Friday 26 April 2013

#CBR5 Book 43. "Love in the Afternoon" by Lisa Kleypas

Page count: 336 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Finally the time has come for Beatrix Hathaway's book. Of all the peculiar and eccentric Hathaway siblings, Beatrix is possibly the freest spirit, the one most unorthodox and unlikely to fit comfortably into the staid norms of polite Victorian society.  She rescues strays and injured animals and nurses them back to health, and if they can't be released back into the wild, then she adopts them as pets, to the mixed amusement and frustration of the rest of her family. Her mischievous ferret was partially responsible for the match her sister Poppy made with Harry Rutledge, and somewhat instrumental in the romance of her governess Catherine Marks and her older brother Leo, as well. Sensitive, philosophical and with a deep love of animals, Beatrix has always been able to charm men, but she is not what they would consider a good marriage prospect.

So Beatrix has pretty much resigned herself that she will become the spinster aunt, when she overhears her friend Prudence complaining about the dull letters from her suitor, Captain Christopher Phelan. One of the handsomest and most eligible gentlemen in Hampshire, Captain Phelan has been called off to fight the war in Crimea. Prudence finds his letters deathly dull, and being a vivacious and attractive beauty, she has many more suitors available to her at home. She has no real intention of writing a reply to Christopher. Beatrix, despite the fact that she overheard Christopher dismissing her as fit only for the stables at a picnic (a comment Prudence saw fit to share with as many people as possible, ensuring that most of the county knew about it too), realises that someone has to write to the brave young man, to comfort him in the hell he's living. She convinces Prudence to let her write a reply, then they'll sign Prudence's name to it, and no one will be the wiser.

Of course, Beatrix and Christopher's correspondence doesn't end with the one letter.  It's clear that the letters are the only bright spots in Christopher's life, and Beatrix can't make herself stop writing, even when she is forced to admit that she's falling in love with him. She finally makes herself to stop, hating that she is deceiving him. Of course, then the war ends, and Christopher comes home, broken in spirit, to find that his beloved older brother has died, leaving him his wealthy grandfather's only heir. He's determined to find Prudence and figure out why her last letter was so cryptic. Why does his widowed sister-in-law keep suggesting he reconsider his opinions about the strange Beatrix Hathaway?

When it comes to romance heroes, many of them are brooding and tortured in some way or other. There is usually only so many ways to explain why they are tortured. In Harry Rutledge's case, it's cause he had a truly awful childhood. On the odd occasion, it's cause some woman did them wrong, or they've lost everyone they loved previously under tragic circumstances,  but the most common cause of tortured heroes in romance is PTSD. They are former war heroes, always excellent soldiers and commanders, who went through hell on Earth while in battle, and now return to face the real world, where no one truly understands what they've gone through. I've seen this story done dreadfully badly, and I've seen it done well. This is definitely one of the best depictions of coaxing a shell shocked war hero back into a semblance of a normal life.

It helps that Beatrix is used to injured and frightened animals, who can't communicate in the same way as humans. When Christopher returns from battle, accompanied by his trusty, but badly behaved terrier, Beatrix treats him the way she would any skittish and traumatised animal. Having shared a tiny part of what he's gone through by reading his letters, she is deeply aware of how hard it is for him to return to Hampshire, where everyone wants to laud him as a conquering hero, and he can only dwell on the many men that he killed, and the comrades he frequently failed to save. There is of course the added complication that she's madly in love with him, and while terrified at how he'll react if he knows she wrote all the letters, she's also worried sick that he'll actually believe the vain and selfish Prudence wrote them, and marry her before he learns the truth.

I really enjoyed Beatrix and Christopher's romance, and a less talented writer would probably have inserted a lot more unnecessary drama into the situation before it was satisfyingly resolved. That's not to say that the road to their HEA is a a smooth and easy one, but the obstacles in their way are realistic ones, that they deal with together. There is no insta-fix here as soon as they acknowledge their feelings for each other. Beatrix has always been used to doing her own thing and having her own way, without having to answer to everyone. Her family have never forced her to give up on anything she enjoyed or stop doing things just because they might be seen as inappropriate. She's never had to compromise, and certainly never consider the feelings of a person who hasn't known her most of her life. Both Beatrix and Christopher have to grow and adapt to fit comfortably with each other, and it's so satisfying to see them manage it. Another highly recommended historical romance, and more evidence as to why Lisa Kleypas is one of the greats.

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