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  • Hannah Fielding - Romance Novelist

From the blurb:

Lady Gwendoline Muir has experienced her fair share of tragedies in her short life: she lost her husband to a freak accident and developed a limp after falling from horseback. Still young, Gwen is sure that she’s done with love and that she will never be married again.

Gwen tries to be content with her life as it is and to live through the happy marriages of her brother and her best friend, Viscountess Ravensberg. She’s happy for them and for years that is enough for her . . . until she meets Lord Trentham – a man who returned from the Peninsula Wars a hero but is unable to escape the bite of his survivor’s guilt. For he might just be the man who can convince her to believe in second chances.

This is the first book in a new series – The Survivors’ Club – by Mary Balogh. The ‘survivors’ are six men and one woman who were all in one way or another affected by the recent Napoleonic Wars. All six recuperated after the wars at Penderris Hall in Cornwall, where they healed their physical or emotional wounds. During this time they developed a close friendship, and before they left to rebuild their lives they committed to returning to Cornwall each year for a few weeks.

This first book deals with the story of Hugo Emes, Lord Trentham, born and raised in the middle class, who was awarded his title after leading and surviving a Forlorn Hope in the war. A stern, moody and somewhat blunt man, Hugo is unable to escape his guilt over surviving the war and is uncomfortable with his elevated status; he dreams of a quiet life in the country. But Hugo has recently inherited his father’s considerable business and fortune, and Hugo promised his dying father he would pass the business on to his own son, and look after his half-sister, Constance, too. Hugo has realised that he cannot achieve either of these aims by himself, so this year he has come to Cornwall to seek advice from his friends on how to find a wife.

Gwendoline Grayson, Lady Muir, is staying in the same village in Cornwall, visiting a recently widowed friend. Gwen is not a new character to fellow previous readers of Mary Balogh’s books. She has been a minor character in the stories of her brother and sister-in-law (One Night for Love and A Summer to Remember), who also appear in this book. Like Hugo, Gwen has had her fair share of tragedy; a widow herself for several years, her husband suffered from severe depression following the loss of their unborn child in a horse riding accident. Gwen has since been content to be alone, living through her family, but recently she has been feeling lonely, and has been considering looking for a husband for companionship. Gwen is out walking on the beach one day when she stumbles and sprains her ankle. Hugo spots her, and carries her back to Penderris Hall, where she stays for a week to recuperate. The chemistry, beautifully described, is evident at once:

Gwen glanced at Lord Trentham, who was silently sipping his tea, his dark eyes resting on her. He was, she thought in some surprise and with a little shiver of awareness, a terribly attractive man. He ought not to be. He was too large to be either elegant or graceful. His hair was too short to soften the harshness of his features or the hard line of his jaw. His mouth was too straight and hard-set to be sensuous. His eyes were too dark and too penetrating to make a woman want to fall into them. There was nothing to suggest charm or humor or any warmth of personality. And yet… And yet there was an aura about him of almost overpowering physicality. Of masculinity.   

The story follows Hugo and Gwen as their relationship develops and they explore whether it is possible for two people from two completely different backgrounds, both so eaten up by their own internal anguish, to find middle ground where they can be together – and if they even want to be together at all. The author takes you from the London season and balls of the stiff and rule-driven upper classes to the working life and struggles of the middle and lower classes in both London and the country, providing a broad look at life in England during the era.

The book is expertly written from both Hugo and Gwen’s perspectives, sometimes going over the same situation twice and allowing the reader to fully understand why the two characters behave in the way they do. I agree with Gwen: there is definitely something about Hugo, something Mr Darcy-esque. He is a complicated man with several layers, and despite your head telling you that you shouldn’t like him, your heart won’t listen. I really enjoyed reading about these two characters as they dealt with their own internal demons, their complicated families and class structures, and their decisions about whether to take a chance in love – and the author’s wonderfully warm way of conveying these themes:

… no one could tell you about love or romance or what would happen if you married and the romance dwindled away. You could only find out for yourself. Or not find out. You could face the challenge or you could turn away from it. You could be a hero or a coward. You could be a wise man or a fool. A cautious man or a reckless one. Were there any answers to anything in life? Life was a bit like walking a thin, swaying, fraying tightrope over a deep chasm with jagged rocks and a few wild animals waiting at the bottom. It was that dangerous–and that exciting. Arrgghh!

This book also sets the scene nicely for the following books on the other six members of The Survivor’s Club, which I very much look forward to reading.

The Proposal is available now from Amazon; click on the book cover below to visit the store.

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