When I read the title of Louise Allen’s A Lady In Need Of An Heir, I immediately thought of Cecilia Grant’s incomparable A Lady Awakened. And, of course, reading Allen’s effort, I couldn’t help but compare it to Grant’s. At first, I thought it would be too similar and prepared to be disappointed, harbored a certain peevishness at Allen for copying Grant’s idea. I was happy to discover that Grant’s Lady and Allen’s are two different animals. Allen wrote her own story; I just didn’t like it very much. It was smoothly written, researched, considered, an attempt was made at thematic richness, a feminist message was conveyed without betraying the historical realities. It was rich in stuff. It was a romance that Allen obviously worked carefully and hard on. Still. I was, at least initially, deceived into a false sense of reader-enthusiasm. Allen’s Lady had a promising opening: atmospheric, a compelling premise. In the fall of 1815, former Colonel Nathaniel Graystone, Earl of Leybourne, from hereon referrred to as “Gray,” arrives in Portugal’s Douro Valley at his godmother’s, Lady Orford’s, behest. As his barge moors at the port-producing estate of Quinta do Falcão, Gray is beset by memories of the Peninsular War. I thought, “oh, wounded warrior, this could be good … ” (Alas, this aspect of the novel wasn’t dropped. A romance red herring I do not like.)
Gray sees a beautiful woman on shore, dressed in red, lithe, interesting, mysterious. It’s our heroine, the “lady in need of an heir” and estate proprietor, Gabrielle “Gaby” Frost, her family’s sole survivor. Allen’s opening is evocative; her characters, it is soon evident, are at cross purposes, yet there is attraction there, later, liking, affection, and friendship.
Gray’s mission is to return Gaby to England where, his godmother, her Aunt Henrietta, the aforementioned Lady Orford, will introduce her to society and arrange a good marriage. But Gaby is a wealthy, independent woman, one who does not intend to give up her beloved legacy. Gray is an annoyance who must be borne and quickly sent packing … if not for their attraction and liking. Initially, I liked Gray and sympathized with Gaby. Gray was ruefully droll, polite, kind, and gentlemanly. Gaby was intelligent, committed, and truly conveyed her love of the land, her responsibility towards the people who worked it with her, and exhibited a refreshing for a histrom heroine astute business sense.
As a woman working in a man’s world, Gaby’s dilemma is real. There are neighbouring families who machinate to ensnare her for their sons. There’s Gray, though respectful, who cannot fathom why a woman would choose land and work over marriage and family. Gaby can work with and through all this were it not for the question of what will she do to ensure Quinta do Falcão’s existence beyond her life-time. Hence, her idea that she satisfy godmama and Gray by returning to England where she can pretend marriage, have an appropriate man impregnate her, and return to Portugal with a child she can leave the quinta to.
What’s a gal to do? I understood Gaby’s quandary and, outlandish as her solution was, it made sense given who she was, where, and especially when. What didn’t make sense and why, in the end, the romance didn’t work was in how two intelligent people soon became very very stupid. The novel, especially once Gray and Gaby are in London, meandered in all manner of way, was made up of several narrative threads, past and present, that came together in clunky ways. Moreover, the solution to Gaby’s predicament and Gray’s loneliness and sense of post-war uprootedness would be for two people who care about one another and understand each other’s needs to, duh, marry. When Gray’s and Gaby’s realizations finally came about, I’d already spent the brunt of the reading eye-rolling and yelling at them in my head, “Get married already!”
Past the initial commendable opening, the narrative and the hero and heroine exhibited a peculiar pace: languid and lazy as the Douro, then frenzied and staccato. I think Allen was trying to show us how falling in love, having all these strange, new, unruly feelings can make people behave irrationally. Unfortunately, rather than showing us the characters develop in this way, Allen spent too much time in their heads, having them tell us what they were feeling and thinking. This made for a static narrative and I have to admit, I didn’t like it. It was boring. I never drew close to Gray or Gaby and that’s largely because Allen didn’t allow them to breathe and become three-dimensional. All that head-space and telling … tut tut went the reviewer in me. In the end, I dragged my reader-self to the end with a sigh of relief instead of reader-satiation. I can respect what Allen was trying to do in A Lady In Need Of An Heir, but couldn’t enjoy it. With Miss Austen, we say that Allen’s Lady offers “tolerable comfort,” Mansfield Park.
Louise Allen’s A Lady In Need Of an Heir is published by Harlequin Books. It released today, August 21st, and may be found at your preferred vendor. I received an e-ARC from Harlequin Books, via Netgalley.