Grace Burrowes’s latest “lonely lord,” Gabriel, contains two elements Miss Bates loves: a hero who must set his house in order and a second-chance romance. The notion of setting things right is a theme endemic to Burrowes’s work. Miss Bates finds this morally appealing. Burrowes’s characters are generous, honest, and kind; even when they make messes, they redress them. And they never leave messes behind, particularly her heroes; this makes them eminently endearing. Miss Bates noted these things when she enjoyed Burrowes’s first Regency novel, The Heir. From that initial effort to this latest one, Miss Bates has noted that Burrowes is enamoured of the cross-class couple which, historically, rarely boasted the happy endings that her novels do. (Miss Bates likes to think that Burrowes brings a beautifully equalizing American flair to the class-conscious British historical; accuracy be damned in the name of justice. What’s an HEA for, if not to breach “impediments” to the “marriage of true minds”?) This impediment to love, though historically likely inaccurate and viewed with rose-coloured glasses and all that, is nevertheless refreshing because it says all things are possible with love and the acceptance of responsibility. However, can Miss Bates say that she loved this novel and wholeheartedly urges you to read it? There be caveats.
Miss Bates hasn’t read “Lonely Lords” #1 to 4 because she’d had a surfeit of … well … lords. She plunged into Burrowes’s Regency-set Gabriel without the background a committed reader of the series would have had. A poor swimmer, Miss Bates floundered at the sheer confusion of plot set-up that depended on having read the previous books. This be one of her caveats. Despite the recent romance writer’s and reader’s penchant for the book series, each volume should be able to “stand-alone.” Gabriel didn’t.
Here’s what Miss Bates made of the storyline, with the above reservation in mind. Gabriel North, after four years in hiding as land steward of Three Springs estate, returns home to take his rightful place as the Marquess of Hesketh. He is Gabriel Wendover, not the Gabriel-Oak-like North. Gabriel maintained his disguise to protect himself and his family from the assassins who tried to kill him when he was in Spain looking for his wounded younger brother, Aaron (who’d been fighting Napoleon’s forces). Presently, Aaron, forced to marry Gabriel’s then fiancée, Marjorie, runs the estate.
Gabriel returns because he is “lonely,” though he harbours the idea that his baby brother tried to have him killed for the title and estate. This notion, though important as a plot point, is promptly resolved. The two brothers love each other, but there are secrets … many many secrets. Into this, Burrowes adds the love interest and heroine, Polonaise “Polly” Hunt, artist-in-residence at Wendover, painting Aaron’s and Marjorie’s portraits. Polly’d been the cook at Three Springs, where Gabriel had holed up, learned to love and care for the land and loved and cared for Polly. He left her behind to protect her from Those-Who-Threaten-Him, planning to claim her after he identifies and dispatches them. But there she is, still wanting him, complicating matters, and hurt over his abandonment … except she too has a secret! At some point in the course of the novel, Polly and Gabriel become lovers: on Polly’s part, with the idea that this is a fling, a fun affair … even though she loves Gabriel. Gabriel has every intention of using this opportunity to woo Polly and convince her to marry him. This allows Burrowes to pepper her narrative with frequent and robust love scenes. As for what this does to the narrative and why, more of that later.
There is a secondary romance too, fraught with tension and trouble, between Aaron and Marjorie. Marjorie’s mother, Lady Hartle, insisted on their marriage, having affianced Marjorie to Gabriel when Marjorie was a child and, upon his death, still determined to make her daughter a marchioness. With Gabriel back, she wants to dissolve the union with Aaron and Marjorie to marry Gabriel! There is much legal wrangling over this and neither Marjorie nor Gabriel want each other. Marjorie and Aaron, though married under duress, are in love, except one has not confessed this to the other, nor consummated their marriage, but live in a state of anger, frustration and unrequited love … there be more secrets here! As you can see, dear reader, Gabriel, is one mess of a plot!
Burrowes can turn a phrase, witness Polly’s reaction to seeing Gabriel again: “Polly was drifting away on an unstoppable tide of hurt feelings and female ire.” Miss Bates likes that and recognizes this ability as one of Burrowes’s strengths. Burrowes can paint an emotionally and/or physically intimate scene with skill: she can imbue it with élan or delicacy. Even though her characters don’t differ all that much from book to book, they are believable and sympathetic. She can also write strong dialogue, though there is something flat in the cadence that grates on Miss Bates. Miss Bates has a similar reaction to Carla Kelly’s dialogue, that flat “buck up” and “gird your loins” tone. On the one hand, it’s great that characters don’t whine; on the other, all that bearing up does annoy. Indeed, Miss Bates sees Burrowes as a more secular, less precious, earthier Kelly.
Characterization and dialogue have to be solid because the plot is a mess: starting with too much for a reader to take in and dipping into tedium and legalese as the resurrected Gabriel and Aaron sort out the succession. Love scenes can only go so far to relieving the tedium of “nothing happens” except the men talking about sheep … a lot! But love scenes we have galore and if this is your thing, dear reader, you won’t be disappointed. They are frequent, funny in place, touching in others, and earthy.
Burrowes has been criticized for weaving modern sensibilities into historical characters and their interactions. Miss Bates thinks that Burrowes has a purpose that goes beyond making her novels palatable to a contemporary audience. In doing so, Burrowes attempts to go past the titles and the accoutrements of nobility or not, as the case may be, to the elemental person beneath. Miss Bates loved this exchange between Gabriel and Polly: ” ‘Can I be both lady and woman?’ Gabriel certainly thought so. On that cheering notion, Polly got to her feet. ‘If one’s husband is both gentleman and man, I think it becomes second nature.’ ” There is in her lords and ladies and commoners and farmers and even lawyers, a social self … and in the act of love and the love of family and friendship, there is the true, elemental self beneath that persona, that flourishes and helps her characters like Miss Bates’s beloved Jane, “live a full and delightful life.”
Burrowes’s Gabriel ends on a high note in place of the Bedlam that identifies its introduction and the ennui that besets its middle. Burrowes writes delightful children; without spoiling any more of the plot, children enter and bring the crises to interesting and appropriate ends, which are moving, interesting, and well-written. The strength of Burrowes’s heroes is their ability to put their house in order, to redress past wrongs, or misjudgements, to know how to care for those they love, to heal the heroine of her heartaches and soul-sickness, and to love children not their own. Gabriel comes through on all counts.
Burrowes’s novel doesn’t disappoint, for the most part. The words flow, the characters are fleshed out, but the plot falters. In the end, Miss Bates can say that Gabriel was “almost pretty” Northanger Abbey.
Gabriel was released on Sept. 3rd and can be found in the usual places and formats.
Miss Bates is grateful to Sourcebooks Casablanca for an ARE via Netgalley in exchange for this honest review.
What of you, dear reader, are you a stickler for historical accuracy? Miss Bates isn’t because “history” is mostly interpretation and methodology. Nevertheless, when a novel is historically inaccurate because the author was lazy, or ignorant in exercising her craft, well, that can grate. Burrowes is not one of those. Let me know what you think in the comments.