When Kim H., a happily married, 47 yr old mother from Louisville, Ky told me that she was interested in a dialogue about Not Quite a Husband by Sherry Thomas for my blog, I jumped at the chance. I had met Kim (a non-blogger) on a forum and I have always found her to have thoughtful things to say about what she is reading. Kim and I had both read Sherry Thomas’s previous two novels (Private Arrangements and Delicious) and greatly anticipated the arrival of NQAH. We both read it on Release Day and each posted separate reviews on Goodreads but we have even more to say about it!
Like myself, Kim is primarily a historical reader and her favorite authors include Marsha Canham, Laura Kinsale, Judith Ivory, Loretta Chase, Candice Proctor, and Connie Brockway. The following is our conversation. Please note that we will be discussing the book in depth and full spoilers will be disclosed, so read forth at your own discretion.
Kim: Yes, I can still stand behind an A- review, because the things that graded it that high for me haven’t, in retrospect, changed. I missed the secondary romance, but I was also glad for the opportunity to read a Sherry Thomas work without one. It’s an interesting contrast, and I thoroughly enjoyed being able to see it.
Seton: I was sort of surprised that I did notice the lack of a secondary romance this time. I say “notice” and not “miss” because I usually hate secondary romances with the passion of a thousand nuns. In fact, I stopped reading Anne Gracie (a very good writer) cold turkey just because she assured me that she will always do secondary romances in the future. However, ST has a really delicate touch with her secondary romances and I found it really quite charming in Private Arrangements. Like you, I appreciated the opportunity of reading a ST book without one though.
Kim: I also didn’t have any problems with understanding and warming to Bryony as a heroine. It probably sounds odd, but I had complete trust in Thomas from the outset, and I knew that she’d develop this character fully enough for me to sympathize with her. The revelations about Bryony’s feelings for Leo, and what had caused her to withdraw from him and wall her emotions in, didn’t come too late in the story to rescue her as a heroine for me. I had faith that they were coming, and just knew I was going to get choked up when they did. I think this is ultimately why this book worked for me. I very much experienced it on the level of putting myself in the author’s hands and trusting her to show me a good time. I didn’t need Leo to carry the romance for me. I always felt that Bryony loved him just as much as he loved her. Certainly she was terrified of it; most definitely of allowing it show, but I never doubted the depth of her feelings for him.
Kim: I remember a close friend of mine, on the heels of a particularly painful breakup, telling me that the only way she could cope was to imagine that her ex had died, so “To me, you no longer exist.“ had some personal resonance. No doubt it’s a horrible thing to say, but I had more problems with the flashback when Bryony asks Leo if she can count on his cooperation in their annulment.
I think she obviously feels inferior, and like the cat who stole the cream when Leo takes her up on her marriage proposal. She was proud of herself for winning him, but it never once occurred to her that he could be in love with her. I can’t count how many times I’ve allowed a hero to get away with the same behavior, so letting Bryony slip by with it wasn’t so very difficult. All of her life experiences have taught her that she’s unworthy of love, so yes, there is a degree of objectifying Leo in her behavior; the covetousness that she feels for him. This is what caused him to get cold feet before the wedding and do the cheating – he sensed that, wondered if he was making a mistake.
Seton: Yes, it was an understandable mistake and I would have more compassion for her . . . . if she had learned some self-awareness from it. But I dont think she did by the time they met again in Chapter 1.
You mention personal resonance earlier and I have to say that I had the most visceral reaction to Bryony’s gift to Leo of a pocket watch engraved with the words “Love is patient. Love is kind.”
First of all, it reminded me of this gold-digger my brother was desperately in love at one time. She had given him a gift of the book The Giving Tree by Shel Silvertsein and I had interpreted the gift as a message that she intended to bleed my brother dry as the Boy did to the Tree. In another words, the gift was all about HER. 🙂
Bryony’s gift was also a message about her in the same way. I looked up the quote engraved on the watch and it turns out that it’s from 1 Corinthians 13 of the Bible. The quote goes like this:
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.”
All these things above that Bryony asks of Leo, she couldn’t herself offer to Leo. Oh the irony! The fact that the quote is revealed at the moment that Bryony asks for the annulment was a masterful touch, I thought.
Kim: I totally agree, but I also felt there was more to her behavior during the marriage than just an inability to forgive. She could have been just as angry and unforgiving had she shouted it in his face. Instead she rolls herself into a defensive ball like a hedgehog. She doesn’t try to discuss it, won’t even acknowledge it. It’s like she’s afraid that by dragging this thing that is destroying her marriage out into the open, she’ll be acknowledging her insecurities and allowing Leo the opportunity to confirm that she really is unworthy of love, so she hides behind this same defensive armor that she has used for most of her life.
I also think that Leo bears his own share of the responsibility for their disastrous marriage. Had he opened himself up to Bryony, and not just about the cheating, but about the fact that he’d been in love with her for most of his life, I think it would have made all the difference. He doesn’t understand her any better than she understands him, and doesn’t make the effort to when it might have saved their marriage. So while I may have sympathized with him more, I wasn’t willing to let him off the hook just because he was easier to warm to. He was a beautiful, charming & popular extrovert. Of course he’s easy to understand. He’s everything Bryony wasn’t, and she knew it. I imagine it was painful for her just to look at him sometimes, so I can’t imagine that dropping her defenses with him was something she would have ever been capable of doing, had they not found themselves in the circumstances they did.
Seton: Oh, yes. Like I said before, I thought the marriage was doomed to fail with the way that they BOTH were at the time. Well, enough of Leo and Bryony.
What did you think of Sherry’s use of flashbacks this time around?
Kim: I think she was much more judicious with them this time around. I’ve watched this progression of her use of flashbacks from Private Arrangements to this book, and she’s gotten more adept with them – not that she was ever actually clumsy. They were, and this is strictly my opinion on it – a little cumbersome in her first effort. She’s acquiring more polish as she matures as a writer, and becoming more concise. I truly think the sky is the limit for her, but I’m hoping that she’ll start to lean away from the series thing. Granted, her books aren’t so closely related that they can’t stand on their own, but this one lost a little bit, in my opinion, to the tie-ins to Delicious. They felt awkward to me.
Seton: I like that she has gotten more spare with the flashbacks and I liked how some were just a paragraph long at times. A dab here and there. Just enough to connect the dots like a Pointilist painter. However, the way she had a flashback every other chapter in PA never bothered me but please note that I am a big flashback ho. The more, the merrier, I say.
I think ST tried to branch out a little and grow with NQAH. She tried things that wasn’t necessarily her strong points as a writer. One was the tie-in to Delicious. Leo’s visit to Vera (the heroine from Delicious) was just pigeon-holed in there in an obvious, self-conscious, clumsy manner and served no purpose whatsoever. I think the scene should have been cut completely.
Another was the exotic setting: northwest territory of British India. It felt like a travelogue just shoe-in-ed there and didn’t relate to the rest of her writing that well, IMO.
Kim: The setting was very interesting, but it did seem to have a life of its own that wasn’t always in harmony with the story. It never felt like window dressing to me, but there were a few times that I felt like I was reading a rewrite of Meredith Duran’s Duke of Shadows. Maybe it’s the reference material they used; Duran recommended A Sportswoman In India by Isabel Savory, and some other reference books to Thomas. The film that inspired this novel: The Painted Veil, was set in China, so I think it’s safe to say that she had the story somewhat fleshed out before she placed it in the setting.
This is actually part of the reason it received a less than perfect grade from me. Not so much that it felt like travelogue to me, but the setting – which seemed uncharacteristic of Thomas – and a couple of other unusual elements did prompt me to look up her website and read her personal narrative about writing NQAH, which I think takes some of the mojo out of the writer to reader relationship. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t do that, but I was so overcome with curiosity, I just had to. I’m sure some of that is my failing as a faithful reader, but I do believe that a good story should keep you so immersed that you don’t think about something like researching it until after you’ve finished it. I didn’t grade it down by much though, because I ultimately feel that an author stepping outside of their usual comfort zone is a good thing, and I was glad to see her do it here.
Seton: I am one of those readers who make a conscious effort to read every word but I actually skipped some here because the descriptions just didn’t engage me. I read every word of the India section of Duke of Shadows because it seemed to me the locale was more filtered through the H/H’s eyes in comparison (I am not saying that that book didnt have problems either because it did.) I remember that I read every word in Mary Jo Putney’s Silk and Secrets, which is about an estranged couple set in 19th century Afghanistan. I have read the book The Painted Veil (I LOVE W. Somerset Maugham) and he doesn’t dwell on the setting at all. So, it’s a definite flaw in my view and a major reason for my grade.
Kim: One of the things that you mentioned to me when we initially discussed this book was the issue of the dangling plot thread regarding Bryony’s inability to have children. I said I noticed it but it didn’t bother me enough to change the grade I gave the book. How big of a clunker was it for you? I think it probably should have bothered me more than it did – dangling threads like that usually do. I also kind of thought it was possibly something that just got overlooked. From ST’s comments on her website, I get the feeling that NQAH went through quite a few significant changes from the first few drafts. I know she had a deadline to meet, which makes me wonder just how rushed she was to get it completed.
Seton: I would call it a curiosity more than a clunker. We see Bryony tell Leo that it’s highly unlikely she can have children when she proposes. Then near the end of the book, Leo implies the possibility of Bryony being pregnant yet when Bryony asks for an end to their marriage four yrs earlier, the possibility of being Bryony being pregnant wasn’t brought up. (Yes, I remember that they didn’t have sex for 4 months prior.) Obviously, Leo and Bryony had a more elaborate conversation about Bryony’s inability to have children that was never shown the reader. All we do know is that Bryony is irregular and that they never did have children from the Epilogue.
Kim: The epilogue was sweet, but I thought the final chapter was a bit of a snoozer. It seemed somewhat superfluous to me. I suppose it put a finishing touch on a few things, but it read mostly like an opportunity to get Leo & Bryony back into bed, and I didn’t think the book was at all lacking in love scenes up to that point. I think the space could have been better utilized on that “elaborate conversation” 😛
Seton: Agree that the final chapter dragged. I’ve never been a fan of love scenes in the 25 pages of the book. Just end it already.
So, how does NQAH rank among ST’s works for you? Is Delicious still your favorite?