Monday 9 December 2013

#CBR5 Book 139. "Not Quite a Husband" by Sherry Thomas

Page count: 341 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Briony Asquith and Leo Marsden grew up on neighbouring estates. Leo loved Briony long before she was even aware of him as anything but the baby Marsden, youngest of four brothers. So when the brilliant, yet socially awkward lady physician proposed to outgoing, talented renaissance man Leo, he was elated, but no one else in society thought it would last. And it didn't. Growing increasingly more distant and cold from their wedding day, Briony starts to actually recoil from Leo's touch, and no matter how he tries to get her to open up, physically and emotionally, their marriage seems doomed. When Briony wakes up one morning with a stark white stripe through her dark hair, she files for an annulment.

Three years later, Leo shows up at Briony's medical clinic in a remote corner of India. Briony's sister has been writing both of them for years with melodramatic stories trying to push the two back together, but this time he's fairly certain she's not lying about Briony's father's health being in danger. Much of India is at the the brink of rebellion, and he feels it's his duty to get Briony back to England safely. Leo doesn't know exactly why their marriage failed, but he's convinced it must have been his fault, that he failed or mistreated her in some way.

Briony is not convinced her sister isn't lying once again, but she also knows that she would never forgive herself if her father dies and she did not try to return to his bedside. She reluctantly goes with Leo, uncomfortable in his presence, but with no other choice of escort. As the couple make their way through the rough Indian countryside, dealing with first Leo's malaria, then a violent and bloody native rebellion as they seek refuge in a nearby fort, they find that the three years apart may have allowed both of them to heal some of their hurts, and open up lines of communication to the other. Can they finally talk about all the things that made their all too brief marriage so miserable, and maybe begin to forgive each other and themselves?

Romances are mostly all about escapism, and the process of falling in love, and we rarely see past the HEA, or Happy For Now. Because of a shocking discovery, Briony was completely unable to trust Leo and started drawing away from him, beginning on the day of their marriage. They never got to Happily Ever After, their marriage just went from bad to worse to impossible to continue. Clearly always an intensely private and introverted person, Briony has difficulties forming attachments, even within her own family. Leo accepted her marriage proposal happily, but didn't really know the woman he married, just the idealised idea he'd made of her. As is the case in a lot of romances, there is a marked lack of clear communication between the heroine and hero, but in Not Quite a Husband it would never have been possible for Briony and Leo to have the honest conversations they needed to have to resolve their marital difficulties at the point where their marriage fell apart. Unlike in some books, where you just want to shake the protagonists and make them have a single conversation that would resolve everything, here there is no such easy fix.

Three years have given both of them time, to change and grow as people and while they may not have wanted to, to consider and gain some perspective of why they never managed to make their brief marriage successful. Both have travelled the world, hearing fanciful stories about what the other was up to from Briony's younger sister. Leo just wants to atone for whatever he must have done wrong to make Briony hate him so much in the past. Spending days in his presence, some of it nursing him back to health, Briony realises that the discovery she made shortly before she married him, no longer hurts her, and she no longer recoils from his touch. In fact, she craves it. The danger they find themselves in force them to finally be honest with one another, and they find a new and unaccustomed closeness, that should have been their when they wed.

This book is so good because it takes so many of the romance conventions and twists them. As in many of Thomas' other books, there is so much bitterness and pain between the couple. They have such enormous power to hurt the one they love, and frequently do. It's not an easy book to read, but as Leo and Briony start to actually open up to each other, instead of lashing out, and work to heal the damage they've previously done to one another, it feels more emotionally powerful than that of a lot of frothy romances with meet-cutes and humorous banter and a shiny fantasy version of what life really is. Most romance couples don't actually have to struggle with marital difficulties and really work to save their relationships. Yet when Briony and Leo finally do solve their troubles, they've truly earned their happiness, and it's probably more real because of their hardships.

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