I have been anxiously waiting for the final installment in the Enlightenment series by Joanna Chambers, and Enlightened did not disappoint in any way. I started reading for the second time last night and read into the wee hours because stopping, even on a second read, was not an option. This entire series has been so beautifully written that I found myself completely absorbed in reading each one without stopping and then having to go back and read again just to appreciate more fully the wonderful prose, the depth of characterization of both David and Murdo, the way the plot rises and falls, and the way larger societal issues have served as an integral part of the story of both David and Murdo. I love that the focus of each book has slowly and inevitably become more intimate and personal as David and Murdo's relationship deepens and culminates with their difficult choices and sacrifices in Enlightened.
In the five months since the end of Beguiled, months in which David has been recuperating at Laverock House from a badly fractured leg and other injuries caused by Sir Alisdair Kinnell and in which the world has receded leaving David and Murdo alone, both men have changed dramatically. I enjoyed seeing Murdo fret over David like a mother hen, nagging him to use the cane for support of his healing leg, eating properly, getting enough rest, not drinking too much. The maternal side of Murdo was endearing and charming, highlighting a more tender aspect in Murdo's character. David, too, seemed, if not carefree, then less care worn, while at Laverock. Both men appear younger at Laverock, almost like two schoolboys on vacation away at last from their stern schoolmaster. I enjoyed seeing a gentler, funnier, softer side of Murdo through David's eyes like Murdo's surprising love of butter.
"...he slathered his toast in butter. If David held a buttercup under Murdo’s chin, he was sure the reflected light would shine like a beacon. Murdo didn’t just like butter, he loved it." (Loc. 430)
And how the more polite and civil Murdo is, the angrier he is, which is "a curiously contrary" thing about him, as David says. Or that he discovers a Murdo who is engaged and enjoying untangling the knots of various business ventures and estate squabbles.
"It had taken a while for the mask to crack, and even now, these moments of unreserved excitement were rare enough that they made David’s heart beat a little quicker." (Loc. 212)
Unquestionably, both men were very happy there, and their relationship was allowed to blossom, free from prying eyes and societal judgement. David in Murdo's worn-out breeches, letting his hair grow so long it hung in his eyes, and loosening up enough to enjoy Murdo and their time together is a very different man than the "quiet, measured professional man", a man in hiding and isolated in Provoked. The only fly in the ointment has been Murdo's mutterings of a mysterious trip to London and David's belief that his return to Edinburgh will end his contact with Murdo.
"Murdo had been mentioning this London trip on and off for weeks now. There was business he had to take care of in the capital, he’d said, business he’d been putting off that couldn’t wait much longer, though he was always vague about what that business was." (Loc. 351)
Of course, life at Laverock is nearly idyllic, but the men swiftly running out of time as David gets stronger each day, and all too soon the world encroaches.
Patrick Chalmers, David's mentor, is the catalyst setting events in motion for a final resolution to all the loose threads hanging in the previous two books. Chalmers is near death and asks David to ensure his daughter Elizabeth's future safety from her abusive husband, Sir Alisdair, who has apparently tracked her and Euan to London. I loved their almost father-son closeness, the mutual respect, and the humor between David and Chalmers. Their last conversation is the beginning of an epiphany for David, especially Chalmers' gentle admonishment that "[s]ometimes things must be said. (...) And they must be heard too.”
David has always had an acute sense of right and wrong, a strong desire to champion the underdog in every aspect of his life, and a tendency to view the world as black and white only. No one knows this about David better than Murdo.
Murdo chuckled. “Honest to a fault, that’s you.”
David chuckled too, ruefully. “That’s what my mother’s always said about me.”
“You’re direct,” Murdo said. “Uncompromising.”
“You think me inflexible,” David accused without heat.
Murdo inclined his head. “At times. Sometimes I hesitate to tell you things because—” He stopped, his gaze suddenly troubled.
“You’re very black-and-white about everything. I’ve never met anyone who has such a strong sense of right and wrong.” (Loc. 1155)
It is that absolutist philosophy which makes it impossible for Murdo's to tell David about his engagement, and sets up one of the most emotion-packed scenes in Enlightened. Slowly David does begin to see all those subtle shades of gray, and his first moment of clarity is his realization that he loves Murdo, and how lucky he is to have it.
"A profound understanding settled on him of what it meant to be alive. What a privilege it was. What it meant to share the moments of his life—even the difficult moments—with someone he loved.
Someone I love.
The revelation remained unspoken, the unused words even harder to utter than Will you hold me? "(Loc. 1019)
So even though David can't speak the words yet, and they won't be heard until he can, in his heart, in his mind, and in his soul there is at last an acknowledgement that he loves Murdo, something I wondered if he'd ever be able to do.
Murdo knows David still struggles, trying to reconcile his principles with their relationship and all the resulting emotions. To David's surprise, Murdo has also realized that David still holds a part of himself back with him, and it's heartbreaking to see how hurt Murdo is by David's reserve.
"I feel as though -" Murdo began, then stopped, seeming to debate with himself whether to continue. When he started up again, his tone was careful. “I feel as though we’re fighting over that part of you. I want you to give it up, give it to me. But you’re still not convinced that what we have together is—right. And I don’t know what I can do to convince you.” (Loc. 1171)
What it takes for David to be convinced, in the end, isn't one big thing. Instead it was a culmination of several - Chalmers' death, the events surrounding David's promise to ensure Elizabeth's safety both in Beguiled and in Enlightened, David's love for Murdo as well as Murdo's love for him, and David coming face-to-face in a surprising twist with his first love. David is reeling at one point, and it was tempting for him to fall back on old habits - like drinking too much. But, David has outgrown his old skin and finds it as ill-fitting as an old stretched out pair of socks that keep slipping down your ankles. David knows, now, that by not speaking of his love, he's doing exactly what Chalmers warned him against when he said, “Love should not be denied.”
David finally does speak those words to Murdo, and it is one of the best declarations I've read. Murdo recognizes Sir William Lennox, an acquaintance of Sir Alisdair Kinnell, as David's "Will." He's hurt and angry and fearful of losing David when David doesn't tell him of the connection. Murdo lashes out at David, accusing him of preferring the "fantasy" of his "first love" to what they have.
“He’s not the love of my life, you idiot!” David snapped, incensed by Murdo’s obtuseness. “You are!”
For a long moment, neither of them said anything. David's breath was coming hard with unfamiliar anger, and Murdo was staring at him, eyes wide with almost comical astonishment.
"Did you -" Murdo began. "That is . . .What did you say?"
David glanced away, heart thudding now. "You heard me."
There was another long pause, then Murdo said, "You know, you really shouldn't say something like that if you don't mean it." His voice shook slightly.
David looked up at that, to encounter an expression he rarely saw on Murdo’s face: uncertainty.
“Of course I mean it,” he replied. “Have you ever known me to say something I don’t mean?”
Murdo thought about that. "No. No, I haven't." He closed his eyes, then swallowed. “It’s just, I’ve loved you for so long, David. I really didn’t think you felt the same way.”
“Wh-what?” David stuttered. “How could you think that? And wait… You love me?”
“Yes, of course. Isn’t it obvious?”
“No! Though how you can say that you didn’t think I loved you—” He broke off, his voice cracking with disbelief. (Loc. 2336-2344)
Enlightened, indeed, the entire "Enlightenment" series, has been such a wonderful reading experience. The resolution of Lord Balfour's machinations as well as Elizabeth and Euan's situation were satisfying and appropriate. I was glad that even Murdo's father, a very nasty piece of humanity, wasn't completely evil and without merit.
"David watched the earl. Examining that cold, harsh face for clues to his anger and frustration, wary of his ire. He was ready to see evidence of every one of those emotions. What he was not prepared for was what he actually saw. Naked grief." (Loc. 2334)
What Lord Balfour does after Murdo snips the Gordion knots his father had tried to bind him with for all these years wasn't easy for him. In fact, I believe it was quite painful, and the loss of Murdo in his life will be felt deeply, if not publicly, then privately for the rest of his life. Once again, David sees yet another shade of gray.
Murdo and David have returned to live at Laverock House in the Epilogue, their place of sanctuary and refuge. "Laverock" is the Scotts word for "lark", referring to skylarks, I believe, and it's fascinating that these little birds have such a rich literary heritage, symbolizing a wealth of such things like freedom, hope, and joy. Interestingly, a male skylark doesn't sing from a branch on a tree. Instead he sings while in flight, launching himself straight up and soaring hundreds of feet in the sky all the while singing his song until he can hardly be seen, only heard. Or as Tennyson more eloquently puts it: "drowned in yonder living blue/The lark becomes a sightless song." (In Memoriam) The skylark heralds the dawn, the beginning of a new day, banishes the darkness of night, and is a promise of warmer, sunnier days. So it is fitting that David, returning from a visit with his family and opting to stretch his legs after the long carriage ride, sees a skylark soaring overhead as he hikes over the hill, heading home, toward Laverock House and Murdo.
"Above his head, a skylark—a laverock—wheeled and plummeted, and David tracked its bold, sweeping dance for several minutes till it finally disappeared into a copse of trees." (Loc. 2722)
David and Murdo do get a "happily ever after" that makes total sense for the time in which they live, and without a doubt Enlightened will end up as one of "My Favorite Reads of 2014." I have loved each and every one of these books in this series and look forward to more from this writer. Thank you, Joanna Chambers, for writing such beautiful books. I hope everyone reads and enjoys them as much as I have.