REVIEW: Mary Balogh’s THE ESCAPE, Running To, or Running From?

The_Escape

Beautiful cover!

One of Miss Bates’ dearest friends is an artist. She once told Miss B. that visual artists fall into one of two categories: those whose primary focus is colour, or those whose primary focus is line. Maybe we can say the same about romance writers? Those who use line make use of strongly delineated roles for their characters; they rely on convention to build a narrative. Their characters, such as in PNR romance, do not deviate from their prescribed roles: mates are fated; there may be some negotiation and manoeuvring to reach the HEA, but, overall, the reader can see exactly where this is going. Deviations occur in plot rather than characterization. We may also see this in romantic suspense, which is not to say that subversions of the conventions don’t occur. Then, there are colorists, whose primary focus is in the development and transformation, over the course of a simple narrative, of character, in particular the heroine and hero. Mary Balogh is a colorist; her interest lies in characters in transition, caught in a moment when they have to do serious thinking and decision-making about where they’re going. She is also interested in how desire and love can insert themselves into people’s lives at the most inconvenient, unlikely, and often unwelcome moments. Hero and heroine have to work out the impetus towards love/commitment and pulling away from the bonds of engagement, a yearning for connection and longing, at the same time, solitude and independence. These conflicting and conflicted impulses are evident in both her male and female characters.

Balogh paints her characters in greys: strong, but not overbearing; in love and seeking connection, but pulling away from it as well. There are no alphas, there is no fate: these characters have choice and agency. Yet, she cannot escape the evils of coincidence. She has to bring them together; she has to let chance reign. That is one of her weaknesses. But in giving her heroines and heroes possibility and choice, even though she writes in the constraints of the historical day is a strength … or not. Balogh is a tour de force in the genre; romance readers have to decide whether she is for them … or not. She is not one to ignore, but she’s not easy to love either. All of these concerns and themes that we’ve come to associate with Balogh are present in her latest historical romance, The Escape, fourth in the Survivors’ Club series. Miss Bates read it in one sitting: it’s devoid of exciting or interesting events, but the journey hero and heroine undertake and the theme of escape and when and how escape is genuine yearning for freedom or a running away, kept Miss B. turning pages. In the end, however, there were also disappointments. A certain fatigue has set in in Balogh’s writing.

The opening of Balogh’s The Escape is rife with the members of the Survivors’ Club at their annual meeting at the Duke of Stanbrook’s estate, Penderris, in Cornwall. It is NOT an auspicious opening to someone, like Miss Bates, unfamiliar with the series. It is difficult to figure out who’s who, or follow the stilted dialogue. Thankfully, it is short, as the party breaks up and we follow our hero, Sir Benedict Harper, crippled in his legs from the war and walking with the aid of canes, to his sister’s home in County Durham. We also meet her neighbour, Samantha McKay, recent widow of Captain Matthew McKay, beset by her sister-in-law, Matilda, dour, and a stickler for following a harsh and unfeeling mourning period. Samantha nursed the peevish, difficult Matthew for five years before he succumbed to injuries sustained in the Napoleanic Wars. She did her duty by the cheating, heartless ass; she mourns his youth and suffering, but she does not miss him. After he died, she was listless, exhausted, and depressed. She’s recovered somewhat and yearns to take exercise and hold her face to the sun. Matilda will have none of it. Samantha’s only companion is a loveable mutt, Tramp.

Samantha escapes Matilda to walk Tramp and is upended and near-injured by a rider, Sir Ben Harper. Miss Bates loved their initial curse-filled and volatile encounter because she loves any scene that pays homage to the not-meet-cute of her beloved Jane Eyre. Even though their encounter is antagonistic, Balogh cannot help but revert to decent type. When Ben’s sister, Beatrice, pays a neighbourly call on Samantha and Matilda, he goes along to apologize. Their subsequent encounters are pleasant and polite; they converse with ease and humour. They like each other and there is a burgeoning attraction. When Samantha’s father-in-law sends goons to bully her into returning to his home where he can better control her outlandish behaviour (such as taking a walk, calling on neighbouring families, and visiting the poor), Samantha resolves to escape, to travel to a small Cornish home she inherited from her mother. Ben’s gentlemanly bent cannot allow her to travel unprotected and unescorted. They travel together and grow closer in friendship and desire. Cornwall presents many surprises for Samantha: an inheritance she never knew of and loving family. A swimming hole and beach are where Samantha and Ben become lovers, agreeing to a short affair before Ben leaves to figure out his future and Samantha concludes her mourning period while she makes a home and gets to know her newly-found maternal grand-father.

One aspect of The Escape that Miss Bates particularly enjoyed was the theme of “escape”. It served to cement characterization and to point to their strengths and weaknesses, motivations and aspirations. The obvious connection is to Samantha who, in effect, escapes from the clutches of her overbearing sister-in-law and a miserable life as a penniless household drudge at her father-in-law’s. Her Gypsy blood, from her grand-mother, ensured that her father-in-law hated her from the moment Matthew presented her as his future bride. Now, she’s an unwanted obligation to be “taken care of” in order to keep up appearances. Samantha’s escape from this future is only one of the many ways she seeks to break free. By leaving, she seeks to escape her identity as Matthew’s wife and the naïve self who married the selfish, cheating creep. She wants to escape the sadness of those years and recover some of her joy, or, as she tells Ben, she wants to “dance.” Ben too yearns for escape: for one thing, his determination to live and walk has ensured not only his survival, but his self-respect. Ben too, however, is unhappy; his depression stems from his inability to do what he felt he was meant to: lead men in battle, be a soldier. Now that he can no longer, he yearns to escape what he feels he has become: a man purposeless, no longer able to fulfill his mission, no longer attractive to women, no longer able to “dance.” When Ben and Samantha are at their lowest, they share a lovely fantasy of being able to soar above the clouds in a balloon, to leave everything behind.

When Samantha and Ben embark on their journey to Cornwall, escape becomes something different. To escape, to take tangible action to change one’s life, is the first step to renewing it. Like all travelers, they are, for that glorious interim of not yet arriving, set free to be whomever they want, to shed the old and not take on any identity. Liminal is best. When they arrive at Samantha’s Cornish house, which turns out to be beautiful and affluent, they realize, separately, how difficult it will be for them to part. They have deep feelings for each other, but in another form of escape, a negative one, they avoid them. They do not speak what is in their hearts. Instead, they agree to a brief love affair of one week. They swim, talk, laugh, and make love. This escape is a respite from reality, a full and beautiful thing, but, ironically, it is also running away from their commitment and love.

Even though The Escape had this lovely theme running through it, Miss Bates didn’t love it. The novel was truncated in places and dragged in others. One of the things that never works for Miss Bates in Balogh’s books are the lame reasons why hero and heroine don’t wish to be together, when everything is pointing to why they should. Including obvious social pressures, conventions, and expectations. Balogh consistently gives her heroine and hero a halcyon week or so swimming and making love. It’s paradisiacal and finite, as paradisiacal tends to be. She does so in this case as well. Reality dashes the magical feelings and hero and heroine separate, except there doesn’t seem any rhyme or reason they should, except their own vague, mulish, and melancholic dispositions. They say to themselves they’re not in love, or they’re not ready; they have a lot of doubts, but nothing bolsters them. The narrative, as a result, slows down, lapses into soulful looks and despondent thinking. Miss Bates wanted to shake them and say, “Look, you’ve been doing like bunnies; you’re friends. You care about each other. What do you think love is?” Maybe Miss B. doth protest too much, but so do Balogh’s heroine and hero.

It adds insult to injury, however, in leaving out one of the most important moments of the romance novel.  It is Miss B’s favourite moment ever since she read Pamela Regis’ A Natural History of the Romance Novel, the “dark night of the soul” moment. It is the point in the narrative when it looks as if heroine and hero’s obstacles to the HEA are insurmountable, the moment of greatest tension and agony for the reader. It is, an “agon,” a struggle involving pain and suffering. It needs a reversal, a profound transformation in the characters, for the HEA to be possible and believable. It is the Holy Friday moment in the romance narrative, as it is for the romance writer. She must get this right, or her house of cards collapses, the moment where she may experience her greatest failure, or greatest triumph. Well, THAT is what The Escape leaves out. Miss Bates cannot pardon this. Maybe Balogh wanted the relationship to develop organically, to arise out of two people having quiet realizations. Nevertheless, it didn’t work for Miss B. It felt tired, as if Balogh couldn’t be bothered to run the gamut of the romance narrative’s emotions.

The Escape kept her interest; she liked Ben and Samantha. She liked the secondary characters. As a romance narrative, however, Miss Bates, along with Jane Austen, says it provides “tolerable comfort,” Mansfield Park.

The Escape, released by Dell Books on July 1st, is available in paper and e-format at the usual vendors. Please note that The Escape includes a novella, The Suitor.

Miss Bates is grateful to Dell Books (Random House) for an e-ARC they provided, via Netgalley, for her review consideration.

Here is Miss B’s delicious question for you, dear reader? What “dark moments” are your favourites in the romance narratives you’ve read? Who the author and title and what made them powerful?

24 thoughts on “REVIEW: Mary Balogh’s THE ESCAPE, Running To, or Running From?

  1. I read the first two books in this series and they both were boring enough that I didn’t come back, even though I have read many many of Balogh’s books.

    For me how well the dark moments are presented make all the difference in how much emotional payoff I will get from the story. Forced or artificial, I lose faith, too dark, I might lose trust in the HEA.

    I think Lauren Dane does a excellent job with dark moments. When her characters are out through the wringer emotionally, I believe and more importantly I believe them when crawl back and reclaim their lives.

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    • Miss Bates agrees with you: for her too, the dark moments, the low moments, have to work, be believably hopeless, even though we know the HEA is coming. In contemporaries, she thinks the classics of SEP and Jennifer Crusie are particularly good at that. In historicals, she’s very fond of Meredith Duran, especially in A Lady’s Lesson In Scandal in which there are so many deliciously dark dark moments.

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  2. I also picked up this color/line distinction as a way of sorting artists–I think all the way back to my high school art history classes, and I’ve played with the idea ever since. But I make the distinction in such an opposite way. David, for example, is a consummate line painter–but he makes excellent portraits and character studies. While Matisse is a consummate color painter & tends towards theme, structure, sheer visual delight.

    I think of the division in terms of style, or patterns of thought. Joyce on the line side, Proust on the color. Austen on the line side, Bronte on the color.

    I love Balogh, but I’d put her on the line side, actually–there’s something intellectual & cerebral in her work which you’ve captured perfectly in this blog post.

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    • Miss Bates thinks your delineations (sorry, not sorry, for the pun) show a greater and better understanding of the artistic sense of colour and line. Miss B. thought of line as a strict adherence to trope and a privileging of narrative over character development, as you’d find in a lot of PNR, and romantic suspense (though she agrees that there’s some character development, potentially, in RS). Colour, she defines, as an interest in character above all. She’d agree with Ros’s tweet that Heyer, at least in her reading of Devil’s Cub, falls in the line group. Hence, not so much Balogh. She thinks you’re spot-on about Austen and Brontës, though.

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  3. I completely agree about the tediously elaborate yet strangely ephemeral obstacles Balogh’s eventually-to-be-happy couple always struggles with. I don’t require a really dark, dark night of the soul, but I have often wished they’d get over themselves already or else face more concrete impediments. I tend to be impatient with high levels of angst in romance in any case, though, finding that a lighter or more comic touch keeps my inner cynic at bay. Like you, I enjoy the antagonistic lead-up to the lovey-dovey part, often more than the actually romantic parts! That may be why one of my favorite Baloghs is Simply Perfect, but only the first 2/3 of it.

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    • Ha, that is just so PERFECT as a description of what goes wrong in Balogh’s romances: “tediously elaborate,” “strangely ephemeral obstacles”!! Yes, Miss B. spends most Balogh novels in an annoyance which wants to shake and slap the heroine and hero around a bit. And the “tediously elaborate” bits are the constant waffling and “no no no no, we’re not in love … we’ll have these few days and be on our way.” And the pat agreement, “Oh, if you’re pregnant, write to me and I’ll marry you.” Historically, it also just doesn’t make sense: if Miss B. were Samantha, she’d have accepted Ben’s initial proposal, or at least said, “Let’s get to know each other on the way to Cornwall.”

      Relentless angst, as popularized by NA and those awful 50Shades wannabes and Maya Banks, or Sylvia Day romantica, is the worst. Quite unreadable. Before that, Miss B. guesses you could say the same for Shannon McKenna. (Though Miss Bates has a soft spot for Lisa Marie Rice.)

      Yes, Miss Bates definitely loves the “antagonistic lead-up” with believable impediments. In this case, for her, the best Balogh for this would be The Secret Pearl, where, as in Jane Eyre, the hero is married! Plenty of dark moments and viable impediments, especially in light of historical realities of the day. In turn, a recent one she read, A Counterfeit Betrothal, the secondary romance being (and a better focus of the novel) between the heroine’s parents, who’ve been estranged for over ten years. As a second-chance romance, with past wrongs and hurts, this makes a lot more sense.

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  4. Oh my. Thank you for articulating why I never really cared for Mary Balogh’s books. I have tried. Lordy, how I’ve tried! I had the most success with her old Trad Regencies, but that’s not saying a lot.

    I have several favorite authors who, I feel, do the ‘dark moment’ really well. One is Carla Kelly The scene in ‘The Admiral’s Penniless Bride’ when the hero surfaces from his drunken binge and acknowledges to himself that he is very much at fault is wonderful Now all he has to do is find where she’s disappeared to and grovel enough once he’s found her. Wonderful, angsty goodness!
    Or the bit in ‘One Good Turn’ or, or ,or…there are so many.

    Joan Wolf was also very good at ‘dark moments’–try ‘His Lordship’s Mistress’, if you haven’t already.

    The scene you mentioned from Duran’s ‘Lady’s Lesson in Scandal’ is fabulous. Thank you for reminding me of it.

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    • You’re welcome! Miss Bates wishes she was wrong about Balogh’s waffling heroes, heroines, or weak conflicts in the developping relationship. She does like quite a few Baloghs, but was bored to tears by the final four of the Slightly series and most of the Simply ones too. HER early shorter form, the “trad Regencies” you refer to, with some sense of conflict, worked better for Balogh’s style and themes. But Miss B’ll grant her, she’s a romance writer of some gravitas.

      And thank you for reminding Miss B. that she has many Kelly romances sitting idle in the TBR, including the one you mention here. Also, she’s happy to see that Wolf is being digitized, so yes, let’s just pile anther title onto Tottering TBR!

      Duran’s Lady is one of Miss B’s favourite romances: it’s about so many things. Class, wealth, status, mercenarily honest heroes and crass heroines … and little tiny sexy muscles on her arms. It’s a marvelous romance novel. Near perfect.

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      • Well, isn’t finding MORE books one of the benefits of having a book discussion blog? I know that I always manage to find more books by reading this blog…..

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  5. There’s something about Balogh’s voice that’s appealing and comforting to me, and as a result, I can ignore a lot of the waffling and weak plotting that bothers you. Like you, though, I think her shorter, darker regencies are more effective–A Christmas Promise being an outstanding example. She seems to cover an awful lot of ground in 220 pages or so. As for my favorite dark moments in books . . . Duran’s Bound by Your Touch has a good one when Lydia finally sees the light about her father. She’s sitting amidst piles of her scholarship, all of which suddenly seems worthless to her. And then she realizes how wrong she was to berate James for being cynical about his own father. I strongly identified with that scene, and with the whole book.

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    • Miss Bates is fascinated by readers’ varied responses to Balogh’s “voice.” For her, it’s alienating, something to be overcome because what does appeal to Miss Bates are Balogh’s themes: centred on choice, freedom, free will and the pull of commitment, family, sex, and love. She appreciates these tensions in Balogh: conflict is definitely internal. It’s just that it isn’t always grounded in motivation.

      Ah, yes, Duran’s Bound By Your Touch: it’s interesting that, like Miss B., you think that Duran is adept at the “dark night of the soul” moment in the romance narrative. Though not as prolific, Judith James is also pretty wonderful at this: in Broken Wing and Libertine’s Kiss, Miss B’s favourite.

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      • I like Duran a lot–she gives her heroines agency, and she keeps me turning the pages. My favorites are BBYT, Written on Your Skin, and A Lady’s Lesson in Scandal, which has my favorite heroine of them all. Nell is fierce.

        When I first discovered Balogh, I was pretty new to romance and still floundering around and trying to figure out which authors worked for me. Her prose seemed sparer to me than what I’d previously encountered (especially in sex scenes), and her tone seemed more ruminative and serious. I think at that point I’d discovered Chase and Crusie but not Duran. Balogh’s writing just seems very smooth and undemanding to my brain–I wish I could explain it better!

        Have you read any Madeline Hunter? I’m reading Rules of Seduction, my first by her, and it has echoes of BBYT and of Duran and Balogh’s styles.

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        • Duran is one of Miss Bates’s favourite romance writers, ever since she read Duke of Shadows in one sitting. But Nell and her novel are her absolute favourite Duran. She reviewed Duran’s latest, Fool Me Twice and it was wonderful: with a agoraphobic duke and fearless heroine. She really loved it and wonders if you’ve read it? She also really liked the religious conflict at the heart of At Your Pleasure.

          Miss Bates remembers the floundering around days as well: she’ll always be eternally grateful to ALL ABOUT ROMANCE and their reader-generated 100 Best Romance lists. They introduced her to many a great romance novel and author, Chase for example. Chase and Crusie, who are stylistic masters, are there. Balogh is unique and Miss Bates would say she IS iconic, in that if one considers the body of her work, she’s marked the genre.

          Miss Bates has not read Madeline Hunter, but she has Ravishing In Red in the digital TBR pile, so she’d definitely give her a try one of these days. 😉

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          • I haven’t read Fool Me Twice, but it’s at the top of the TBR pile, and I’m very eager to see Olivia in action again. There is another “dark” moment that I must mention. SEP is a VERY problematic author for me. But I love Lady Be Good. And I love Kenny Traveler picking up Lady Emma Wells-Finch and jumping into a swimming pool with her to keep her from walking out on him, and to give him time to tell her that he loves her. There are all sorts of problems I should have with this book, including Kenny’s throwing Emma into a pool several chapters earlier. But there it is. I can’t help it.

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            • Miss Bates is glad to hear that Fool Me Twice is moving up in the TBR because it is a wonderful romance and she thinks you’re going to enjoy it very much. SEP is one of the first romance authors Miss Bates ever read and, in retrospect, she can understand why she would be problematic for a reader. But she has such fond memories of SEP as conduit into the genre that her critical antennae are at low readings. One of her favourites is Dream A Little Dream which is all dark all the time.

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  6. I just listened to the audiobook of this and enjoyed it. I agree with much of what you say here, and while I’m normally someone who is frustrated by the whole “we can’t be together for no real reason ” thing, it didn’t bother me so much here. Also, the audio is narrated by the wonderful Rosalyn Landor, who could make the phone-book sound interesting, IMO! – which may have helped.

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    • Absolutely, a great narrator can make all the difference. There are a few books that Miss Bates didn’t particularly enjoy reading, but loved them as audiobooks: Crusie Welcome To Temptation and especially the Kinsales narrated by Nicholas Boulton, The Shadow and the Star and Flowers From the Storm. Maybe she’d have liked The Escape a lot more as interpreted by a great narrator?

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  7. I’ve only read one Balogh novella, A matter of class, which I really enjoyed (so did my husband) but I have yet to read a novel by her. I love your description of line and colour. I will judge my reads according to this from now on.

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    • Oh, thank you! It was a momentary inspiration, and not a terribly well-delineated one at that, but Miss Bates would say that the more we have to play around with in talking about romance, the better we can think about and enjoy the genre and what it offers.

      Balogh is a serious writer, thoughtful, and a stylist, something the romance genre lacks … maybe because there is such a plethora of books being produced and a functional style is no more than what is needed to be published. Nevertheless, Miss Bates thinks that Balogh’s success lies in the shorter forms, the novellas and the traditional Regencies she used to write and which are Miss Bates’ favourites. Though The Escape was a short novel, it wasn’t meant to be … and felt truncated and weak. If you’d like to read more, Miss Bates suggests A Christmas Promise (great MOC, also cross-class) and A Counterfeit Betrothal, wonderful second-chance romance.

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