Sourcebooks Casablanca, $6.99, ISBN 978-1-4022-9586-7
Historical Romance, 2014
Thornbrook Park is for people who love Downton Abbey. The publicity material isn’t even subtle about this, promising that this story will deliver “all the intrigue, mystery, and grand romance fans of Downton Abbey crave”. I personally am not a fan of the show, but I’m pretty sure I know what intrigue, mystery, and grand romance mean. And this story has none of those three things. In fact, aside from the fact that this story has all the wallpaper trappings of the early 20th century – this one is set in 1906 – the core story remains the same old stuff.
Once again we have another widow who is left impoverished after her husband died. Eve Kendal is actually of noble birth, but her family disowned her after she decided to marry her unsuitable husband. She thought it’d be fine – it would be just her and her husband making a new life in India, madly in love, together against the world. And then he died, oops. She decides to come back to England to start anew again, and she accepts the invitation of her childhood friend Sophia (who is now the Countess of Averford) to stay at Thornbrook Park.
Also at Thornbrook Park is Sophia’s brother-in-law, Captain Marcus Thorne. A former soldier full of woe and guilt – is there any other kind? – he is a prizefighter and gambler gathering the pounds to support the family of his dead comrade whom he feels greatly indebted to. When Sophia’s letter arrives inviting him to Thornbrook Park, he decides to accept in order to schmooze up to his brother (whom he is never close to) and convince the man to install his dead friend’s widow as a staff in the household.
Sophia wants to pair off her sister Alice to Marcus, while Eve and Marcus have an attraction. So what happens now? Well, as you can probably guess, it means that those two would have an affair, each convinced that it must be a short and temporary one, as Marcus will have to marry Alice in order to get his dead friend’s wife a job while Eve is convinced that she is infertile and, therefore, she must not let any man offer for her as it would surely ruin that man’s life forever. Oh, and of course, she gets knocked up in the end – hero’s baby goo saves the day! In other words, this is another story where two people come up with silly eye-rolling melodramatic reasons to play the martyr while coming off as utterly self-absorbed twats in the process. As Sophia snidely puts it, it is so thoughtful of Eve to let Alice have her sloppy seconds now that Eve is convinced that she can’t be with Marcus anymore. The fact that the author has Sophia point out Eve’s thoughtlessness convinces me that she knows how her characters are being – so I can only wonder why she goes ahead with this without trying to make her characters come off as, at the very least, a bit more smart in their dramatic flailing.
Both Marcus and Eve are stock characters with unfortunately typical shallow baggage. As I’ve mentioned in an earlier spoiler bar, Eve’s issue gets solved by the power of true love, so to speak. It’s the same with Marcus. When the story opens, I’m told that he is a raging drunk with a “rage” boiling up inside him, waiting to come out. Naturally, once he meets Eve and has his little soldier all lined up and ready to go, his problems miraculously vanish. You can’t be a raging alcoholic with temper issues if you are in love – love makes everything okay with everyone!
Meanwhile, the staff of Thornbrook Park are mostly of the cheerleader parade sort. They can definitely tell that the two are in love, so let’s all wave feather dusters in the air and cheer those two on! Is it like this in Downton Abbey too? Not content with enough telling already, the author also introduces an aunt who apparently can communicate with spirits and spends the bulk of her scenes telling everyone that it is time to love, heal, forgive, whatever – Agatha is like a greeting card shop possessed by evil poltergeists; she will not stop until we are all bludgeoned to death by those insipid sugary sentiments that she wields like a bloody sledgehammer. Wait, there is one bad apple among the staff – that lecherous maid who attempts to blackmail Marcus into sleeping with her. I don’t get that one, to be honest – it’s not like she is hoping to make lots of money out of the whole thing, and Marcus doesn’t seem to me like some guy who’d be worth all that nonsense to get into bed with!
Oh, and there is also a mystery subplot involving Eve’s solicitor and possibly some skeletons in her late husband’s closet. This one feels exactly like a filler, right now to the usual “The heroine is in danger!” dramatic moment that will be resolved within a few paragraphs.
Thornbrook Park, at the end of the day, suffers from many issues that keep it from being a solid read. The romance is shallow, superficial, and built on overused tropes. The author doesn’t seem confident that I would “get” the romance, as she also loads her story with not-very-subtle cheerleader eggheads and a creepy aunt that doubles as the author’s avatar. Character growth is simplistic and unbelievable – true love magically drives out every bat in one’s belfry – and the mystery is dull, clichéd, and wrapped up with minimal effort. It doesn’t resemble Downton Abbey much at all outside of superficial things like, ooh, this is a big house and, ooh, here are some maids with feather dusters. So why read this book at all? I don’t believe I have a good answer, I’m afraid.