Private Arrangements

Not Quite a Husband
by Sherry Thomas
(Bantam, $6.99, R)  ISBN 978-055-359243-6
Sherry Thomas is back in fine form with her third novel, Not Quite a Husband. This poignant tale of two former lovers who never really knew one another and now discover what they missed will go on many a keeper shelf.

Leo Marsden and Bryony Asquith were childhood acquaintances, growing up on neighboring estates. Bryony was four years older and took little notice of Leo, while he worshipped her from afar. Leo grew up to become a brilliant mathematician, and Bryony followed the difficult path of becoming a female doctor. Their paths crossed again when Bryony and Leo were in their twenties, and Bryony impulsively asked Leo to marry her. Leo just as impulsively agreed.

The union was not happy, for reasons made unclear to the reader for a good part of the book (and the main reason I can’t give this book a five-heart rating; more on that later). Leo couldn’t break through Bryony’s cold-as-ice demeanor in bed, and when she finally asked him for an annulment, he numbly agreed. Bryony left England to travel, eventually ending up in India. It’s here that Leo has come, four years after the dissolution of their marriage, to fetch her home to her dying father at the request of her sister, Callista.

Bryony is suspicious of Callista’s motives, and at first refuses to accompany Leo anywhere. She reluctantly relents, and when Leo comes down with malaria, she nurses him as they wind their way through the Indian countryside. A revolt against the British is brewing, and their path becomes treacherous.

Along the way, Bryony and Leo are forced to examine their feelings for one another, and it’s here that Bryony finally tells Leo why she was unable to respond to him in bed. Readers’ reactions to this revelation are going to differ. I was rather annoyed at Bryony, as her actions smacked of duplicity, and this past history is a major hurdle that must be overcome for their relationship to progress. Both Bryony and Leo have apologies to make, and they must work to overcome their lack of trust in one another, no matter how hot their physical passion flares.

The progression of the romance is very well done, and Thomas is wise to take her time and let Leo and Bryony rediscover each other. Actually, it’s more like “discover”, as they barely knew each other before they wed. Without giving too much away, Bryony’s failure to communicate the reason for her unhappiness doomed their marriage, and it frustrated me that the reader isn’t let in on the backstory until the book is well underway. As the story unfolds, Bryony’s difficult past comes to light and her actions are easier to understand and accept. She ends up being a very sympathetic character.

The book is history-rich, and the author did her homework. The Swat Valley Uprising of 1897 forms the backdrop for the story, and the atmosphere is vivid. Thomas does an excellent job of bringing the primitive conditions of the their journey to life. I could almost smell the horseflesh and taste the dust.

Not Quite a Husband is ultimately a very satisfying, very unusual romance. Bryony and Leo are well-matched, and his unending love for her verges on despair at times, but Leo never seems weak. Nor does he ever really lose hope that they might, just might, have a future together. When he and Bryony get past their initial wariness and distrust and start discovering that they actually like one another, the story really takes off.

For a real summer treat, I urge you to pick up a copy of Not Quite a Husband and see why Sherry Thomas has built such a big fan base with only three books so far. Hers is a rare and special storytelling talent, one not to be missed. 

--Cathy Sova

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