Web of Love
What struck me first when looking at the reissue of Mary Balogh’s Web of Love is how much I prefer the new cover to the old. The old cover is Signet at their worst: lots of browns and a couple dancing in a scene which does have its counterpart in the novel, but the facial expressions of both hero and heroine are so utterly wrong that, if you take the cover at face value, you begin the novel with quite the wrong idea about their relationship. The new cover is blue with a delicate pattern of tendrils and blossoms. Beautiful! As for the book itself, I can’t be as enthusiastic
This is the second in a series about three siblings and concentrates on Dominic Raine, Lord Eden, younger brother to the Earl of Amberley, the hero of The Gilded Web. (Albeit only the younger son of an earl, Dominic has a title of his own, which I learned in the earlier book. It didn’t bother me there, and usually I am a stickler about the correct use of titles.) Three years ago, Dominic felt it his duty to join Wellington’s army in Spain – despite his family’s objections. He joined the infantry, found a mentor in Captain Charles (Charlie) Simpson, and has been close friends with the Captain and his wife Ellen since.
Ellen Simpson has led a drama-filled life: When she was fifteen, her mother informed her father that Ellen was not really his child at all, but her lover’s. After her mother ran off with another lover, Ellen went to live with her real father, an old family friend, and accompanied him to Spain to his regiment. Five years later, her father died in battle, and with no one to turn to, she asked his friend Captain Simpson to marry her. In spite of the age difference of fifteen years, the Simpsons’ marriage has been extremely happy and is only marred by Ellen’s fear that Charlie might be killed.
As the novel starts in Brussel in the spring of 1815, Ellen is returning from Britain with Jennifer, Charlie’s now grown-up daughter from his first marriage. Brussels is full of the cream of British society, including Dominic’s family, and soon the Simpsons and Raines are engaged in a busy round of social events. Balogh does a very good job here in depicting the nervous gaiety that reigns in Brussels. Her descriptons of life in Brussels and the Battle of Waterloo are perhaps not quite as emotionally intense as in Georgette Heyer’s An Infamous Army and Balogh’s own Slightly Tempted, but this is one of the very few Waterloo historicals in which the reader clearly understands the accurate sequence of events just from reading the novel.
While dancing a waltz, Dominic and Ellen for the first time become aware of each other as man and woman. Both are confused and quickly suppress this more than unwelcome emotion, which is rendered easy by the advent of the battle. What the seasoned romance reader has expects, happens: Charlie is killed on the third day of the battle and Dominic severely wounded only minutes later. Because he feels duty-bound to tell Ellen of Charlie’s death, he mumbles her address and is taken to her house. Ellen nurses Dominic and two other soldiers. One does and the other leaves, so that Ellen and Dominic are alone together. Because Ellen is emotionally numbed with pain after hearing (once) from Dominic about Charlie’s death and Dominic is still very weak, they refuse to come to terms with what has happened by avoiding to mention Charlie at all. Instead the feelings they suppressed earlier return with great strength. This may be a stumbling point for some readers: Ellen’s husband died only two or three weeks ago, and Dominic lost his best friend. For me, it worked, because Mary Balogh manages to show how deeply traumatized both characters are during that phase in their lives.
Anyway, very soon Ellen snaps back into the reality of her situation and is utterly aghast at what she and Dominic have done. She feels what she regards a betrayal of her beloved husband deeply and sends Dominic packing. The second half of the novel describes how both protagonists come to terms with the situation they find themselves in. Not unexpectedly, they meet immediately after Dominic, recovered enough, returns to London. Ellen must deal with her stepdaughter, the rest of Charlie’s family and the man she considered her father for the first fifteen years of her life, besides her own confused emotions. Dominic must accept her rejection in spite of seeing her almost daily. Not much happens outwardly (although what does is important); instead the novel concentrates on the inner development of both.
Both Ellen and Dominic are portrayed as likable, decent people who have the wrong feelings at the wrong time and try to deal with them as honorably as they can. Still I didn’t really warm to them, which was my main problem with the novel. That the book’s second half was comparatively quiet didn’t bother me; usually I adore quiet, character-driven stories that don’t depend on too much outward action. My guess is that because their situation was so extreme, I couldn’t even begin to empathize with it.
Another problem: Dominic’s family irritated me. The Earl of Amberley and his countess are so very wise and loving, and Lady Madeline is so utterly bright and desperate. I did enjoy reading their own stories in their own novels, but I would have preferred to see far less of them here. There is one subplot I truly enjoyed (I can’t say any more because it is relegated to almost the end of the novel) and that was like a breath of fresh air in what amounted to a great deal of inner healing and soul-searching.
Web of Love was a tough one to grade. It’s among Balogh’s weaker novels and one may wonder why it was chosen for a reissue; on the other hand I am glad about almost every Balogh novel that becomes more easily accessible again. And I can’t really put my finger on what I did not quite like about the book. Perhaps it’s the general subdued mood, or the characters I did not warm to. On the whole my recommendation is as follows: Get it from the library if you like Balogh’s other books, but don’t necessarily buy it.