I would characterize this book as one where the parts are better than the whole.
This is the author's debut novel and I must give my biggest praise for the writing. There are moments of absolute brilliance in the writing here. Places where Theo's thoughts are almost poetic or where one of Martha's observations (usually about male sexuality) is so dry and dead-on that I was startled into laughter.
She also created a very strong sense of place. I felt very much the poverty of the tenant farmers on Theo's land and the class distinctions that existed between the titled class, local gentry and the laborers.
Theo was also a well developed character that didn't feel like a typical romance hero. He is a wastrel son and acts like it. But not in the dissipated, don't-give-a-damn alpha hero way. But rather in the way a spoiled heir would behave. He has no discernible skills but his father exiles him to their Sussex estate to make him grow up a little. Underneath it all he is a good person who through the book learns responsibility. He is also warm and approachable. And while you might sometimes wonder at the ease in which he enters into a bargain with a total stranger to make a baby, you are never in doubt of his sincerity in trying to connect with the heroine on both a physical and emotional level.
And therein lies what I think is one of the more problematic issues with the novel. The heroine Martha. In some ways she is a great character construct. She is somewhat of a reformer, believing in education of women and the bettering of the poor. She is high minded and somewhat of a rigid moralist (the whole conceive-a-baby-and-pass-it-off-as-your-dead-husband's-to-keep-an-estate scheme notwithstanding). I really didn't mind the more rigid aspects of her personality or even the prickliness of her nature, necessarily. But Somehow everything added up to her being a very distant person who I found to be hard to really like. I really tried to put my finger on why I found it so difficult to warm to her. In the end I think it is because her inner dialogue and thoughts didn't really let me in
. Her private thoughts were just as distancing as her external actions. So as a reader I couldn't really get in sympathy with her.
There was also a layer of hypocrisy there as well. Truthfully Martha does acknowledge this, but still, I couldn't help but dislike the fact that she felt very moralistic and judgey regarding Theo's attempts to actually get her to enjoy sex. She couldn't like having sex because that would be wrong. But propositioning a stranger to get you pregnant to steal an inheritance was ok?
My other main issue with the book is the pacing. The lion's share of the book took too much time with Martha being distant & moral and judgey and with Theo trying his mighty best to thaw her out. It was sometimes uncomfortable to read about her unbending will to stay unaffected and his disappointment in his efforts. It had the effect of making the book feel like it was standing still. The bedroom scenes served to stall the forward momentum because it seems like Theo was making no progress whatsoever.
When Martha gets into the groove, begins to enjoy herself and actually has an orgasm (finally!), I noticed only about 77 pages left in the book. But it was as if that opened up a dam or something because those last 77 pages moved much better than the first 269 pages. The pace crackled, events got exciting, I couldn't wait to see how the whole plan turned out. While I struggled a bit to get into that first part of the book, that last bit became a real page turner.
I liked how things did turn out and I liked the ending. So while this book didn't work for me on some levels, I would definitely look for future books by this writer.