Alternate Title: Doctor, Doctor, Gimme the News...
The Chick: Bryony Asquith. A celebrated female doctor and surgeon, she fled to India to practice her talents after the annulment of her disastrous marriage. The last person she expects to meet again in this exotic, faraway country is her ex-husband, Leo Marsden.
The Rub: She's still desperately in love with Leo, even after all these years, but she refuses to forgive him for his betrayal. However, since her father's ill, she and Leo must return to England together.
Dream Casting: A slightly younger Jennifer Connelly.
The Dude: Leo Marsden. He fell in love with a woman whom he thought was simply quiet and intense, but who turned out to be heartless and cold, refusing his attentions and annulling their marriage without a reason. However, at her sister's request, he goes to find her in India to let her know that her father is ill.
The Rub: When it becomes clear that Bryony had a very obvious reason for freezing out their marriage, Leo's horrified. Now, as things begin to heat up again between them, Leo has to refuse her attentions - until he's ready to forgive himself.
Dream Casting: Being Human's yummy Aidan Turner. Yes, the hot Irish vampire. No, not the cheesy soap star.
Bryony: What the hell are you doing here?
Leo: Bringing you back to your sick dad, like your sister asked.
Bryony: I hate my dad, my sister's a liar, and I want you to go away.
Leo: *in head* Cold bitch. Why is your cold bitchiness such a turn-on??
Bryony: *in head* Studly McStud. Go away before your McStudliness thaws my frozen shell of isolation!
Leo: Why'd you break up with me anyhow?
Bryony: Because you cheated on me you ASS.
Leo: *in head* SHIT.
Bryony: *in head* Stupid stupid sexy McStudly cheating ass sexy stud. Dammit!
Travelling through India...
Bryony: Forget what I said! Let's get it on!
Bryony: *in head* STUPID MCSTUDLY LET ME GET IN YOUR PANTS!
Leo: *in head* I am a worthless human being who destroyed everything beautiful in my life, I can't destroy Bryony, perfect sexy totally-not-a-cold-bitch Bryony, ever again. Fuck my life.
Indian Rebels: *attack!*
Leo: *in head* God I hope Bryony doesn't die.
Bryony: *in head* God I hope Leo doesn't die.
Indian Rebels: *defeated!*
Leo: Let's get married again.
Romance Convention Checklist:
1 Ice Queen, Slightly Thawed
1 Sexy Math Nerd
1 Indian Uprising
1 Deadly Fever (unsexy AND sexy varieties!)
Several Instances of Surprise! Sleep Sex
Several Cuts and Scrapes
1 Inconveniently Dead Parent
1 Inconveniently Dead Surrogate Parent
1 Inconveniently Fake Dying Parent
1 Pathological Liar Sibling
1 Fancy Microscope
The Word: As many of my readers know (and Sherry Thomas, apparently, too..gah....), I didn't have an overwhelmingly positive reaction to her first novel, Private Arrangements. In fact, I had a downright uncommon reaction to Private Arrangements: it was a perfect "m'eh" grade. I liked the ideas and the story and the execution, but the novel never emotionally or intellectually engaged me and to this day I still can't understand why. So I decided to give Not Quite a Husband a try - because the setting and the characters grabbed me, and now I actually feel incredibly foolish for giving Private Arrangements away because now I want to read it again.
Hey, sometimes you just have to be in the mood. I gave An Offer from a Gentleman a B the first time I read it and an A the second (probably thanks to the fact that I spent six hours in the waiting room of a hospital waiting to be told I had a ruptured ovarian cyst the first time). It's merely enough to say, Not Quite a Husband was good enough to make me want to get another copy of Private Arrangements and give it another try.
The story opens as our heroine, famed female doctor Bryony Asquith, discovers the stress over her ruined marriage to Leo Marsden has turned a streak of her hair white. She still loves Leo desperately, but in an eloquent and heartbreaking inner monologue she equates her feelings with opium addiction - it's weakening and killing her, and she has to get away, and she decides then and there to sue for an annulment.
The novel skips ahead years later, as Bryony is working as a doctor in India. To her surprise and dismay, even in the middle of nowhere her ex Leo manages to find her, although he claims he's been sent by her sister Callista to bring her back to England because her father is dying. Bryony, aware of her sister's various manipulative attempts to bring her and Leo back together, shrugs it off as another trick. However, as Leo's already destroyed her story of being a "widow" to her neighbours (by flashing around their wedding photo), Bryony decides there's nothing better to do and decides to follow Leo back to England.
It's obvious from the start that both Leo and Bryony are still painfully in love with each other, even as each tries to deny it. Bryony is ashamed of her feelings for Leo - she has not forgiven him for how their marriage went sour, and hates herself for loving him anyway. Older than him by five years, she could barely believe, when their relationship first started, that such a young, sexy, and popular Adonis could fall for an overeducated spinster like her. In the present, she feels pathetic about her longing - and pathetically stupid for ever believing it was returned.
Leo, meanwhile, still has no idea why their marriage was annulled in the first place. Well, that's not true - he knows well enough how Bryony became cold and distant the day of the marriage, how she rejected his lovemaking attempts (eventually barring her bedroom door to him), and how she refused to speak to him or answer his pleas. After a year of this, an annulment was par for the course. What he never understood was why she changed so suddenly right when their marriage started. He's spent the last few years convincing himself that all his friends were right, that Bryony Asquith is cold and unfeeling and incapable of emotion, and that he was a fool to fall in love with her - and an even greater fool for still being in love with her.
Sherry Thomas shows us through flashbacks (although fewer flashbacks than Private Arrangements) how they met - and how their relationship deteriorated. In fact, the sabotage of their marriage is rather similar to what happened in Private Arrangements - one of the protagonists makes a Very Big Mistake right before the wedding, and the other protagonist finds out about it but decides to go through with the wedding anyway, with disastrous results. In Leo and Bryony's case, though, I was much more emotionally caught up in the story - feeling and understanding both their pain while at the same time understanding how they both were wrong.
Mild spoilers ahoy: Leo erred first, when, having doubts about his whirlwind engagement to a woman nearly everyone else said was wrong for him, he had a one-night stand with a former lover one week before the wedding. Ashamed of himself, he came out of that experience knowing now more than ever that Bryony was the only woman for him, and all the naysayers could go hang.
However, Bryony erred next when, unbeknownst to Leo, she discovered his infidelity and said nothing. Although repulsed by Leo's sin, she was too ashamed of the humiliating circumstances of her situation (imagine! The dried-up spinster doctor fell in love with the Leo Marsden and actually believed the handsome, popular genius actually loved her back! How droll!) to call the wedding off. The one year of their marriage was spent with Leo begging, pleading, cajoling his wife, trying to find out why she remained frozen and unresponsive, why he couldn't please her, why she didn't love him. All the while Bryony refused to explain, too full of shame and self-loathing to reveal the stupidity of her marriage to a man who didn't love her.
Bryony was an amazing character. From an objective standpoint, I can understand why other readers might find her the hardest to empathize with. When she was a child, she was subjected to a very lonely childhood by the people who should have taken care of her, and so she rejected them, living in an internalized world of her own. She's a very internal, precise person, used to keeping things to herself, used to living in her own world. Thus, on the occasions when she has to go out into the real world, she feels very self-conscious and isn't sure of what to do.
I went through a childhood very similar to hers and I sympathized with her entirely. I didn't have neglectful parents, but I was teased so often at school that after a while I just said, "Fine. Whatever." I figured if no one would try hard enough to be friends with me, than I didn't have to try hard to be friends with them, and I managed well enough on my own. I was the kid who'd sit by the school doors at recess, with a nose in a book. As a result, however, when those kids who'd teased me years ago tried to befriend me later, I laughed in their faces.
I got a reputation for being a bitch that was hard to break - by the time I realized in high school that doing everything by myself meant not being invited to parties or games or dating, and that acting however I wanted meant being rude to other people, and that it wasn't as fun being on my own anymore, I'd stunted my social growth to the point where it was very difficult for me to relate to people and react positively in social situations. To this day, when I'm talking to people I'm always afraid I'm talking too much and boring people or being unintentionally offensive - that's how bad I've become at reading people.
So let's just say, I totally related to Bryony on nearly every level. I completely understood her self-consciousness around Leo, how even at the start of their relationship she couldn't quite believe why an Adonis like him would be enchanted by her. I understood her single-minded focus on her interests, to the exclusion of all else (that was me, too - 90% grade average, no friends). I even got her decision to keep her knowledge of Leo's infidelity to herself because she was too embarrassed to admit how inept she was at understanding people - again.
However, I also understood Leo Marsden as well. We don't often get heroes who cheat on the heroine, and readers can be mighty unforgiving on that score, but in my mind, he got his karmic payback with the year he spent in the emotional-married-wringer with Bryony. And, when he finally does find out that Bryony knew all along, his reactions carried the story and won me over. During their danger-fraught travels, Bryony is the first to break and attempt to re-connect their relationship, and Leo is the one who has to refuse. He adores Bryony, and now he rightfully hates himself for what he did to her, but he knows they can't rekindle their relationship until she is ready to forgive and trust him again, and that can only happen after he can forgive himself.
I loved this - this wasn't a Big Misunderstanding where simply knowing the truth solves both their problems. Bryony has to deal with how her reliance on her emotional self-sufficiency has made it very difficult for her to accept flawed people into her heart, for fear they'll leave again. While she rejected Leo for legitimate reasons, she's rejected others for lesser faults (like her father, whom she's never spoken to after medical school in payment for her neglected childhood). Meanwhile, Leo has to accept the responsibility for his cowardly fall from grace, and convince Bryony that he will never hurt her again.
All the while, Sherry Thomas concocts a beautiful story without once resorting to purple or overwrought prose, one of the things that annoys me most about the romance genre. Her writing is very intricate, unique and descriptive - while I found this distancing for some reason in Private Arrangements, I adored it in Not Quite a Husband. Similarly, her descriptions of setting: this book takes place in India mostly, and she brought the setting to life without taking up too much narrative space. I liked how her depiction of the uprising was subtly integrated into the story - it had its own particular importance but at the same time it didn't take away from the pacing of the romance: even when the bullets were flying, the delicacy of Bryony and Leo's romance took precedence and I appreciated that.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed Not Quite a Husband. Even though it had a similar story to Private Arrangements, the characters were much more engaging, for all their flaws, and I cared about them so much more that it was a delight to read how their romance rekindled, even after all the pain. I related to Bryony especially, her loneliness and her social ineptitude, and more than anything I wanted her to find someone who wouldn't leave her alone again. With Leo, even after committing a grave, grave error, Sherry Thomas convinced me that he was just the person Bryony needed.