Freddie Sullivan is quite desperate. He has run up gambling bills so high that he is to the point where he can't pay them and may have to be sent to debtor's prison. He is ashamed to ask his father to bail him out yet another time so he heads to Bath to find a rich bride. There are three possibles and he settles on Clara Danvers -- the richest and the one who doesn't have a guardian or father to scuttle his chances.
Clara is struck by Freddie's beauty and charm. She is under no illusions about him. She knows he needs a rich wife and she is certainly rich. But she is not beautiful and because of a childhood illness in India she can't walk.
She accepts his proposal and the two marry and embark upon a marriage that is at times wonderful, painful, and revelatory.
Over the years, I had heard a lot about this book. Most people either love it or hate it. The people who hate it are those who point to Freddie's adultery as a deal breaker. He is a terrible hero and thus this is a terrible story and not worthy of being labeled a romance. I disagree. I think anyone who focuses solely on that one aspect of Freddie really misses out on the larger, largely wonderful and moving story.
Freddie isn't simply an adulterer. He is a charming, beautiful man who has two evils: he has a gambling addiction and he hates himself. The two things feed on each other quite destructively. And he does things to constantly punish himself. Before he married Clara, he justified it as the life of a merry bachelor. But after Clara, guilt is added to the stew and his demons gnaw at him in newer ways.
This is not to say this book is a downer or even heavy. No, Balogh uses a very light, deft touch with these issues. Freddie is after all charming and wonderful. Everything is delivered with a smile and bedroom eyes.
I have to admit that when I was reading the early chapters after Freddie proposes to Clara, I despised him. His inner dialogue lets the reader know that he does not find Clara at all attractive and yet is constantly telling her how he has fallen instantly in love and he loves her. It is quite sickening. I mentally kept calling him an asshole and a jerk (well as this is a Regency probably cur, rake, scoundrel or roue would be more apropos).
But my distaste did not last. Freddie is, under it all, a decent person and he takes pains to try to make Clara happy. He respects her and begins to see her as a person. And most of all, he begins to reverse the damaging effects that her father's coddling has wrought for years.
Clara for her part is under no illusions about Freddie. She marries him because, as she puts it, she wants his beauty for herself. She is a pragmatic woman who deals very much in reality. There is one point where Freddie is having the mother of all pity parties and Clara very nicely calls him on his crap and tells him they don't have time for him to feel sorry for himself anymore.
What I found so incredibly gratifying about this story is how these two people actually do grow in love in a way that feels to me to be very grounded in realism to me.
I am absolutely loving my foray into Mary Balogh's early regencies. And this one tops the list.