June 2009, Historical Romance (1890s India (modern-day Pakistan) and England)
Bantam, $6.99, 338 pages, Amazon ASIN 0553592432 Part of a series
If you want to read Sherry Thomas's third novel, Not Quite a Husband, choose a moment when you have some time to yourself, because this is a book not so much to devour, but to savor at leisure, like a glass of excellent wine.
A short prologue provides us with a glimpse of the deep unhappiness Bryony Asquith feels in her marriage to the Hon. Quentin Leonidas Marsden and the events that lead to her asking for an annulment. Next the story jumps three years forward to Bryony and Leo's next meeting in Chitral on what is now the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. After her marriage failed, Bryony went abroad, to Germany, the United States and finally to India, and now her sister has sent a cable to none other than Leo, who also happened to be in India, about their father's failing health. Bryony agrees to travel south with Leo, and as he first suffers a malaria attack, and later they hear rumors of a possible uprising in the Swat Valley, their journey is prolonged. Being thrown together like this, they are forced to examine together for the first time how and why their marriage went sour.
The book is quite short - those 338 pages are printed in a very large font - but what it lacks in sheer number of words it more than makes up for in depth and intricacy of characterization and description. Sherry Thomas writes in a beautifully evocative, luscious style that had me return to several passages to savor them once more. Her descriptions make you see the places and smell the smells, and each love scene is delightfully sensuous and most satisfyingly illustrative of the way the characters' relationship has developed.
Bryony and Leo are a perfect example of how two brilliant, loving and well-meaning people can founder because of the intensity of their passions and their complete inability to understand each other. Having grown up on two neighboring estates, they actually knew each other as children, but as Bryony is the elder by four years, she ignored Leo entirely, while he admired her from afar. When they meet again in London, she is a dedicated if too serious physician, a pioneer in her field, while he is a brilliant and beautiful mathematician, traveler and playwright, universally admired and lionized and with several publications to his name. As short scenes in retrospect inserted in the story of their journey reveal, both Bryony and Leo are so much in love that when things go wrong, they do so disastrously. Because both err terribly, in quite different ways, one grows exasperated with them in one moment only to suffer deeply with them in the next. (For those who care about grovel scenes: Both characters have one, each time for a very bad mistake, and I found the scenes deeply moving, and quite satisfying.)
What else can I say without giving away too much? The book is a road romance, it deals with childlessless (Bryony is barren), and the age difference between the leads is explored, not just postulated, and influences their relationship in several ways. Leo is a hero who is infinitely masculine and infinitely caring, a true treasure and adorable from page one. Bryony is a bit more difficult to like at times, but when she is ready, she deals with her ghost with great courage, and I grew to like her immensely. I also loved the way the ending was handled, because here speaking of love is not enough, instead the characters must find a way to integrate their relationship with what else they each want to do with their lives, actually in a manner that most real-life couples must. I adored that.
Minor quibbles, which did not detract from my over-all enjoyment, are: Leo is just a tad to universally capable, and in Bryony's past a few too many things went wrong. I see the point for the plot, but this still felt a bit overdone. And I would have given a lot for a map! As for the series aspect: Two of Leo's brothers play an important part in Delicious, and the heroine of this novel makes a short appearance in Not Quite a Husband. It is not necessary to have read Delicious to enjoy Not Quite a Husband, but as the former contains some grave spoilers for the latter, consider yourselves warned.
Not Quite a Husband has everything I want from a romance (well, except a map ...): Delightful but flawed characters I love and can identify with, luscious prose, an interesting setting, and a romance that touches my heart. I can't recommend it enough, and am looking forward very much to Sherry Thomas's next book.
-- Rike Horstmann
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