I was thrilled to find Mary Balogh's newest book in my bag to review. She is an author who can always be counted upon for excellent writing and thoughtful characterization, and I love the Regency period that she has made so completely her own. One Night For Love was everything I have come to expect from a Balogh title, but I must confess that it was not an easy book to read.
This is foreshadowed in the first couple of pages when the heroine, Lily Doyle, is described by another character as having "…been through a great deal that would severely test the roughest and toughest of my men. But she must have experienced worse things that we can only imagine." What could be worse than the war experiences of a veteran of the Spanish Peninsula campaigns against the French?
The story opens as Lily is journeying to Newbury Abbey. We know nothing about her, except for dire hints like those quoted above. She arrives in Upper Newbury, is refused access to the Earl of Kilbourne and discovers the next day that his wedding is about to be celebrated. By the time Lily arrives breathlessly at the church, the reader's uneasiness has given way to the conviction that Lily is, in fact, a pre-existing Countess of Kilbourne.
Neville Wyatt, the Earl, acknowledges Lily with stunned joy. Naturally, he thought she was dead. Gradually, Lily's story is revealed: from the dream-like innocence of her marriage in Portugal to Neville (Major Lord Newbury at the time), to the ugly brutality of her injury and captivity.
To Neville's credit, none of this deters him from hoping that he and Lily can have a life together. Unfortunately, building that life will not be easy. Lily, a commoner, is hopelessly out of place at Newbury Abbey. Not only is she a social misfit, but her unfettered love of nature and the intensity of her experiences leave her with little patience for the vapid society that is her husband's birthright. It's not just a question of can she fit in, but will she want to?
Lily is a wonderful character; a survivor whose determination, calm good sense and pragmatism invest her with a kind of natural wisdom that is very appealing. Indeed, she is such a strong and attractive character, and so richly drawn, that the main energy of the story centers on her struggle to integrate her experiences and use them for growth. Although Neville, and her love for him, is the inspiration for both her journey out of captivity and her emotional journey toward wholeness, his assistance in that process is minimal. Their ultimate reconciliation is more of a triumph for her than a success for them.
Neville is well intentioned, honorable, charming and somewhat callow. He is an unusual hero in that it is his passivity, more than any mistaken or wrong-headed action, that comes between him and Lily. Although he is the only son of an Earl, he goes to war to avoid living the life that was planned for him. That life included marriage to a step-cousin of whom he is very fond, but for whom he feels no particular passion. In fact, his only passion seems to be Lily, but he only dares to marry her after her father is killed and she is left defenseless. Their one night of love is a transcendent experience for him, but after she is shot before his eyes in the ambush that leaves him unconscious, he accepts that she is dead and does not try to find her body.
Returning home after his father dies, he accepts the inevitability of marriage to Lauren, his cousin, and prepares to embrace the life from which he fled six years before. When Lily appears, he accepts her return. Although he regrets the pain he knows this is causing for Lauren, he can do nothing to ease the turmoil and confusion that she and all his family suffer.
Lauren is another complex character; neither a cardboard foil for Lily's virtues nor a cipher whose presence serves only the plot. In fact, she is so sympathetic, and Neville's treatment of her is so inept, that it is sometimes difficult to enjoy Lily's reappearance in his life. The reader is left hoping desperately that Lauren will have her own happy ending in some later book.
Some readers may be disappointed in the plot. Two overly familiar devices are used to begin and end the story. The first, the not-dead wife, I've told you about; the second will be ridiculously easy to deduce. If this kind of thing annoys you, have a care; however, I had the most difficulty reading about Lily's ordeal as a prisoner of war.
Some readers may be uncomfortable identifying with a character, particularly a heroine, who has suffered, or is suffering this kind of dehumanizing experience. I have to work so hard to protect myself from the painful images in such a story that I can't relax and be nourished by the book.
Having said that, I must also acknowledge that Lily's story is told with compassion and gravity. Neither the experience itself, nor the emotional aftermath is sensationalized or trivialized. It is chiefly because of the restraint and sensitivity that Mary Balogh brings to this story that I am recommending this book She did not manage to make this a comfortable read, but it is not a frivolous one. Overall, it is beautifully told and rich with the kind of emotional and historical detail that has become this author's trademark. Lily is a heroine whose challenges may bring you to tears, but whose emotional triumph will not disappoint.