Avon, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-06-238817-9
Historical Romance, 2017
Julia Quinn is an interesting case study in that she has been writing for a long time, and has achieved enviable success and critical acclaim in the process. But the author is so good at being funny, her later efforts to diversify and try new things often were met with mixed responses. “Where’s the funny?” was a common complaint from fans, but if she went that way and delivered the funny, other folks would go, “Where’s the substance?” I know, I’m part of the latter camp now and then. For a while now, I’ve followed the author as she tries to find that balance between pleasing the fans who want the funny and those who want more feels.
The last Bridgerton Prequel book, Because of Miss Bridgerton, was more of a throwback to the early days of Minx, but alas for me, I thought that one was too childish for my liking. The Girl with the Make-Believe Husband, on the other hand, goes the completely opposite direction: the humor is more toned down, appropriately so given the premise as we shall soon see, while the author aims to bring on more feels. Interestingly enough, this one turns out to be one of the more successful efforts by the author, where I am concerned, in a long time.
Captain Edward Rockesby of Her Majesty’s Army comes to with a terrible pain in the head. He soon learns that he has been out cold for about a week – these things happen when you’re a soldier doing that bang-bang-bang thing in the Colonies – and he doesn’t remember the more recent events leading up to his being knocked out cold. Therefore, when he learns that he has somehow married his friend’s sister, Cecilia Harecourt, well, it’s probably true, no? He doesn’t have full amnesia – he only can’t remember events in the short window of time leading up to his current situation – so he remembers very well of being charmed by Cecilia’s letters to Thomas, and how he eventually piggybacked Thomas’s letters to add his own missives to her. He likes her, so it’s very possible that he may have married her eventually.
Actually, as you can tell from the title of the story, there is no marriage. Cecilia came all the way to Manhattan Island from England because her brother Thomas was supposed injured in the battlefront. In the meantime, her father passed away, and Cecilia has nowhere else to go. She could move in with a maiden aunt, or marry that unpleasant cousin that always exist in stories such as this to be a convenient plot device to push the hero’s pee-pee to the heroine’s hoo-hoo. Worried for her brother and having nothing to lose, our heroine decided to seek out and nurse her brother back to health, only to learn when she arrived that Thomas had gone MIA. Furthermore, she would be tossed out of the camp by the soldiers, so she hastily concocts the story that she’s also Captain Rockesby’s wife. It’s a necessary lie as she waits for Thomas to show up while trying to find out whether anyone knows where he is. Now that Edward is awake and seems genuinely believe that they are married, she begins to feel guilty about her lie.
If you think, from reading the premise, that this is going to be some wartime story with lots of dark moments and pathos, oh, don’t worry – Julia Quinn isn’t pulling a Carla Kelly here. Instead of ducking bullets, Edward and Cecilia soon embark on a more familiar road-style quest to discover where Thomas is and what happened to him. While this may sound rather mundane on paper, I am pleasantly surprised to find how well the author manages to retain an almost whimsical vibe in this story that appeals to me. Humor and idealized, gallant portrayal of love probably would be a wrong fit for a story set in a time when two countries are at war, but here, everything works. Incredulously so, perhaps, but it all works, and I’m charmed. The humor here is not as in your face as some of the author’s books, but there is enough here, nonetheless, to make me smile. A part of me thinks that, maybe – maybe – things are too sunny here for a story with such a premise, but another part of me – the smiling part – tells me to hush and just bask in the improbable whimsy of the whole thing.
Cecilia is a bit of a stock heroine by this author – goody-goody, sweet, a bit naïve at times – but Edward goes all out in bringing on the gallantry, gentlemanly feels. That guy can be really sweet and romantic, and I can understand why our heroine can be flustered by him. I feel a little… flustering… myself now and then. Again, a part of me feels that he’s probably a bit too cheery for a soldier – usually this kind of guy keeps something dark and scary locked away inside of him – but ooh, the feels. The feels are especially abundant in the late third of this story.
Up to that point, I was leaning towards giving this book three oogies. Yes, everything is pleasant and sweet, but something feels missing until the late third of the book. That is when the feels begin to come together to become something more hard-hitting. The author surprises me by not making everything too sunny and sweet for our couple, so some more familiar elements that would feel hackneyed in another story – such as Thomas leaving behind a note supporting a union between his sister and his good friend – ends up being an emotional punch in the gut – as Edward only finds the letter after he learns that Thomas was dead.
And yes, this is another book where I’m docking off one oogie for that cutesy-icky epilogue. I’m already not too pleased by how the last chapter swings from the main characters yelling at one another in a much-needed catharsis immediately to cutesy-poo darling-baby-eek kill-me-now saccharine sweetness in an abruptness that gives me whiplash, but the icky-poo-poo stuff only piles on in the epilogue in a manner that makes me feel like I’m slipping into ketoacidosis.
Still, the rest of the story is very solid, and I’m charmed over well enough to give this one four well-deserved oogies.