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At fifty years old, and after devoting almost a decade of his life caring for the Survivor's Club, and then seeing them get married one after the other, George, Duke of Stanbrook, discovers that he is not looking forward to the looming prospect of returning home to Penderris alone. He imagines following in his fellow Survivors' footsteps -- and find himself a wife to settle down with. As he thinks about it more, there's only one lady that comes to mind: Dora Debbins, the older sister of Agnes Keeping, now married to Flavian, Viscount Ponsonby (Only Enchanting). Dora is almost forty years old and now lives alone in her cottage near Middlebury Park.
One of the challanges of writing this review is finding the words to describe the love story of George and Dora -- everything is happening quickly, but to call it a whirlwind would be inaccurate. There's a wonderful chemistry and companionship between George and Dora, but no fireworks. If you read back to the occasion where George and Dora met and talked in Only Enchanting, one would fancy thinking that this story started there, but there's also an element of surprise to finally see who George ended up with. (I don't think I'm alone in thinking that it may be Imogen and George in the end.) And while George never pushes or rushes, there's a sense that Dora has been swept up into this whole thing and hasn't quite found her bearing. Perhaps it was the suddenness of George's appearance and ensuing proposal, or perhaps it was age, or perhaps both of them decided it was about time, but Dora accepts George's offer of marriage, and they both agree to get married in a month.
During the engagement, it's the same contradictions -- nothing happens, and everything happens. George and Dora are busy preparing for the wedding: Dora is getting fitted for a wardrobe fit for a duchess, and George is laying the stage, and making preparations for Dora's introduction to society. And, yet, nothing happens: it's almost a recitation of any typical Regency day -- except it is not a typical Regency day. It is Dora's first time ever to go to London and to move around in society. Despite being well-born, she never had a season, because of the scandal of her parents' divorce. Then there's the knowledge that her mother, whom she hasn't seen or talked to in her entire adult life, lives in London.
It's amazing how Mary Balogh does it, where the tension gradually build up -- the only comparison I can make is to a frog in water that is slowly being heated. If Dora or George had known, from the beginning, the trials that they were to face once they married, perhaps they would not have jumped into it so quickly? But, like the frog, things come to a slow boil -- but, unlike the frog, Dora and George have the mindfulness to realize when the situation was getting out of hand.
Our hero and heroine realize that they don't get a free pass on marital issues when, on their wedding day, during the ceremony, a person from George's past shows up and reminds everyone present of the tragedy of George's first wife's death -- old gossip becomes the latest on-dit, and old doubts become the basis for new questions. And Dora is, unfortunately, caught in the crossfire. What happened the day Lady Miriam died? Could George have saved her? Why did George allow his only son and heir to enlist? And why doesn't he talk about it with her?
The incident at the wedding is the most exciting thing in this story -- and it is hushed up quickly, and in the background. What follows next is the trip home to Penderris -- where life resumes for George, and starts afresh for Dora -- and even their moments together are so ... placid. One would get the impression that this is a boring book -- but it isn't. I promise you, it's a story that simmers just a little on the surface, but there's a lot happening underneath.
Much of what happens between the two of them is introspective -- Dora wonders how she can make George happy. And, one realizes, that is, indeed, a tall order: George sacrificed so much and worked so hard for the lives and happiness of the members of the Survivors Club. It was a tireless and loving endeavor, and he's given so much to the people around him. No one is deserving of happiness as George -- and it falls on Dora's shoulders to provide that happiness.
But Dora also deserves to be happy: she gave up her youth and her chance at marriage to take care of Agnes. When her father remarried, she moved away to give her new stepmother the space she needed. When Agnes was widowed and needed a place, it was Dora who gave her a place to stay. She's waited all her life for her moment, after supporting her sister and her father through theirs.
But there are wrinkles in their marriage: the same introspection and quiet companionship that we marvel at, also contributes to the feelings of uneasiness within Dora -- and these are exacerbated by the visit through the portraits gallery. Where are the portraits of Lady Miriam and of Brendan? We get the sense that the Duke has kept a large chunk of his life secret from Dora and from the readers. And none of the other members of the Survivors Club are there to reassure Dora or us that it is fine -- we are all left in the dark.
When all is revealed in the end and George finally breaks his silence, I understood why George never talked about it -- and it adds another layer of heroism to his character.
As I was reading George and Dora's story, I kept remembering this line from the movie adaptation of Whitney Otto's How to Make an American Quilt:
Young lovers seek perfection. Old lovers learn the art of sewing shreds together and of seeing beauty in a multiplicity of patches.
Only Beloved is the last book in Mary Balogh's Survivors Club series. To find out more about Mary Balogh and her books, click below: