Sourcebooks Casablanca, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-4022-8685-8
Historical Romance, 2015
As a book aimed at fans of Downton Abbey, this one would probably feel too similar to the average historical romance in terms of setting to stand out. But if we overlook the marketing gimmick, The Great Estate has one very significant feature that may be of interest to readers: this is the story of two married people trying to make a second go at a happy marriage, but it is refreshingly – shockingly – free of blame, painful communication breakdown, evil mistresses, and nasty parents.
Gabriel Thorne, the Earl of Averford, and his wife Sophia haven’t felt the magic in a long time. In fact, they seemed to have fractured their relationship even worse than usual when Gabriel caught Sophia kissing another guy about a year before this story begins. He took off to the Continent, leaving Sophia at home to stew and wonder how she will get him back while at the same time running Thornbrook Park (using the incompetent estate manager as a front) and discovering that she enjoys being the head lady in charge. Now, Gabriel is back in her life. Will there be a happy ending this second time around?
Here’s the interesting part: Gabriel blames himself for Sophia’s kissing the other guy. He recognizes that he ignores the warning signs, takes the wife for granted, and when she succumbed to the kiss of another man, it was actually a wake-up call for him. Instead of running off to plot divorce or revenge like Sophia feared, he actually studied poetry, music, and tales of romance like the nerd he is to make himself a more romantic person. On Sophia’s part, she wants Gabriel back – the kiss was a big mistake, she knew it the moment it happened – and she too is willing to make some concessions to make the marriage work again. However, she is also no longer that young lady content to let all the big strong men around her tell her how to live her life. How she will get her husband to accept this newly awakened aspect of her… well, that can be a bit of a challenge, although Gabriel is fortunately a pretty reasonable fellow. I mean – he’s willing to kick his own mother out of their house. How many husbands would do that for the wife?
The efforts of Gabriel and Sophia to be more romantic and sexy may seem superficial at a glance, but they are doing the right thing, as their sexual awkwardness was one of the causes of their drifting apart even before they lost their child. Gabriel felt inadequate as he could never seem to give Sophia pleasure in the bedroom, and his efforts to spice up their sex life only seemed to put Sophia off. On her part, Sophia believed that a woman who showed too much passion in bed was not proper, so she always held back, and now she wonders whether that may be one of the reasons why they could never get their sexual chemistry right.
As I’ve said earlier, there is no blaming or shaming in this story. Shocking, I know! But this actually plays right to the author’s strength, as Sherri Browning tends to write more lighthearted romps, and her attempts to showcase angst in her characters often felt contrived and over-simplistic in the past. Both characters can be silly and immature, but they are refreshingly self-aware, so after some soul-searching, they realize that they have a part to play in the breakdown of their marriage. And instead of blaming the other person, they seek to improve whatever aspects of themselves that they felt to be weaknesses that caused the breakdown. I like this. I like how they both want their marriage to work, and how they both are prepared to do some work to make that happen.
Of course, they stumble and bumble sometimes, which gives rise to some little drama along the way. The end result is a light and frothy tale, Some readers may feel that it is too bubbly for a second-time attempt at love story, especially since the issues that caused their initial drifting apart can feel pretty real, but I’m okay with it personally. After all, I find myself chuckling at the sillier moments, and I think the romance is actually pretty fine in its own right. The author has a nice balance of romance and some light angst here and there, and I’ve had a good time here. That the annoying Aunt Agatha is not shoved at my face is icing on the cake.
However, the story begins to meander in its late stages. It is as if the author had run out of ideas for the couple, so she starts bringing up and dragging out subplots that are nowhere as interesting as the main couple. The Great Estate could have ended a few chapters earlier, if you ask me. Still, this is a nice and charming story, and it’s also an interesting demonstration that second-time romances can actually work without the usual screaming matches and blaming everything on the parents or the hero’s evil mistress.