I wanted to read A Summer To Remember after reading One Night For Love for one reason only: Miss Lauren Edgeworth. I wanted to see how Mary Balogh fleshed her out, whether there was more than just a jilted bride with an overdeveloped perfection complex and latent passive aggressive tendencies. Oh yes. She was more, but to be honest the journey to get to the heart of Lauren was as slow as molasses flowing on a cold winter morning.
Lauren made me gnash my teeth and pull my hair in One Night For Love. She was just so damned controlled, with an overabundance of faux politeness and forced graciousness because Neville secretly married Lily during the war and Lauren's long-awaited wedding to him was aborted (just as she was about to walk down the aisle) by none other than his secret and very much alive bride. I seriously disliked the way she made everybody — Neville, his family, and Lily herself — so uncomfortable by repressing her anger, her disappointment, her hurt. Her refusal to deal honestly with those feelings of abandonment also placed a huge stumbling block for his family's acceptance of Lily. It wasn't healthy, and it appeared to me that Lauren channeled all that anger into making Lily's life at Newbury Abbey unbearable. Except not in a direct, honest way. Instead, she decided she would learn to like Lily (said with gritted teeth) and embarked on a campaign to turn Lily into a "lady" which really meant criticizing everything Lily said or did and positioning herself as the ideal to which Lily could only hope to aspire. There's one particular scene in One Night For Love in which Lauren seats herself beside Lily on a love seat, a display for Neville and his family. The contrast between the two women is stark, and Neville wonders if Lauren did it deliberately, so that he and his family could visually see which of the two ladies was the best choice to be Countess of Kilbourne. The thought crossed my mind, too.
In reading A Summer To Remember I wanted to understand Lauren better, and in the end I did. But to be very honest, this book dragged for me. I slogged through 225 of 361 pages waiting to feel something other than impatience and boredom, waiting and hoping to feel just a thimbleful of sympathy or elation or humor in connection with Lauren. Until page 226 Lauren was still the Lauren of One Night For Love — perfect posture, perfect ladylike behavior, a calm mask of politeness at all times. Honestly, every sentence she uttered, every thought in her brain began with or revolved around one rule: "A lady doesn't . . ." Dull, I tell you. Dull and draggy.
There were two exceptions to her very lady-like demeanor: swimming en deshabille and climbing a tree with Kit. Those two actions had me scratching my head in puzzlement. I'm not exactly sure what swimming, scantily clad, and scaling a tree for a spectacular view had to do with an adventure worthy of "a summer to remember." Instead, it just felt contrived to me, more like some modern-age trust building exercises rather than a prissy proper lady learning to let go and live. Both felt like empty gestures, an overdone rather obvious way to signal a return to childhood as the jumping off point for Lauren's transformation.
Around page 191, I was close to gouging my eyes out with the nearest sharp object from sheer boredom. Here was this really long passage, line after tedious line, of guests arriving at Alvesley for Kit's grandmother's birthday celebration, and how Lauren was impressing "names and exact relationships upon her memory." I was drowning in which one is "white haired and frail", who had a "shiny bald head and loud laugh", who was "placid and smiling", who was married to the one who wheezed and had a red face, which one's wife was "buxom", who wore eyeglasses and on and on and on. It was just yet another passage designed to show Lauren's perfect lady persona, and frankly I got all that in One Night For Love. I wanted to see Lauren disheveled and disordered, not reveling in yet another "Reason I Am Perfect" internal monologue.
The last third of A Summer To Remember was much better than the previous two thirds. Lauren began to feel real to me in a way she hadn't thus far. It began with Kit relating to Lauren exactly what happened to his youngest brother, Sydnam, during the war, why Kit feels so guilty, and the beginning of Kit's road to Damascus moment to heal the breach with his younger brother.
"There was one slim chance of breaking out," he said. "Syd was the one who saw it. If one of us created a diversion, something that would mean certain capture, the other might be able to get away. The choice of which of us would court capture and which would continue on his way with the papers was mine to make—I was the superior officer. Syd had no experience. Even if he had broken free, the chances were slim that he would complete the mission. It had to be completed. Honor dictated that I do all in my power to serve the allied cause. Honor dictated that I be the one to escape the trap. Love dictated that I choose the more painful role. Which would you have chosen, Lauren?"
She spoke for the first time. "Kit," she said softly. "Oh, Kit, my dear." (227)
Five words. Five very small words but said with compassion, without judgement, with honest to goodness emotion, with deepest empathy for Kit's painful choice. It was the first honest emotion, freely expressed, Lauren allowed to break through her rigid control, and it was here that Lauren became something other than the "practically perfect" lady of good ton who secretly sneered at Lily's illiteracy and lack of polish, who disdainfully pointed out that ladies always wore shoes, never ran about like a hoyden, who sipped their tea and never gulped it down no matter how thirsty. Someone very different than the snobbish very proper Miss Edgeworth who was affronted and repulsed by the sight of a young man brawling with three ruffians in Rotten Row, bare chested (gasp, peeking through my fingers!), and then shocked and horrified when that same laughing young man is rewarded with a passionate kiss for his gallantry in defending the honor of a milkmaid. This exchange is cathartic for both Kit and Lauren. In acknowledging Kit's pain and emotional trauma, the scales fall from Lauren's eyes.
For the past several minutes Lauren had been feeling very much as if she were going to faint. She had always tried to avoid any sight or mention of violence, believing that ladies should have no dealings with such sordid realities. It had never been particularly difficult to do. Most gentleman seem to hold the same belief. She could remember an occasion when Lily, newly come to Newbury, had launched eagerly into a conversation about the wars—she had grown up in the train of the armies, first in India, then in the Peninsula, as the supposed daughter of an infantry sergeant. Lauren, consumed by secret hatred at the time, had tried to appease her conscience by instructing Lily in what would be expected of her as the Countess of Kilbourne. She could recall advising Lily that a lady did not speak of the wars or listen to any conversation about them.
She had been so very righteous in those days, so convinced she was right. So much the perfect lady. So unbearably prim. (230)
Remember the near eye gouging moment? As my mind drifted and I sought refuge from the tedium and minutiae of living inside a perfect person's head for those 225 pages, I caught myself humming snatches of a song—something something la la la practically perfect. (Thank you, Mary Poppins.) It was a perfect soundtrack for all the perfection, practically speaking, that is Lauren Edgeworth. For further amusement I even pictured her in full Victorian nanny gear complete with black umbrella and a bottomless carpet bag and singing, perfectly, of course: "Each virtue knows no bounds/Each trait is great and patently sound/I'm practically perfect from head to toe,/If I had a fault it would never dare to show,/I'm practically perfect in every way."
Hey, I had to do something because at this point DNFing was not an option. I was too far in and determined to get to the finish line. I'm glad I kept going. A Summer To Remember will never be my favorite Balogh book, but that last third was, well, almost perfect.