Someone to Hold, the second book in Ms. Balogh’s Westcott series, tells the story of Miss – formerly Lady – Camille Westcott, the eldest daughter of the late Earl of Riverdale, who discovered after his death that she, along with her brother and sister, was illegitimate because their parents’ marriage was bigamous.
In the previous book, Someone to Love, which announced this discovery, Camille was cold, hard, disdainful and full of hatred for the newly discovered half-sister whom she regarded as the cause of her own loss of rank and position. Making Camille into a heroine listeners could like and root for was something of a tremendous ask, but Mary Balogh does it with aplomb, giving a clear, warts-and-all portrait of a young woman who suddenly finds out that the life she has known is a lie, and who is struggling to gain a sense of self and identity in a world which has drastically changed around her.
At the beginning of Someone to Hold, Camille and her sister Abigail are living with their maternal grandmother in Bath; their brother Harry has joined the army and their mother has gone to live with her brother. Camille is restless and impatient with the way that everyone around her seems almost to be trying to carry on as though nothing has happened; but she can’t ignore the fact that her life has changed forever. As the daughter of an earl, she faced a certain future, but now that’s gone and she isn’t sure what she’s supposed to do now.
Fortunately for Camille, some of the things that made her so easy to dislike in the previous book – her stubbornness and her … backbone, for want of a better word – are also the things that enable her to take a look at herself, realise she doesn’t like what she sees, and then decide to go out and find her own – different – future. She approaches the head of the orphanage at which her half-sister, Anna Snow (now the Duchess of Netherby) grew up and then taught, and offers her services as a teacher. Camille has no experience whatsoever, but the head teacher agrees to a trial period of two weeks to see how things work out.
On her introductory visit to the orphanage, Camille meets Joel Cunningham, a celebrated local artist whose unique style of portraiture has earned him a reputation for excellence and whose list of well-to-do clientele is quickly expanding. Joel was raised in the orphanage and returns there a couple of afternoons a week to teach art; he was also in love with Anna and while he accepts that she has married someone else, he is still a little heartbroken over her, and is resentful of Camille, about whom he has heard from Anna in her letters.
At first, Camille and Joel aren’t at all impressed with one another and their relationship is an antagonistic one, but over time, they begin to draw closer and discover that there’s an inexplicably strong current of attraction running between them.
While the romance in the book is quite charming, the way in which Ms. Balogh transforms Camille from the snobbish, unpleasant woman we met in the previous book into a woman that listeners can sympathise with is the real focus of the story, and it’s extremely well done. Even moreso when one considers that the author has effected the change without giving Camille a complete personality transplant. She’s the same woman as before, but her strength and determination are given a different focus here, enabling her to face and rise to the new challenges with which she is confronted.
Joel is a lovely romantic hero, a genuinely good, decent man who has worked hard to gain the recognition he has achieved. When he is unexpectedly confronted with life-changing information, he turns to Camille in order to anchor himself and make sense of what he has learned. I loved that they had reached a place where they could turn to each other for whatever support they needed, and that their relationship is so honest – even when that honesty is painful or hurtful.
The pacing is fairly slow, but that didn’t affect my enjoyment of the story at all; rather the opposite. The listener needs time to come to know who Camille really is, and Ms. Balogh reveals her personality by degrees, showing, through her interactions with her pupils, that she is a woman with untapped reserves of kindness and compassion. It’s all very subtle; Camille wants to do well and gives a lot of thought to activities that will engage the children as well as teach them something (you can tell Ms. Balogh used to be a teacher!) and even though she is not sure about what she’s doing, it’s clear she has a real aptitude for the job. Joel is reluctantly impressed when he sees the affection Camille inspires in her pupils, despite her tendency to be a bit stiff and unsmiling; but as he comes to know her better, he comes to understand and admire her for the way in which she’s rebuilding her life and striking out on her own. At one point he even wonders if perhaps what happened to Camille might have been the best thing to have happened to her… and while Camille is upset and angry that he could say such a thing, she gradually comes to understand what he meant by it – and then to agree.
The other important underlying theme deals with Camille’s having to learn to accept the love and affection of others. Even though she was previously engaged to be married, it was a match made for expediency rather than affection, and the idea that she could be loved unconditionally and for being herself had never really been part of her life. She strongly resists being brought “back into the fold” by her family, believing they want her to give up the life she is making for herself, but comes to see that isn’t the case at all; they want to support her in her choices and want her to know that she can turn to them if she needs to. Camille, who has always been so self-sufficient, finds this difficult to accept, but by the end of the book, is starting to realise that affection is a two way street, and that she needs to let people in from time to time.
I did have some quibbles with certain aspects of the plot which seemed a little too convenient (Joel’s storyline), but overall Someone to Hold is an extremely insightful and engaging book featuring complex, flawed characters who feel like real people facing real dilemmas. Mary Balogh has an incredible gift for exploring and relating the emotions and motivations of her protagonists and does it with great subtlety and sensitivity.
The same is true of Rosalyn Landor’s narration, which is absolutely outstanding. She picks up on every nuance and emotional cue in a story that, while not overly intricate in terms of the plot, is nonetheless full of complicated, messy emotions and which has, at its heart, an extremely complex central character. The harsh tone she adopts for Camille feels completely right (and is consistent with her interpretation in the previous book), and expertly conveys the truth of this hurt, confused young woman whose instinct for self-preservation often sees her lashing out at those she cares for the most. Joel’s warm, gently accented speech also suits the character perfectly; he might not be a gentleman, but he’s a gentle man and Ms. Landor also does a great job conveying the overt masculinity that Camille sees in him from the very start.
Later in the book, we are reacquainted with some of the large Westcott family, including Avery and Anna, Alex (the reluctant new Earl of Riverdale), his mother and sister and various others. All are portrayed appropriately and consistently, and in the few scenes where they all appear, there’s never any problem working out who is speaking at any one time. Ms. Landor has always been supremely good at portraying female characters of varying ages and stations, and that talent is once again in evidence here, as she effortlessly characterises young, middle-aged and older ladies and switches between them without breaking a sweat.
I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Someone to Hold, and have no hesitation in recommending it. I have seen some reviewers criticise the story for being too slow, but I disagree; it IS slow moving, but that’s not to say it’s slow because nothing is happening. There’s plenty going on, but it’s not flashy or overt. Mary Balogh is a master of understatement; her stories build slowly and her characters are developed subtly and in ways that make them easy to relate to; and I, for one, am certainly a fan of this series so far.
Book Content: B+
Steam Factor: Glad I had my earbuds in (but at the very tame end)
Violence Rating: None
Genre: Historical Romance
Publisher: Recorded Books