I was prepared to love this book. The back cover blurb was intriguing, and the opening scene starts it off with a bang. Unfortunately, so much goes wrong with the characters and the plot that its initial promise is not realized. But if you’re looking for a switch from the ubiquitous romance settings of Regency England and the American West, you may be interested in a book (described by the author as part My Fair Lady and part Out of Africa) set (very briefly) in colonial Africa and (mostly) in Victorian-era Boston. Just don’t expect it to be a jolly fun experience.
Following the death of her father in Africa, Matthew Hawthorne is entrusted with the task of escorting Finnea Winslet to Boston. Finnea’s mother took her son back to Boston when Finnea was only six, and she hasn’t seen either her mother or brother in two decades. She and Matthew meet on a train where other passengers are avoiding the badly scarred man, but Finnea is used to scars (a sign of courage in African warriors) and is not repulsed. When the train derails, he saves her life, but leaves her in the hospital when help arrives.
When Finnea finally reaches Boston, she is surprised to find Matthew, the middle son of a blue-blood family, a resident there. Finnea is totally ignorant of the expected social graces of her family’s class and is an embarrassment to them as she commits one social faux pas after another such as eating the floral decoration and not knowing the proper manner for shaking hands. She seeks out Matthew and asks him to teach her the rules of society. Matthew refuses, partly because he is still suffering from after-effects of his injuries in the fire that killed his wife, but Finnea is determined and eventually overrules him.
She comes to Dove’s Way, Matthew’s house, daily where she meets his lonely six-year-old daughter Mary and gradually coaxes her out of her shell. Matthew’s mother recognizes that he and Finnea are right for each other, but Matthew is insistent that he will never marry again.
Finnea agrees to marry an older man believing he will not make any emotional or physical demands on her, but when she learns that he also despises her and is only marrying her for the company shares he will control as her husband, she breaks the engagement and turns to Matthew to rescue her.
What Finnea envisions as a sham engagement leads to marriage. How can a marriage begun with so little promise between these two wounded souls lead to love and a loving family?
This synopsis makes this sound like these are troubled characters. You better believe it! There isn’t a single, well-adjusted person in the lot. Freud could have spent his whole career here.
Matthew Hawthorne is an excessively tortured hero. Not only was his deceased wife carrying on a very public affair with his best friend (don’t they always?), but he was seriously burned in the fire that followed his discovery of them in flagrante delicto, and now he’s still in debilitating pain, he can’t paint anymore, his father has withdrawn his love, children throw stones at him and call him monster, and his daughter is suffering all kinds of resulting psychological trauma.
Finnea has plenty of problems herself. We know she has some awful emotional baggage but the cause is only revealed in itsy-bitsy dribbles. In addition, her mother deserted her as a child and now isn’t giving her a lick of help to adjust, she’s ostracized by Boston society, her brother is a whiny, selfish jerk, her first love left her at the altar, her would-be husband is only after her money, she’s afraid to give a mother’s love to a child she thinks she’ll only end up injuring, and Boston in the winter is way too cold.
With all this, I don’t need a happily ever after. I’d be willing to settle for merely a little less misery.
But where this story really fizzles is in the romance. It’s abundantly clear that Matthew and Finnea are uniquely perfect for each other, but that’s not necessarily synonymous with love. There are a few excerpts from Matthew’s journal spaced throughout the novel and there are hints of a deep emotional bond established on the long night following the train derailment, but mainly this is a case of being told rather than shown.
We’re told that they each realize they love the other, but the majority of their time is spent agonizing over their past suffering rather than exploring present passion. Since Finnea resists any physical relationship, there’s no evidence that their bodies know what their minds deny.
I regret that the author didn’t spend more time on the portion of the story set in Africa and in particular that she didn’t devote more space to the events of the night following the train derailment. Since this was such a pivotal point in Matthew’s and Finnea’s relationship, I believe the book would be stronger if this section had been more developed.
Matthew is one of three brothers, and it appears that sequels are planned that will feature the remaining two.