The third installment in Lisa Berne's debut historical trilogy, THE BRIDE TAKES A GROOM, is a character-driven romance that reminded me of the first two in the series. Before I get into the review, it's worth noting that I thought this was a trilogy when I reviewed the second one for Heroes & Heartbreakers, but it's been extended and we'll be sticking with the Penhallows for a while longer it seems.
The two main characters, Katherine Brooke and Captain Hugo Penhallow, knew each other as children. They were neighbors and played together until Hugo went off to school at 13. (Katherine is a few years younger.) The book begins when Hugo returns from Canada as a wounded war veteran and Katherine is recovering from a somewhat disastrous debut Season in London. Hugo recuperates with his cousin (and the hero from Book One), Gabriel Penhallow, before returning to his family's home. He soon learns of his family's greatly diminished fortune and of Katherine's sizable dowry.
Katherine's story starts in a prologue in which she is 15 and at school, being seduced by her music tutor. She's consenting, but he's a cad and older and only after one thing, plus the power dynamic means she's not really consenting and... anyway, it's handled well. Katherine reads like a 15 year old girl infatuated with a romantic, poetry-reciting older man. Naturally, they're caught kissing, and Katherine's life turns dismal. She's forced to sleep with a maid/virtue guardian at her bedside every night, a young woman named Celeste who resents Katherine as much as Katherine resents her. Her nouveau-riche family is determined to climb the social ladder and intends to use Katherine to achieve their goals. Her mother forces her to wear a painful steel-banded corset to improve her spine, something that was unnecessary after an initial corrective period. (It's implied that she had a curvature of the spine as a child.) She isn't allowed chocolate or books or friends.
It's no wonder then, that when Hugo arrives to propose an arrangement to Katherine - his Penhallow name for her fortune - she quickly proposes to him. She does, however, negotiate terms. She comes off as downright prickly for the first 40% of the book or so, a fact that I'm sure some readers will hate, since Hugo is a man-sized cinnamon roll.
Katherine doesn't understand how to be part of a family, to have siblings or parents who care. The books in her former home were all blank, meant to display wealth but nothing more. She's been treated like those books, for show and nothing else. Though it's a marriage of convenience, it's an act of liberation for her to be able to choose not to be touched, to choose to give away the gaudy jewels and wardrobe her mother forced upon her.
Are we surprised, then, that Katherine acts quite selfishly while she sorts herself out? That Hugo is left waffling between optimism and regret? That, even as the influx of capital saves his family, he wishes he could have married his childhood friend and not the woman she's become?
It's at around this point in the story that Berne's storytelling slows. If you've read either of her earlier books, you'll recognize this somewhat sagging mid-point. It's necessary for character development, of course, and the plot really couldn't hold together without a few months of Katherine realizing that she is safe, that she isn't wrong for wanting to have a sexual relationship, that she's capable of making choices for herself. It's also, I think, important that Hugo understand when she does come back to him, that it's a turning point in their relationship. This means she wants him for him, not because it's convenient or because of what their marriage can offer her. She's been given her freedom, and has chosen to come back.
At the risk of this turning into a 5 page review, here are a few of the highlights:
- If you like books or chocolates, this is the heroine for you. There are even a couple of scenes with Hugo and some chocolate and...
- Lots of ship-building fun in the second half of the book.
- The awful parents get their due.
- Hugo's family is wonderful, including his neuroatypical brother Bertram and his fanciful sister, Gwendolyn. The narrative is sprinkled with letters from his twin brothers who are off at school, his cousins Gabriel and Livia, his aunt, etc.
- There's a talking parrot, and I won't spoil his story, but it's a good one.
In all, I'm glad I took the time to read this one. I don't think it's a "quick regency romp," but that's not what I expect from Berne's books at this point. I enjoy reading "unlikable heroines" and the men who support them, and so I liked reading about Katherine. If you don't want to read about a woman without family or friends figuring out how to have family and friends... not the book for you. But if you like ship-building, parrots, books, chocolate, and/or character-driven romance? Give it a try.