Harlequin Historical, $6.50, ISBN 978-0-373-29885-3
Historical Romance, 2016
Lady Sephora Connaught has always believed that she is happy. She has a handsome fiancé – Richard Allerly, the Marquis of Winslow – and everyone from her parents to the rest of the Ton assure her that they are a golden couple, compatible in every way. One day, however, she is thrown from her horse into the Thames. Everyone just screams or, in Richard’s case, cowers helplessly, and only one person dives into the waters to save her. That will be Francis St Cartmail, the Earl of Douglas and the pariah of the Ton.
Her brush with death loosens something in Sephora’s heart. All those feelings of malcontent she doesn’t even know she has spring free, and she starts discovering how cold and suffocatingly proper her life. For the first time, she wonders whether she is happy, or she believes that she is because everyone tells her that she should be. Richard, her perfect husband-to-be, left her to drown, and a girl never forgets that. She begins to notice his cutting remarks on her, how he constantly says things that make her feel weak and helpless, and how his constant attempts to control her life are slowly suffocating the life out of her.
And then there is Francis. She knows that he’s probably not someone to bring home to the parents, but that is a man who literally braves the currents to save her, someone he doesn’t know. How can any woman resist?
In Marriage Made in Hope, Sophia James has taken her usual way with words – which is as often poetic and elegant as it is messy and overblown – and somehow, she manages to find that perfect balance between moving poetry and overwrought melodrama to hit all the right notes here. This story reminds me of something Karen Ranney would do on a good day: it is brimming with powerful, fragilely drawn emotions, and at its core is a beautifully depicted emotional and sexual awakening of our heroine. Sephora’s feelings and personality are all vividly drawn to the point that she feels so real to me, and it can be quite heartrending to follow her as she discovers how she wants so much more in life those things that have been determined by the others around her to be best for her, and how she may not have the power to change the course of her life, no matter how much she wants to.
This story is driven by Sephora’s character arc as much as the romance, so in many ways Sephora is a stronger drawn character than Francis. But oh, Francis; he is the quintessential tortured hero with some pretty bleak history, but he’s made even more attractive by the fact that he doesn’t dwell on self pity or mope around with a chip on his shoulder. He recently learned upon the death of his uncle that the uncle had deliberately denied his by-blow daughter a proper upbringing all this while. He decides to take her in and give her a life that should have been hers. He doesn’t explain why, and it is only later that Sephora learns of his past and realizes that he just doesn’t want that girl to live a life without anyone to care for or to care for her. That’s the beauty of someone like Francis – he does things, despite all the baggage he is carrying, and he doesn’t want pity.
The romance, despite all the darker undercurrents caused by both characters’ issues, is actually heartfelt. These two just click so well, it’s obvious to me that they are perfect for one another. The author manages to convince me early on that these two understand the other person very well, so the happily ever after is a very believable one.
Marriage Made in Hope has some issues, of course. Francis’s black sheep status is somewhat undermined by the fact that this book is part of a series, so Francis is BFFs with the heroes of the previous books. How can you be a black sheep when you have powerful BFFs in the Ton? I wish the author had made Francis a real black sheep with no friends, so that his angst would cut deeper into the heart. Or maybe I’m just being sadistic.
I’m also not sure about the subplot of Francis seeking out some shady people responsible for a death in his family. In a longer book, that one may be fine, but in here, that subplot feels underdeveloped, like an excuse just to give the story a more dramatic denouement. I feel that the story may have been much stronger if it had been driven entirely by the characters’ feelings and such.
Also, Sephora’s introspective thoughts, which are very well written, can be repetitive in nature, especially in the middle parts of the book, so I can understand if some readers would find this book a dull read. I put the book down a few times myself during the middle parts of the book, and it is only the late third or quarter of the story that draws me back and convinces me to give this one five oogies – the heroine truly comes to her own and that is beautiful to behold, and she comes to her husband’s defense against the rest of the Ton – that is glorious to behold. Sephora’s character development is one of the best things about this story, and the payoff is just wonderful and on point.
It’s been a while since a book manages to resonate so well with me. Thus, Marriage Made in Hope may hit some bumps on the road along the way, but in the end, the whole ride had been an amazingly turbulent yet satisfying one. Here, take five oogies, take them all – I’m giving them away to this one without any reservations whatsoever because I can’t imagine doing anything less.