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Back in the 1990s as the era of the dreadful bodice ripper novels ended, a new kind of historical romance writer emerged, mainly from the USA. These new writers were well educated women, quite often with history degrees, who managed to tell an engaging and appealing love story usually taking place in a reasonably authentic setting. One of this new breed of authors was Connie Brockway who not only writes entertaining romance novels but also eschewed the usual aristocratic brand of hero and heroine in favour of more believable and ordinary folk.
The irascible Horatio Thorne is dead but even from the grave he's manipulating events. Instead of leaving the property of Mill House, as promised, to his great-nephew Avery, Horatio has granted tenancy to one Lillian Bede, a young suffragist. Lillian has been told that if she can manage to make Mill House and its estate into a profitable concern within five years, the property will be hers, the only proviso being that during that time she must pay an allowance to Avery Thorne and should she fail in her endeavour to make Mill House profitable, the property will revert to the absent Avery.
With all the crusading zeal of her suffragette leanings, Lily takes control and though Avery is travelling in Africa, she also manages to track him down and send him his first quarterly allowance together with an accompanying letter which so enrages him he immediately replies. Thus begins a five year correspondence between the two 'enemies' but will they still dislike each other when they eventually meet?
For any romance novel to be a success it, of course, needs a worthy hero and heroine and this book certainly fulfils that criteria. What American romance writers always seem to bring to their novels is a hint of Hollywood, by which I mean that their stories frequently contain that elusive spark between their main protagonists and a large serving of humour as seen in the great screwball rom-coms of the golden age of Hollywood.
Lily and Avery begin their correspondence harbouring completely unfounded impressions of each other. Lily's is based on an early family portrait of Avery, painted when he was a gawky teenager and Avery's idea of Lily is founded on his opinion of suffragettes along with a poorly executed drawing of her which appeared in a newspaper. Despite their pre-conceived ideas of each other, as the correspondence progresses both develop a grudging respect for the other. When the five years are up and Avery returns to Mill House, both of them are shocked to discover that neither looks as they expected and instead of being repelled by their 'enemy', they are each profoundly attracted.
Connie Brockway has created a wonderfully entertaining story with not only elements which could have come straight from a Hollywood movie but also interweaves the more traditional aspects of the romance novel with some solid historical background, all given a more modern twist. The result is a first class romance which leaves the reader rooting for both Avery and Lily.
Although the bulk of Horatio's estate is left to his grandson, Bernard, who is still a child at the time of his death, the reason why Horatio decides against leaving Mill House to Avery as intended is because he feels that not only is his great-nephew somewhat physically weak but also lacks responsibility. What Horatio's opinion does, however, is spur Avery to leave England and embark on a trip through Africa. As a means of supporting himself and his lifestyle, he writes stories of his adventures on the Dark Continent which are published in journals back home, turning him into something of a hero along the lines of a Stanley or Dr Livingtstone. Lily, of course, refuses to believe these stories are true, still seeing in her mind's eye the lanky teenager of the portrait and failing to recognise that people change.
The correspondence between these two turns from initial formality into literary sparring, each trying to score points over the other and the reader is let into the joke by not only reading what these two think of each other but also knowing that their impressions are entirely false. As the correspondence progressed, I could hardly wait for these two to meet at last.
If anything Lily, though supposedly a suffragette, speaks more with the voice of a twentieth century women's libber with lots of scornful references to men, which I think is probably very untypical of a late nineteenth century suffragette who was far more interested in gaining the right to vote than in taking snide potshots at the entire male population. Aside from that little quibble, Lily makes a very likeable heroine. She's rather taken aback to discover when she arrives at Mill House that Horatio's sister and daughter-in-law live there and she feels like an interloper but once she gets to grips with running the estate, she really comes into her own. Again, this is the author putting a modern spin on events but quite frankly, by this time, I was so invested in the story that it didn't matter that this was an unlikely scenario.
The secondary characters are equally as engaging and appealing as the main protagonists and it's often through them that the reader learns Avery's back story. He's had a pretty miserable childhood and adolescence and whether he admits it or not, Horatio's will has given him the incentive to actually make something of himself. Avery is not at all stereotypical: he's no rakish man-about-town and he possesses a vulnerability which makes him seem very real. In fact, both Avery and Lily have slight flaws and foibles which make them instantly appealing.
What I really liked about this book is that events take place over a period of years, making the romance much more believable and even when Avery and Lily meet, they behave in a typical Victorian manner, each addressing the other formally as Mr Thorne and Miss Bede, at least initially. As an American, Connie Brockway has also had the good sense to steer clear of glaring Americanisms and the feeling of time and place are very believable.
Like most romantic fiction, this isn't great literature but I read to be entertained and this book certainly does that. It's a delightful and well-written love story with engaging and believable characters. For me, it was a five star read.
New copies of this book are available online for £4.67 or Kindle edition for £3.83 and used copies can be picked up for 1p plus postage.