quiet Breath (book three in her Rossingley series) are as opposite as opposite can be – in terms of physicality, personality, and life experience – it was a shoe-in. It’s a tender, slow-burn romance that’s full of caring and compassion and acceptance, with some lovely flashes of quirky humour; gentle fluff isn’t always my cup of tea, but this one really worked for me.
Marcel Giresse is an unassuming mathematical genius whose talents saw him make a meteoric rise through some high-powered jobs in the financial markets before he decided to leave that behind and become a civil servant. Now thirty-six, he’s the Director of Finance at the French Ministry of Justice, a job which suits him well because he can work mostly from his home on the beautiful Île de Ré, (off the coast of La Rochelle in Western France), and make the only occasional trip to Paris. He has brittle asthma – which can be life-threatening – and which means he can find even the most mundane tasks challenging, and he’s resigned himself to a life of celibacy – not so much becausehe finds sex exhausting, but because the men in the few relationships he’s had eventually left because (so they said) his health issues made them feel like caregivers rather than partners or lovers.
Guillaume Gilbaud is approaching forty and has spent the last fifteen of those years in prison for murder. (He’s guilty of it, but there were… reasons.) As his release date approaches, he’s told he’s to meet with a government official, Marcel Giresse – and is surprised to see a relatively young man waiting for him, a decidedly attractive man with pale skin, delicate features and glossy dark hair. Intrigued in spite of himself, Guillaume determines to remain aloof, but quickly finds himself deep in conversation with his visitor and enjoying their polite verbal sparring. When Giresse leaves, Guillaume doesn’t expect to see him again – which is why he’s surprised when he turns up again for another chat. They meet once more before Guillaume is released; there is a definite spark of interest and connection between them despite their being so very different, and their parting is bittersweet, both going their separate ways knowing there is no likelihood they will cross each other’s paths again.
Well, of course they will! (It’s a romance – duh!) With Marcel being best friends with the eccentric Lucien, sixteenth Earl of Rossingley, and Guillaume’s best friend Reuben being one of the groundstaff at the Rossingley estate and the boyfriend of Lucien’s cousin, Freddie, the reader is way ahead of Guillaume and Marcel and just waiting for their inevitable reunion. Guillaume spends a few weeks at Rossingley with Reuben after his release, and Lucien, sensing his friend is a bit out of sorts, persuades Marcel to visit shortly afterwards. The mutual attraction and tentative connection Marcel and Guillaume had formed previously start to blossom, and Guillaume realises he wants to see if maybe there’s the possibilty of something real developing between them. He decides to return to the Île de Ré to take up the job he was offered, and Marcel suggests he live in the annexe on his property; his sister has been nagging him to get a lodger for ages – to have someone around who can keep an eye on him – so Guillaume living there will kill two birds with one stone. Guillaume says he doesn’t think he’s the sort of person Marcel’s sister had in mind, but Marcel’s persuasive words (and persuasive kisses) convince him to take up the offer.
The romance between these two complete opposites is sweet and tender and funny and lovely. Marcel and Guillaume are thoroughly likeable, multi-layered characters who fit together perfectly, and although there are some darker elements to the story – Guillaume’s adjusting to life outside prison, Marcel’s health – they are well-balanced with the lighter ones. The author’s background as a health professional means that the latter is presented in a respectful, matter-of-fact way that doesn’t downplay how serious the condition is while at the same time she paints Marcel as someone able to laugh about his foibles and who, while he might be resigned to his limitations, is not about to let himself be defeated by them.
It’s very clear that these two men are exactly what the other needs. I loved the way Guillaume is determined to learn as much as he can about Marcel’s condition so that he can be the best partner – as lover and caregiver – he can be, how happy he is to be there for him and how he helps Marcel to find joy and passion in ways that are both sensual and romantic. (His creation of the Asthma-Sutra, with stick-men drawings of sexual positions they might try is both funny and touching.) And in return, Marcel gives Guillaume the kind of love, stability and trust his life has been lacking.
The conflict in the story is external, provided by Marcel’s well-meaning but overbearing sister, Sabine, whose concern comes from a good place but who hasn’t yet learned to butt out of her brother’s life, and Simon, one of the men she’s tried to set him up with, who has never got the message that Marcel isn’t interested in him and who now comes and goes as he pleases. Marcel knows that’s partly due to his own reluctance to cause hurt and ask for his key back (given to him by Sabine after Marcel was hospitalised some months back), and wishes he could be more forthright, but on the other hand, he knows he needs to be checked in on – especially when he gets caught up in his work, because he becomes hyper-focused and forgets to eat or take his medication – and feels guilty for wanting Simon to leave him alone. The third-act crisis is easy to see coming, but I didn’t mind that – both Marcel and Guillaume react in ways that are consistent with the characters we know them to be and I rather liked the way it’s resolved.
The one false note in the book is the sexual relationship Guillaume has (while in prison) with Antoine, one of the guards. It’s totally consensual, but Antoine is married (to a woman) with kids, and it’s sometimes used for comedic effect which didn’t sit right. And while I understand that the idea of Marcel talking to prison inmates is a way to effect the meet-cute, his ‘initiative’ just disappears – not that I expected a whole plotline about prison reform – never to be mentioned again.
All in all though, To Take a Quiet Breath is one of those books you close with a smile and a sigh. It’s a charming, quirky and heartfelt romance about two misfits who find their perfect match in each other, and I really enjoyed it.
Publication Date: 11/2021
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