Sometimes a book just grabs you by the heart and refuses to let you go until the last page, the last word. The Temporary Wife by Mary Balogh is such a book for me. It is just sheer perfection. Well, almost. If I could have whispered in a little voice in Mary Balogh's ear while she was writing, I would have said this: "Could I have a little more at the end, ma'am?" Just a little bit longer with Anthony and Charity at the end, that's all. But then, the fact that I wanted more just underscores how much I love this book. You see, I wasn't quite ready to leave these two to their happily ever after.
What makes The Temporary Wife so perfect, you might ask? Believe it or not, that's going to be a hard question to answer. It's not just one thing, after all. It's more how all the parts fit together, move together, that make it so. I could say it's the depth of characterization, that this is probably one of the truest character-driven romances I've read in a long time and packed into a mere 224 pages, and that would be true. But that's not all. I could say that I expected the marriage of convenience plot to head down one well-trodden path but was pleasantly surprised to find Mary Balogh had switched the sign posts and led me on a completely different journey. As she does. Or how these two are joined because of a mutual reason: family, but again set apart by their individual motivations. His is centered in making his father miserable, grounded in hatred for his father, and hers revolves around her love for her brothers and sisters and a desire to make life easier for them, to secure their happiness. But again, that's not all. I could say that Mary Balogh throws these two very different people together and in the space of one week changes their lives forever. Seven days to fall in love? To begin to heal? To reconcile with the irreconcilable? Believably? That's hard to do, but Ms. Balogh does it here. Oh, I could wax on about The Temporary Wife's message of the healing power of love, reconciliation, the importance of family, how those closest to us can affect the course of our lives in both positive and negative ways. Or that I was surprised (pleasantly, I might add) by the level of heat in this small traditional Regency, how the physical relationship between Charity and Anthony is intricately intertwined in both character arcs and their metamorphoses as the dialogue or the very effective use of POV or the beautiful prose Mary Balogh uses so eloquently at times. But again, those things are just a part of the whole. It's not any one thing at all, you see; it's every thing. All those things. Together.
I'm not going to rehash the plot here. Other reviewers have done that already and much better than I could ever do. Instead I'd like to share just a few scenes that (hopefully!) encapsulate all the elements I've tried to point out that makes The Temporary Wife so memorable and illustrative of its excellence. I hope that this "review" will urge you to read this book for the first time or to pick it up again and reread it to appreciate it for all its beauty and awesomeness.
I read The Ideal Wife shortly before I read The Temporary Wife, and immediately recognized similarities between these two books. Though the premise is similar in both, they quickly take off into two different paths. Both have gentlemen in search of a wife who will blend into the background, and both have ladies who apply for position to be their convenient wife but who hide their true characters. In the case of The Temporary Wife, Lord Anthony Earhart advertises for a governess (to children he doesn't have) in order to interview candidates for a wife who will check off his list of must haves, a lady who will infuriate and embarrass his father: one who is "impoverished, plain, demure, very ordinary, perhaps even prim." Plus, if she happens to have the personality of, oh say, "a quiet mouse", then even better. After all, this unnamed, unknown female is not an individual, a person, to him, she will merely be an instrument of revenge against his powerful father, the Duke of Withingsby, and handsomely rewarded for her time. Enter Charity Duncan.
Miss Charity Duncan had been shown into a downstairs salon and had chosen to stand in the part of the room that was not bathed in sunlight. For one moment after he had opened the door and stepped inside the room he thought she must have changed her mind and fled. But then he saw her, and it struck him that even her decision to stand just there was significant. In addition she was dressed from head to toe in drab brown and looked totally self-effacing and quietly disciplined.
She was on the low side of medium height, very slender, perhaps even thin, though her cloak made it impossible to know for sure. Her face looked pale and ordinary in the shadows. The brown of her hair blended so totally with the brown of her bonnet that it was difficult to know where the one ended and the other began. Her garments were decent and drab. He was given the impression that were not quite shabby but very soon would be. They were genteel-shabby.
She was perfect. His father would be incensed. (9-10)
Just like a quiet mouse. But we sometimes see only what we want to see. Charity, on the other hand, sees Anthony very clearly.
He was young-no more than thirty at the outside. He was also handsome in a harsh sort of way, she thought to herself. He was of somewhat above-medium height, with a slender, well-proportioned figure, very dark hair and eyes, and a thin, angular, aristocratic face. The sunlight shining through the windows was full on him as he came through the door. In its harsh glare the cold cynicism of his expression made him look somehow satanic. He was expensively and elegantly dressed. Indeed, he looked very much as if he might have been poured into his well-tailored coat and pantaloons - a sure sign that he was a gentleman of high fashion.
He did not look like a kind man. He looked like the sort of man who would devour chambermaids more than he would seduce them. (15)
It's not an accident that for their first meeting Charity is in shadow, an unknown element for him at first glance, a creature to him, hiding in a darkened corner, merely his potential tool to be wielded to humiliate his father once and for all time while Anthony is displayed in full sunlight. It sets the tone for the rest of book, and a large part of the beauty and power of this book is how Anthony gradually sees Charity much more clearly.
She looked up into his face for the first time then, very briefly. Long dark lashes swept upward to reveal large, clear eyes that were as blue as the proverbial summer sky. Not the sort of gray that sometimes passes for blue, but pure, unmistakable blue itself. And then the eyes disappeared beneath the lashes and lowered eyelids again. For one disturbing moment he felt that he was about to make a ghastly mistake. (18)
Ah, yes. A ghastly mistake. Sometimes, as that old song goes, we can't get what we want but sometimes, we get what we need. Charity is definitely what Anthony needs whether he knows it or not. At the conclusion of the interview, after they have both reached an agreement to terms, Anthony once more is thrown off kilter.
She set her hand in his and got to her feet. Her eyelashes swept up again, and he found himself being regarded keenly by those steady blue eyes. He resisted the urge to take a step back. She must be looking at the bridge of his nose, he thought. She appeared to be gazing right into the center of both his eyes at once. (21)
After she leaves, Anthony is very pleased with his choice even as he is surprised by how this "brown mouse" managed to bargain for more money than he originally offered, but he's also a trifle uneasy:
No, there had been something else too - her eyes. They were quite at variance with the rest of her. But then even the plainest, dullest woman was entitled to some claim to beauty, he supposed. (22)
Charity is becoming more than a way to thumb his nose at his father; she is becoming a person to him whether he wills it or not. He notices her eyes at the interview and here again on their wedding night, and though it's begrudging he takes note of other details too - her scent, the way her hair is spread on the pillow, the slight wave to it, her innocence.
It looked long and slightly wavy. It looked rather attractive. Again he felt annoyed. He had conceded the fact that she had fine eyes. That was entirely enough beauty for his bride to possess. (43)
I guess I expected that these two would rub along for a while before they actually consummated their marriage, so I was a little surprised by how quickly their physical relationship is initiated. Stranded by rain in the only room left at an inn the night of their wedding en route to Enfield Park, Charity has counted sheep up to 1,364 but is unable to sleep as is Anthony. There is a wonderful thread of humor in this scene that Mary Balogh does so very well.
"I have counted all the sheep in England," she said.
He pursed his lips.
"I had just started on those of Wales when you spoke." she said. "Now I shall have to begin all over again."
He had expected a meek little 'Yes, sir.' He was reminded somehow of her eyes, which he had found himself unaccountably avoiding during dinner, when she had sat directly opposite him at their table. He found her eyes threatening, though he would have been hard-pressed to explain exactly what he meant by that if he had been called upon to do so or to explain why his mind had chosen that particular word to describe their effect on him. Now her words suggested a certain sense of humor. He did not want her to have a sense of humor - or those eyes. He wanted her to be nondescript, devoid of character or personality. (42)
Ah, not only eyes but a sense of humor in this little "brown mouse", heh? Here again, Mary Balogh carefully uses their physical intimacy as yet another way to advance the story, to build on these complex characters. Anthony has slowly, inexorably become aware of Charity as a woman. That is at least a part of his inability to sleep. So despite the warning signals his brain is sending out, he makes a suggestion, a way of "inducing slumber" so to speak. Though Charity is a virgin, she's not terrified of the sex act. In fact, she's very curious and figures this will be her only chance to satisfy that curiosity. And, just as he has become aware of her, she, too, has been disturbed by his warmth in the bed and the smell of brandy he drank at dinner is "intoxicating" to her.
She opened her eyes suddenly. He was still propped on one elbow. He was still looking down at her. He took his hand away and lifted her nightgown - all the way to her waist. Well, this part she knew about, she thought. She knew what to expect. She drew a deep breath and held it. She was not sorry she had said yes. He was a stranger and she did not believe she could ever like him - partly because she did not believe she could ever know him - but he was her husband, and he was undeniably attractive. (46)
They surprise each other during this first encounter, and, afterward, Charity acknowledges that "love was not always sweet and gentle. And love was not always love." Anthony acknowledges that Charity might have partially deceived him. Prim, demure, little "brown mouse" was a "powder keg of passion just waiting to be ignited."
She had proved him wrong in his conviction that he had nothing new to learn sexually except what it felt like to mount a virgin. Very wrong. He had know women come to sexual climax. It happened routinely with all his mistresses. But he had understood last night with humiliating clarity that women faked climax just as they faked delight in the whole process, knowing that for a conceited man it was important not only to receive pleasure in bed but also to believe he gave it. Thus many women earned their daily bread - making their employers feel like devilishly virile and dashing and manly fellows.
Charity Earheart, Marchioness of Staunton, had taught him a lesson last night - quite unwittingly, of course. The shattering reality of her own untutored, totally spontaneous response to being bedded had exposed all the artificiality of all the other women he had ever known. (49)
Charity's genuine, uninhibited, honest pleasure in their encounter has knocked Anthony on his rear. He cannot go back to the unhappy, closed-off, very bitter and angry man he was just that morning though he's not where he will be by the end either. But, this encounter is the beginning of his turning point, the moment for which everything begins to change for him.
The next morning Charity learns exactly where she stands in this marriage of convenience, and Anthony learns that a mouse can roar. A lesser person would have run screaming into the hills, as far away from Lord Anthony Earhart as possible. But not Charity. Anthony takes an almost perverse joy in spelling out exactly what she is about to walk into - his estrangement from his family for eight years, his reputation as a rake, his command that she think of herself as his "shadow", his desire that the ailing Duke of Withingsby see exactly what a "disaster" of a marriage he has contracted.
"I have married a governess, an impoverished gentlewoman. At least I have spared him someone from the demimonde."
"And you wish for a wife who is not only of inferior birth and fortune," she said, "but also lacking in charm and manners and conversation. A mere shadow."
"You need not worry," he said. "No one will openly insult you. Anyone who dares do so will have me to deal with."
"But who," she asked in her low, pleasant voice, "will protect me from your insults, sir?"
His eyes snapped open. "You, my lady," he said, "are being paid very well indeed to serve my purpose."
"Yes," she said, looking steadily back at him, "I am."
The words, even her expression, were quiet and meek. Why, then, did he have the distinct impression that war had been declared? (53)
The gloves are off, lines have been drawn, and he has just just been called out by the little brown mouse. Miss Bates of Miss Bates Reads Romance would say this is a "CHIN" moment. Through his evolving relationship with Charity over these several days, Anthony gradually begins to allow himself to face painful truths of his past, have honest conversations with his brothers and his sisters. However, the cold war between the ailing Duke and his eldest son never quite reaches detente.
One of the most emotional scenes is when Anthony's father is near death, and the two men are still almost as estranged as they ever have been. Words have been said between them that did little to open communication, and time is running out. The Duke has perhaps minutes left, Anthony and his brothers and sisters have been summoned to say good-bye to their father. And then the Duke asks for a moment alone with Anthony.
The Duke of Withingsby was not a person one touched uninvited, and the invitation was rarely given. But the Marquess of Staunton looked down at the pale, limp hand on the covers and took his hands from his back so that he could gather it up in both his own. It was cold despite all his efforts to warm it a few minutes before.
"Father," he said, remembering even as he spoke the idea of a sentimental deathbed scene with which he had mocked his wife, "I have always loved you. Far too deeply for words. If I had not loved you, I could not have hated you. And I have hated you. I love you." He raised the hand briefly to his lips.
His grace's penetrating, haughty eyes, startlingly alive, regarded him out of the gray face and from beneath heavy lids. "You are my son," he managed to say. "Always my favorite son, as you were hers. You will have children of your own, my son. Your duchess will be a good mother and a good wife. You have made a fortunate choice. There will be mutual love in your marriage. I envy you. You have not succeeded in annoying me."
He could say no more. He closed his eyes. His son watched him for a while and then went down on his knees and rested his face on the bed close to his father's hand and wept. He felt foolish weeping for a man he had hated - and loved, but he was powerless to stop the painful sobs that tore at him. And then the hand lifted and came to rest on his head. It moved once, twice, and then lay still while the rasping breathing continued.
It felt like forgiveness, absolution, a blessing, a benediction, a healing touch. A father's touch. It felt like love. The marquess despised the feelings at the same time he allowed them to wash over him. His father had touched him with love." (191)
This moment of forgiveness and reconciliation shatters the rest of the ice in Anthony's heart, but he could not have reached this point without Charity's influence on him. Anthony is a very changed man in his final speech to Charity, and it shows how far he has come since their first meeting.
"...I need you, my love," he said. "I need you so much that I panic when I think perhaps I will not be able to persuade you to come back with me to Enfield. I need you so much that I cannot quite contemplate the rest of my life if it must be lived without you. I need you so much that - Well, the words speak for themselves. I need you."
"To look after Augusta?" she said. She dared not hear what he was surely saying. She dared not hope. "To look after Enfield? To provide you with an heir?"
"Yes," he said, and her heart sank like a stone to be squashed somewhere between her slippers and the parlor carpet. "And to be my friend and my confidant and my comfort. And to be my lover." (231)
Charity challenges Anthony's words still though she has walked closer to him as he speaks, close enough to smooth her hands down the lapels of his coat. When she tries to snatch them away, she realizes his own hands cover hers, holding them in place.
"But you played unfair, Charity. You did not tell me you were not a quiet mouse. You did not tell me you were beautiful or charming or warm with concern for others or courageous or - wonderful in bed." She jerked at her hands, but he would not let her have them back. "You did not tell me you were a thief. I had to come after you to recover my stolen property."
"But the pearls -" She would have died of shame if she could. She had thought the pearls were a gift.
"Are yours, my love," he said. "They were a wedding gift. What you stole, Charity, was my heart. I have come to get it back if all else fails. But I would rather you kept it and brought it back to Enfield with you." (221)
But she's still not convinced. What about their contract? They will both tear it up together if she will agree to be his wife in truth. What about her younger brothers and sister? They will love Enfield Park and Augusta will love them. What about Penny and her Mr. Miller? It's Phil decision about whether to allow Mr. Miller to pay his addresses to Penny. What about Agnes and Phil? And on and on. For every obstacle, Anthony has a solution.
"It is not just, then," she said, "that you feel an obligation? That you have realized the distasteful nature of that agreement?"
He made a sound that was suspiciously like a moan.
"You really love me?" she asked wistfully.
"The devil!" he exclaimed, looking over his shoulder. "Did I forget to say it? The thing I came to say?" (223)
It's such a great scene, and one I have read and reread and reread again. The Temporary Wife is going right up to the top alongside Heartless, Slightly Dangerous, and The Secret Pearl, and so many others. The Temporary Wife is a book worth a reread many, many times.