Mary Balogh's Indiscreet (1st book in the Horsemen Trilogy) was reissued last fall and I bought it last month when it went on sale ($2.99)
Balogh was one of the first romance novelists I encountered when I started raiding my library's ebook collection in 2011. Although I usually enjoy her novels, I found myself distressed about a quarter of the way into Indiscreet:
Reading Balogh's Indiscreet & I'm not sure I can ever like hero. So entitled & self-centered. Hate his POV, just want to smack him #bkbrk— Ana Coqui (@anacoqui) April 14, 2017
Indiscreet is the story of Catherine Winters and Rex Adams. Catherine is a widow living a quiet life in a small village. Catherine lives alone in a small cozy cottage, has a playful dog and a peaceful routine of piano lessons and visiting shut-ins. Although no one in town knows much about Catherine's past, she has up to now given everyone little cause to speculate.
Rex disturbs all that. Rex has come with his friends to visit his twin brother Claude, resident of the grand manor home in the area. He is resigned to enduring two weeks of his sister-in-law's matchmaking efforts in order to enjoy some quality time with his brother and sister. But as they parade through town his catches on the young widow when he receives Catherine's misdirected curtsy and smile (she thinks she is greeting Claude), and he sees in it invitation and flirtation. Seeing an opportunity for a convenient liason with the local widow, Rex eagerly pursues her. Catherine is confused, mortified, offended and to her consternation a little turned on by Rex attentions.
Catherine is lonely, and struggling with her aloneness in ways she hasn't had to struggle for the five years since she moved to the little village. She had thought those feelings and desires would no longer trouble her and even though she dislikes Rex's presumptions and assumptions she finds herself enjoying his kisses. But in the end, she has too much to lose and he has too little respect for her and her concerns.
But it is too late, Rex in his self-centered pursuit, has taken too little care with guarding Catherine's reputation, and rebuffs his sister-in-law's efforts at matchmaking (she is set on pairing him with her younger sister) with little grace. He fails to realize till much to late what kind of target he has placed on Catherine.
I very much hated him at this point in the novel. His frustrated and hurtful words whenever she rejects him, are sharp and prick her more deeply than he knows because he knows nothing of her history. At that point in the novel, I wasn't quite sure I could go on. I just wasn't sure how he could grow enough, or do enough to make me have like him. My usual trick of jumping to the back of them book wasn't very effective and I was about to abandon it, despite adoring Catherine, because she is just the kind of heroine I adore. Prickly, wounded, but full of pride and determination and above all fiercely independent. Thankfully Janine Ballard happened to be on twitter right then. She is a huge fan of this book and she insisted that Balogh would address all the things that made me upset. The slut-shaming, the privilege and the callousness would all matter. Thus encouraged I persevered.
@anacoqui Mostly what I love the book for is the exploration of slut-shaming and "ruin." So effective and powerful.— Janine Ballard (@janine_ballard) April 14, 2017
I have to agree with Janine. It was effective and powerful. Catherine's fall in the eyes of the community was sharp, painful and so believably rendered. But I am so thankful for Balogh's inclusion of Miss Downess, the late rector's spinster daughter, who reaches out to Catherine when no else does. Who risks her own reputation to show kindness and love to her. That was such a magnificent grace note, that balanced the extreme viciousness of Mrs. Adams's behavior. Daphne and Clay's compassion was also genuine and necessary.
Clarissa and Claude Adams were an incredibly fascinating secondary characters. Claude and Rex are twins, who used to be close and still share an emotional bond but have vastly different lives. Claude married and settled down young. He has two children and doting wife. He is content. Rex might have the title, and its vast inheritance but he has what Rex once though he wanted. Another writer might have drawn Clarissa without any redeeming features, but in Balogh's hand she is dangerously petty, blind in her privilege and position and extremely vicious, but she is also a loving wife. Her despair as she realizes how deeply she has disappointed Claude and how her behavior might cause lasting harm to her marriage was real.
"They had discovered something new about each other during the past few weeks. He had discovered that in addition to the selfishness and arrogance that he had been able to tolerate with some humor down the years, she could occasionally be vicious. She had discovered that despite his kindness and indulgent nature, he could sometimes be implacable and unforgiving. It was not a happily-ever-after in which they lived." From Chapter 15
Clarissa like Rex will come to know real regret and remorse. While Clarissa and Claude encounter this threat to their marriage 10 years in, Rex and Catherine face it at the start. Can they come to love, respect and treasure each other when all they have tying them together is duty & guilt?
Balogh goes all in on guilt. Catherine does not magically become less reticent and Rex is not magically less pushy. They grate on each other, they misunderstand each other, and above all they don't trust each other for a great deal of the novel. Yet, a delicate relationship starts to develop and somewhere along the way their desire to make it work overcomes their desire for self-preservation.
Rex's guilt and remorse are not a debilitating thing but a trans-formative force. He seeks to restore to Catherine what has been taken from her, not just by himself but by others long before. At one point in my conversation with Janine, I quipped that he better make her damn happy and in the end they are happy but not because he made her so. Instead he sets in motion actions that remind her of the the fire and life she used to want, the person she used to be and she is the one who stops being passive, and defeated. The fact that she doesn't have to do this once but several times, it part of what makes Balogh a master. Nothing was simple or straight forward. Their victories are precarious and fragile things, their love is a fragile thing. I could have smacked Rex again in that last chapter for putting Catherine through what he did but it was out of desire to set things right, instead of selfishness.
It was particularly interesting to read this novel on Easter. The beats of loss, sacrifice, despair, resurrection and restoration were very familiar and part of what keeps me reading romance.