Someone to Love, by Mary Balogh

16 May

This is my (very) late entry in SuperWendy’s TBR Challenge for February. As with my January read, I actually managed to read the book on time¹ but I just haven’t been able to string more than a couple of sentences together for months.

Ah well, c’est la vie, non?

Warning: otherization/fetishization of the one Asian character in the novel.

Someone to Love, by Mary Balogh

This is the first novel in a series about the family of the late Earl of Riverdale, and how his death–and the secrets he kept until then–have affected their fortunes and their very lives. I found the premise very intriguing and read the book quickly and with general enjoyment.

While we are introduced to a rather large cast of characters (I had to check the family tree a couple of times during the first few chapters), as the author is setting up a series of books, the story moves along smoothly, at a sustained pace, to the last chapter or so.

But more on that below. Here, have a blurb:

Humphrey Westcott, Earl of Riverdale, has died, leaving behind a fortune and a scandalous secret that will forever alter the lives of everyone in his family—including the daughter no one knew he had…

Anna Snow grew up in an orphanage in Bath, knowing nothing of the family she came from. Now she discovers that the late Earl of Riverdale was her father and that she has inherited his fortune. She is also overjoyed to learn she has siblings. However, they want nothing to do with her or her attempts to share her new wealth. But the new earl’s guardian is interested in Anna…

Avery Archer, Duke of Netherby, keeps others at a distance. Yet something prompts him to aid Anna in her transition from orphan to lady. As London society and Anna’s newfound relatives threaten to overwhelm her, Avery steps in to rescue her and finds himself vulnerable to feelings and desires he has hidden so well for so long.

The main conflict in the story is not really between the protagonists, as much as how Anna and the Wescotts deal with her very existence and the ties that now bind her to them. On the one hand, we have someone raised like a poor bastard suddenly become part of the haute ton, while an entire aristocratic family are suddenly both destitute and social pariahs. From where I sit, that is plenty of conflict to be getting on with.

I enjoy Ms Balogh’s writing voice in general, and was soon absorbed in the story, as I liked both of the main characters quite a bit, but particularly Anna. It is not often that we see the aristocracy’s disdain for the lower social classes addressed so bluntly in historical romances–because this time, it’s written from the point of someone belonging to said lower classes.

And, to be frank, Anna is much more forgiving of her family and other relatives regarding their first reactions and attitudes toward her, than I would ever be. Fortunately, Ms Balogh stops well short of making Anna a saint.

Then there’s Avery, whom I liked quite well indeed–wit, humor, decency, what’s not to like?–until we got a bit into his back story. Which is when we discover that what allows him to overcome his shyness and physical delicacy as a child/young teen is…a chance meeting with a “Chinaman” who--but of course!–happens to be a master is some never identified martial art, and who–mais naturellment!–takes Avery under his wing and teaches him enough in a few short years to wholly transform Avery’s life, then conveniently exits stage left by dying.

Whereupon I ground my teeth more than a bit. Warning: brief rant ahoy!

So. Given the setup for Avery–who is described as fairly slight as well as barely taller than Anna, and whose defense against a world where his position demands going against his preferences/character–I understand the need to find a way to give him the tools to develop the bone-deep confidence that allows him to live life on his terms in a society that prizes a much different presence and physicality. I even understand the temptation to use the “wise old Asian martial arts master” bit to accomplish this.

It grates, it’s pretty exploitative, offensive and lazy, but okay–it’s also nothing we haven’t seen done before, so we could give it a pass.

However, there is absolutely no need to never give this character a name or a community, not even a family. (Which is done, if I got it right, to make him ~mysterious~ and all the more magical-wise-Asian-mystic type, which SUCKS out loud on its own.)

And there is even less need to kill him off as soon as Avery has learned “enough” to transform himself into a prepossessing, self-confident man about whom things may be whispered (such as whether his relative physical fragility equals his being homosexual, for example), but never said to his face.

By killing this nameless, faceless, isolated “Chinaman” as soon as he has fulfilled his purpose in Avery’s life, Ms Balogh effectively makes him into nothing more than a tool. He’s never truly a person, a human being. He’s nothing but a plot device, discarded the moment the purpose is accomplished.

And before anyone thinks, “but aren’t all/most secondary characters there basically to help the protagonists along?” I’ll ask you to contrast this treatment to what happens when Anna brings to London some of her fellow orphans from Bath, and how they are treated (by the characters and by the author).

::deep breath::

Let’s go back to the main characters and their story, shall we?

We must be willing to suspend disbelief on many levels; from Anna being accepted so readily, and so completely, by most of her wealthy, blue-blooded relatives; to the behaviour of some of the minor characters, to some of the dialogue, etc. If the reader buys into the fantasy, then the book flies by.

I mentioned above that the story kept a consistent pace almost to the end. Keep in mind that this is a story with little to no conflict between the main characters; Anna struggles to adjust to the changes in her circumstances, to develop meaningful relationships with her newfound family, and to maintain a sense of self in the face of Avery’s supreme confidence and calm, as well as his position in society. Not for nothing is he a duke, after all. For his part, Avery mostly keeps his own counsel and enjoys her presence in his life (and his bed, natch).

But all these are pretty straightforward things, without major dramatic events or loud scenes; these two are just likable people falling in love with each other, by way of being friends first.

Which is why I would have been perfectly happy with a heartfelt conversation between them, brought on by nothing more than the need to communicate, instead of what felt like a fabricated conflict near the end of the book.

Because what we do get is yet another installment on the fetishization and dehumanization of Avery’s vaunted ‘master’ as a pretext for his detachment; apparently practicing some ::handwave:: mysterious Asian martial art transforms a person from mere mortal into A DUKE.

Or something.

(Yes, I’m still indignant over Ms Balogh’s use of a nameless, faceless, and conveniently dead Asian character as the magical thing that allows Avery to transform from delicate, shy, hopeless victim to self-confident, calm, detached super-being.)

And yet, I read the novel basically in one sitting, and was invested enough in the rest of the cast that I just kept going; Ms Balogh’s voice is that engaging for me.

So, how to grade this one? Readability? I could easily give it 8.50 out of 10. Racism and bigotry, on the other hand? How about 2.00?

Risking the ire of Balogh fans everywhere, I give Someone to Love 6.00 out of 10.

~* ~

¹ In fact, I read the first three titles in the series one after the other over the course of a weekend; as my reading has been pretty much dismal for years now, I was quite appreciative of Ms Balogh’s skill as a storyteller, despite my issues with some of her choices.

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