Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Review: In the Heart of the Highlander by Maggie Robinson


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Click here to buy the paperback at The Book Depository

Fellow romance reader and blogger, Maria (Austen Student on Tumblr), mentioned on Goodreads that, when she wants to laugh, she reads Maggie Robinson and I agree with her: there's a really light-hearted/fun (but not funny) quality to Robinson's books. What makes Maggie Robinson stand out, however, is that she infuses her stories with a unique and surprising element that elevates her stories.

Alec Raeburn is wealthy, titled and incredibly handsome -- but he's also larger than the average gentleman and is also suspected of killing his wife. The theory of Alec is he should be one of those sought-after bachelors, where matchmaking mamas and their daughters should be scrambling to get his attention -- but, the reality of Alec is that he is a bull in a china shop -- awkward and unwelcome in society. He's the man mothers warn their daughters about.

Mary Evensong was such a strong and dynamic character in In the Arms of the Heiress and I was very curious how Robinson would develop her story. The revelation in In the Heart of the Highlander is that Mary is weary of pretending to be her aunt. She is chafing under the wig of grey hair and against the heavy clothes she wears as Mary Evensong, proprietress of the Evensong Academy. Mary yearns for a life of her own, and Alec's plan seems to be the opportunity that Mary is looking for.

Mary Evensong was tired. Tired of wearing smoke-gray spectacles that covered her hazel eyes. Tired of wearing an itchy gray wig that covered her russet hair. Tired of the problems that came in by the sack loads every time the mailman rang her doorbell.
- Opening paragraph, Chapter 1

To the world, Alec is responsible for his wife, Edith's, death -- either he pushed her out the window of Raeburn Abbey or drove her to suicide. But Alec believes it is Dr Josef Bauer of the Forsyth Palace Hotel (spa) in Scotland that is responsible for Edith's death and is out to prove it in an entrapment scheme, involving Mary Evensong.

Alec doesn't factor in the possibility of being attracted to his "hired actress", but, from the very first moment he meets her, he knows there is something there for them to discover. Mary, on the other hand, has always been drawn to Alec and this seems to be a good-enough moment to indulge.

There is a clear split in how this story is told, and two plots in place. The first involves Mary pretending to be a sickly and unpopular spinster who is seeking treatments at the ..., hoping to catch Dr. Bauer's eye and then exposing his fraudulent/lascivious behaviour. I loved this part of the story: the question of whether they would pull off this plan successfully kept me turning the pages.

It's what happens after that, I think, ruined this story for me.

Mary changes as the story progresses, and not for the better. My first impression of Mary is that she is a practical, no-nonsense, capable woman who has successfully run a business in her aunt's stead. As Mary Evensong, she had effortlessly solved a number of problems for lords, ladies and wealthy people. She struck me as unflinching in the face of adversity and admired her greatly for it. At the start of her own story, I see these same qualities come into play as Mary, herself, agrees to become the bait in the trap Alec has set for Dr. Bauer.

But, then, as Mary Arden, she becomes foolish and loses her head over Alec -- even propositioning him "to relieve her of her unwanted virginity" -- when they decamp to Raeburn Abbey, Mary loses even more of herself as we find her comparing herself to Alec's late wife and conducting herself in a very unprofessional way (reading Edith's diary).

Mary stuck her tongue out at the painted Edith and felt no better.
- Chapter 25

The entire "Raeburn Abbey" storyline was problematic for me. From the beginning, we are all convinced that Alec is the aggrieved party in his previous marriage and suffers the tragic consequences of his late wife's death. But, when the Raeburn Abbey story unfolds, Robinson casts doubts on the whole premise. Was Dr. Bauer really responsible for Edith's death? From the passages in Edith's journal, and from Alec's own recollection, it becomes uncertain. There's the whole factor of Edith's controlling parents to consider. And Alec, himself, gets tarnished by his own admission.

Mummy says I should give the place a try, and since it is so close, I just might. I am so tired of her lecturing me about my duty.
- Edith's diary, Chapter 26

* * *

I left her while I amused myself in London, and then even after I returned, we lived separate lives. She breakfasted by herself. Dined by herself. I'd stopped trying. We barely spoke, and when we did talk, to was to argue.
...

"We could have managed in a white marriage. People do. People whose desires are kept under control. But I didn't have any self-control. I thought with my cock, I'd fuck anyone available. Maybe I'm still doing that."

...

"She tried to tell me, but I didn't pay proper attention. We quarrelled as usual over something stupid -- can you believe I can't even remember what? I've tried and tried, and it's a blur, just accusations and recriminations running together like a jerky movie reel. She ran away from me, came up here, and jumped."
- Chapter 31

Was the whole entrapment scheme just a grieving man's backlash against his perceived enemy? I could not shake the feeling that the whole world that the author had established so carefully at the start of the story had all been turned upside-down.

It seemed pretty clear that Edith had not accidentally stepped out her window into the void. Somehow Mary couldn't see a disgruntled servant pushing her, no matter how demanding she'd been. Alec would have moved heaven and earth to discover the culprit who was responsible.

And he had settled on Bauer.
- Chapter 25

I know that the point of the sojourn at the Abbey is to give Alec and Mary's relationship to blossom a bit more, but the "I love you" admission after four days is a bit unbelievable coming from Mary, who I had credited with a bit more sense than that.

What saves this story is the humour, and the introduction of the Raeburn brothers (Evan and Nicholas), the latter being the hero of The Reluctant Governess, the next instalment in the Ladies Unlaced series. These two excerpts, in particular, are really wonderful:

Now Mary understood what all those silly romance books Harriet loaned her meant when they used their ellipses. Mary dot-dot-dotted, her hands on Alec's shoulders, her eyes fluttering shut. She didn't need to watch him anymore, only feel his mastery over her as he overcame his scruples and kissed her like she was the only woman in the world.
- Chapter 11

* * *

"Mary's up there. Miss Arden. Miss Evensong," Alec amended.

"You have three women in your chamber? A regular harem! By God, Alec, I'm proud of you! I thought you'd lost your touch when Edith died. We were all so worried about you."
- Alec talking to Evan, Chapter 29

In the Heart of the Highlander is Book 2 in Maggie Robinson's Ladies Unlaced series. To find out more about Maggie and her books, click below:
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