Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Review: The Proposal by Mary Balogh

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The Survivor's Club has a membership of 7: 6 men and 1 woman -- all of whom have seen the devastations of war and survived it. Every year, they gather at the estate of the Duke of Stanbrook, Penderris Hall in Cornwall, to recover themselves and live among friends and kindred souls, however briefly.

Hugo, Lord Trentham, missed last year's gathering because of his father's death. After a year of mourning, and two years of hiding away in his humble little cottage, he is getting ready to step into the world and find a wife.

A silly joke among friends about how he would find a wife prompts Hugo to visit the beach, one of his favorite haunts on the estate and, wonder of wonders, he happens to find a woman there.

Gwendolyn, Lady Muir, has spent seven years mourning her husband and her lost child. An invitation from Vera, an acquaintance from her debutante days, brings Gwen to Cornwall and an argument with Vera brings Gwen to the beach to think things through. The rocky terrain causes her to fall and her weak leg makes it very difficult for her to get up -- Gwen had almost given up hope of being found, until a voice from the fog breaks through despair.

Her knight in shining armor is anything but: Hugo is gruff and plain-spoken and clearly not impressed with her title or good manners. Hugo is unlike any gentleman Gwen has ever met and her training as a lady seems to worsen the terrible impression Gwen has made on Hugo. Hugo's candor also rubs Gwen the wrong way.

When Gwen is ordered to remain at Penderris Hall for a week while her foot heals, they both know that their first clash on the beach won't be their last and they are bracing for future confrontations with both trepidation and excitement.

What is said about first impressions is true, but what is said about second chances is also true -- and the joke about the woman on the beach doesn't seem so ridiculous after all.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.

- John Donne

Hugo and Gwen are different in so many ways but are alike in one: they both lived very autonomous, very independent lives. After returning home from war, Hugo was given a title for the heroic service he rendered during the war. Doors opened to him and invitations and opportunities came. Everyone wanted to meet the hero of Badajoz -- but Hugo was content in shutting the door behind him and refusing the invitations. He was content to live the life of a simple man, with simple needs.

After her husband's death, Gwen took full advantage of her widowhood and became fully self-reliant and self-supporting. She enjoys her family's presence and love but has kept herself apart from everyone. While physically present, she seemed to maintain an emotional detachment from society.

But life and living cannot be denied and Hugo is about to embark on a quest to find a wife and fulfill his father's dream for him. And, for some reason unknown to Gwen, she accepted the invitation of Vera to stay for a month at her home in Cornwall.

"You approach the first reasonably personable woman you see, tell her that you are a lord and indecently wealthy to boot, and ask her if she would fancy marrying you. Then you stand back and watch her trip all over her tongue in her eagerness to say yes."

The others laughed.

"It is that easy, is it?" Hugo said. "What a huge relief. I shall go down onto the beach tomorrow, then, weather permitting, and wait for reasonably personable women to hove by. My problem will be solved even before I leave Penderris."
- Ralph to Hugo, Prologue pp. 12-13

Our hero and heroine both have firm sets of beliefs and this is the main conflict in the story. Hugo is a simple man and he hates the title he was given. He hates the Ton and the silly, shallow people who belong to it. It is unfortunate that Gwen (who is a lady, and who resolutely belongs in the Ton both by birth and then by marriage) seems to confirm everything that Hugo hates about ladies: she comes across as a bit self-centered, a bit foolish, a bit daft, a bit haughty. One possessing a sense of humor that Hugo isn't accustomed to. It doesn't help, too, that Hugo possesses a stranger sense of humor, one that Gwen isn't accustomed to either.

"You are ready to come downstairs?" he asked.

"Oh," she said. "I would really prefer to stay here, Lord Trentham, and be no bother to anyone. If it is not too much trouble, perhaps you would ask for a tray to be sent up?"

She smiled at him.

"I believe it would be too much trouble, ma'am," he said. "I have been sent to bring you down."

Gwen's cheeks grew hot. How very mortifying! And what a vastly unmannerly answer. Could he not have phrased it differently? ...
- Chapter 3

Mary Balogh's story tests several tenets:
About first impressions? Yes, it is accurate.
But about second chances? Yes, that one is also true.
About oil and water? About opposites and attraction?
And how about love conquering all?

Throughout the story, it seemed impossible for Gwen and Hugo to find a common ground. The differences in their worlds, in their world views just seemed to wide a gap to overcome -- but, then, love moves in mysterious ways* -- and, as much as Hugo and Gwen tried to fight the attraction, the pull -- it flourished with every encounter, with every word and action.

The story moves slowly but I understand why -- what is required for Hugo and Gwen is a radical change. They must work around their preconceptions and misconceptions and find a new perspective to accept each other. They must find a way to meld their two worlds. Throughout the story, the two insist that they are completely unsuitable for each other. Several times, Hugo proclaims with much confidence that he would not court Gwen -- in a sense, what our hero and heroine have done is quite revolutionary: their not-courtship of each other. I love how Mary Balogh portrayed their confusion and their bewilderment as they struggled to please themselves and also the people around them.

"You are not by any manner of means the sort of woman I am in search of as a wife," he said, "and I am in a totally different universe from the husband you hope to find. But I feel a powerful urge to kiss you, for all that."
- Chapter 4

* * *

...She was no innocent, naive girl. But suddenly she felt like one, for there had been nothing in her experience to help her understand the sheer lust that she and Lord Trentham felt for each other. How could she understand it when he was not at all the sort of man who could be expected to attract her, either as a flirt or as a possible husband?
- Chapter 9

This was another beautiful love story from Mary Balogh, whose writing style and voice is unparalleled in historical romance. She breathes such life, such pain and such distinctive spirit to Hugo and Gwen and to the other members of The Survivors Club. This is another series that I will be following.

To find out more about Mary Balogh and her books, click below:

*Lyrics by Julia Fordham



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