Not Quite a Husband

Private Arrangements

His at Night by Sherry Thomas
(Bantam, $7.99, PG-13)  ISBN 978-0-553-59244-3
Sherry Thomas is back with another excellent novel, full of innovation and high-quality writing.  This woman’s storytelling is a gem, and so is His at Night.

Elissande Edgerton is trapped in a hellish life under the thumb of her cruel uncle, Edmund Douglas.  He controls his wife, Rachel, through the use of laudanum; he controls Elissande through her devotion to her aunt.  Outwardly, Elissande is a devoted niece, a role she has come to play well.  Inwardly, she seethes and hopes for a means to take Aunt Rachel and escape, and in the meantime she dreams of the island of Capri, a warm refuge where she can escape in her mind.

The means presents itself when her uncle is away to London and a neighbor, Lady Kingsley, arrives on the doorstep with a houseparty, claiming that her nearby home is infested with rats.  Won’t Elissande please take them in, albeit temporarily? In truth, Lady Kingsley is part of an attempt by the Crown to investigate Edmund Douglas for possible extortion from Antwerp diamond dealers.  Douglas, who made a fortune in South African diamonds, is careful to never allow anyone into his home. So Lady Kingsley and her entourage arrive, and with her is the Marquess of Vere and his younger brother, Freddie.

Vere has a reputation as a cheerful idiot – a man so befuddled that he believes diamonds grow in oysters. It’s all a ruse.  Thrown from a horse at age sixteen, Vere has since crafted a careful façade behind which he can carry out investigations for the government.  Vere is well-liked among society, for though he’s seen as a fool, he’s a wealthy and charming one.  The Marquess and his brother have high social standing.

High enough, Elissande realizes, to safeguard her from Edmund Douglas.  All she needs to do is get one of the brothers to marry her, and she and Aunt Rachel would be safe; legally there would be nothing Douglas could do.  The Marquess exasperates her, though she catches glimmers of intelligence and humor behind his mind-numbingly silly conversation.  So Elissande sets her sights on Freddie, and in desperation to form an alliance before her uncle’s imminent return, sets up a compromising situation.  Vere, suspicious, intercedes and is himself the one caught.  Since he can do no less and stay in “character,” he and Elissande, with Aunt Rachel in tow, head for London and are hastily married.

Vere has long imagined the perfect woman – kind, sweet, with a beautiful smile – and his first impression of Elissande was that he’d found his angel.  Reality intruded when he realized she had secrets and an agenda of her own.  Now he finds himself married to this almost-perfection, and as he gets to know her and understand the desperation of her situation, he reluctantly comes to admire her.  Vere has played a role for fifteen years; his realization that his wife has only survived by playing a role of her own is unsettling. And the more he discovers about Edmund Douglas, the more he believes that Douglas will stop at nothing to reclaim his wife and niece.  Douglas has some very big secrets that he will go to any lengths to protect.

Elissande is, at first, a desperate wife who forces Vere’s hand in consummating the marriage so it cannot be annulled.  The more time she spends with Vere, the surer she is that his amiable goofiness is a charade.  At night, he’s sharp-witted and competent.  So now she is faced with a huge dilemma: Elissande is falling in love with a man who only appears at night and who is attempting to distance himself from her.  Vere is torn between the seductiveness of his own wife and his conviction that she’s not the paragon he has envisioned all these years.  Both Elissande and Vere will have to decide if a perfect mental refuge is worth giving up for a flawed reality that just might bring them even more happiness.

There is more to the story, including a secondary romance for Freddie, but I’ll leave it to the reader to discover. The subplot involving Edmund Douglas is fairly complex, and since it isn’t all tied together until the end of the story (and it’s a corker), readers may feel a bit lost. Things are alluded to, information is dangled in dribs and drabs, and some of it makes little sense when it’s presented. This was really my only dissatisfaction with the story  Fortunately it didn’t take center stage, as the main focus is on the developing relationship between Vere and Elissande.

Elissande is sympathetic right from the start. The author made sure we understand just how hellish her existence is, and this justifies her calculating efforts to snare Freddie, and ultimately Vere.  She’s smart without being foolhardy, and it’s fun to watch her relax and blossom a bit once she’s away from her uncle. Elissande knows she’s dug herself a very big hole in trapping Vere, and her efforts to make a real marriage with the man she’s coming to love are charming.

Vere finds he’s played a role so long that he doesn’t know how to shed it. At night, when he can’t resist his wife, he lets his guard down. At least until Elissande sees through it and tries to pin him down. Not knowing what to do, Vere tries to distance himself from his own wife, whom he can’t resist. I enjoyed him immensely.

The ending is simply brilliant.All is revealed, all is explained, and in a welcome twist, Vere and Elissande work together in fact, she’s instrumental to the outcome.  Excellent.

His at Night is one of the best reads of the summer.I highly recommend it. Sherry Thomas is building a well-deserved reputation for crafting innovative, engrossing stories with captivating characters, and this is another feather in her cap. 

--Cathy Sova

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