In 1797, Sophie Pinnock is a twenty-year old widow and a talented landscape architect. She is seeking employment on her own after several years of her work being produced under a man's name, first her late husband, then a shifty business partner who is claiming credit for her accomplishments. To this end, she approaches Cassian Carysfort, Lord Bevington.
Cass, who is interested in having his gardens redone in the modern style, is interviewing landscape architects. His initial doubts that Sophie is capable of handling the work quickly disappear. He offers her the assignment, but his real motive is to keep Sophie around so that he can work her into another position, that of his mistress. Sophie is highly moral and resolutely and repeatedly refuses his proposition.
Cass's sister Cecelia and her young son have joined him in England after several years in Portugal. Also living on Cass's estate is a friend and poet, Andrew Searle, who is suffering from a decrease in poetic inspiration and an increase in laudanum addiction. (English literature enthusiasts will recognize the creative genesis of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" when Andrew visits his friend Samuel Coleridge.) The mysterious disappearance of one of the servants is only one indication that there are secrets that may threaten Sophie and others near to her.
As a librarian, I have to applaud the author's solid research into eighteenth century gardens and styles of landscape architecture. Sophie's conversation and actions give evidence of the author's knowledge of this esoteric field. Too often I've read romances where the author's lack of research into her subject was glaringly obvious. Ms. Porter has done her homework and it shows.
I wish I could be as positive about the hero and heroine.
There's nothing the matter with Sophie that a few years couldn't cure. Her stated age of twenty simply seems too young. She is supposed to have learned her vocation from her late husband, but he died two years previously and had been sick for a considerable length of time prior to his death. Either Sophie's a quick study or landscape architecture isn't all that difficult to learn. Furthermore, Andrew observes that she's past the stage of romantic fantasies but still of childbearing age. (Never before has twenty sounded so old!) If the author had made Sophie closer to thirty, I might have been more willing to accept her portrayal.
My real reluctance is reserved for Cass. Although the author portrays him sympathetically, I felt that his characterization was in conflict with his actions. No pampered aristocrat from birth, his family background is in trade, and he only achieved his rank on the death of the prior Lord Bevington, a very distant relative. In addition, his sister's blighted love affair has made him fiercely protective of her and her son. He despises the man who took advantage of her innocence. But what's his attitude toward Sophie? Does he value her principles and treat her with respect? Does he recognize her innate goodness and try to earn her regard? No, he behaves like hundreds of dissipated rakes in hundreds of other romances: he conspires to get her into bed without benefit of clergy. This guy's a blatant hypocrite!
It doesn't say much for the book that the most intriguing character is the debauched drug addict. I found Andrew's character development to be more convincing and his descent into vice more interesting than anything that was happening with the main characters.
This reinforces what I've always believed: the success of a romance is more dependent on character than on plot. Unfortunately, the central flaw in this romance is the character of the hero, and the story suffers as a result.
There are a number of reasons to read The Proposal: it's well written; the landscape architecture background gives and unusual dimension to the plot; the characters do something besides drink tea and go to society balls; there's an interesting glimpse into the life of Samuel Coleridge. Just don't expect to fall in love with the hero.