Miss Bates read one Susanna Fraser Regency-set romance, The Sergeant’s Lady, and enjoyed it, especially its exposition of a cross-class romance in the loosening of social strictures during wartime. Fraser’s latest, the Regency-set romance novella, “A Christmas Reunion,” echoes many of the same themes: an upper-class lady-love, an officer returned from the Napoleonic conflict in Portugal and Spain, and strong, enduring feelings from when he left five years ago. Unlike The Sergeant’s Lady, “A Christmas Reunion” has the added poignancy of the hero, Captain Gabe Shephard, and heroine, Lady Catherine Trevilian, as reunited sweethearts, a passion they staunched because of their unequal social status. Gabe has returned to the home in which he grew up, the “bastard” son of an aristocratic family, and the adopted wealthy, aristocratic girl they succored, to ensure that a foundling child, the irrepressibly cute Ellen, finds a home and family away from war. He returns to the scene of his youthful love, still burning strong for “Lady Cat” as he calls her, hoping to find safety and affection for Ellen. What he doesn’t expect is to find a betrothed Catherine who feels the same way about him, grown more beautiful and interesting than ever. Fraser’s novella is based on premises that Miss Bates enjoys: the good man, (allegorically called Gabriel) who unselfishly takes on the care of a child not his own, the vulnerable-to-her-feelings woman, the spirit of Christmas and traditional wassailing of a great hall … but there’s that pesky fiancé, Sir Anthony Colville, how to resolve that? There was much to enjoy in Fraser’s novella and, unfortunately, parts that jarred.
Miss Bates was excited reading the start of “A Christmas Reunion,” with Gabe and Ellen making their way to Edenwell Court (another allegorical reference) for the holidays. The novella had a lovely Carla-Kelly feel to it, with the hint that good people are about to be tested on the basis of their moral resolve. In Gabe’s case, it brings him back to the site of the “sin” that “led to his exile.” He succumbed to his passion for Catherine one night five years ago; they shared kisses in an “unclothed state,” were discovered by the then Lord Edenwell, and Gabe was sent into the military. We meet Catherine, who is content to marry a man she shares friendship with, but doesn’t love, for the opportunity to be a great society hostess, aid her future husband’s fledgling political career, and have children. She has dismissed her love for Gabe with “It had been all mistletoe and infatuation.” A great line!
However, we also learn that Cat’s scoured the casualty lists these five years, living in dread that Gabe has been injured, or died. The moment she sees him again, her resolution is shaken, and her feelings for him return. Gabe acting as Joseph to Ellen’s orphaned state only adds to his goodness and honour. Then, he shares a wonderful conversation with Cat about his perspective on the military, seeing himself as a shepherd (his last name is Shephard!) to his men, caring for their physical, moral, and spiritual welfare. Catherine too is great character, though less developped, when she insists that Gabe cannot take all the responsibility of their careless canoodling five years ago. Miss Bates loved how she won’t let Gabe see her as an oblivious, innocent victim, but insists on being a willing, wanting participant.
Then, truth be told, without indulging in spoilers, the narrative went to hell in a hand-basket. The pesky and not unsympathetic fiancé, Sir Anthony … well, he was the blockage to the HEA, wasn’t he? How Fraser resolves that issue was, Miss Bates thought, hurried and contrived … as if the narrative suddenly had to gallop along and this was the expedient settlement to the dilemma of Cat’s engagement. It all fell flat … even though the wassailing scene and Ellen’s love for Gabe did make up for the mess a tad. Gabe’s self-deprecation also lingered too long … and the epilogue, unnecessary. What appeared to be a wonderfully atmospheric, morally complex story that Miss Bates really wanted to sink into … wasn’t. In Susanna Fraser’s “A Christmas Reunion” Miss Bates found evidence of a romance narrative that was “almost pretty,” Northanger Abbey.
Susanna Fraser’s “A Christmas Reunion” published by Carina Press has been available in e-format at the usual vendors since November 24th.
Miss Bates received an e-ARC from Carina Press, via Netgalley.