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TheEscapeMaryBalogh51hzL-RzJ-L‘They were feeling somewhat maudlin, the seven of them, the members of the self-styled Survivors’ Club. Once they had all spent several years here at Penderris, recuperating from wounds sustained during the Napoleonic Wars. Although each had had to fight a lone battle toward recovery, they had also aided and supported one another and grown as close as any brothers – and sister. When the time had come for them to leave … they had gone with mingled eagerness and trepidation. Life was for living … yet the cocoon in which they had been wrapped for so long had kept them safe and even happy. They had decided that they would return to Cornwall for a few weeks each year to keep alive their friendship … and to help with any difficulty that may have arisen for one or more of them. This had been the third such gathering…’

The Escape, Chapter 1, page 13

 

 

In the opening pages of Mary Balogh’s latest novel, The Escape, the seven members who together make up the ‘Survivors’ Club’ gather together on their last night at Penderris Hall, the country residence of George Crabbe, Duke of Stanbrook. This is the third such reunion for Hugo Emes, Lord Trentham; Vincent Hunt, Viscount Darleigh; Flavian Arnott, Viscount Ponsonby; Ralph Stockwood, Earl of Berwick; Imogen Hayes, Lady Barclay and Sir Benedict Harper, all of whom previously convalesced at the house, spending years recovering from the physical and mental trauma caused by the Napoleonic Wars. Each of them faced unspeakable horrors during the conflict and, as a result, each one of them is now finding it difficult to adapt to the expectations and restrictions of life back ‘home’ in the drawing rooms of early 19th-century English society.

While the previous books in the ‘Survivors’ Club’ series, the very fine The Proposal and its follow up The Arrangement centred on Hugo and Vincent’s stories, respectively, The Escape focuses on former military officer Major Sir Benedict ‘Ben’ Harper. During the war, Ben’s injuries were such that he was told that he would never walk again. Through sheer perseverance and bloody mindedness, he is now able to walk slowly with canes. On this last evening in Cornwall, however, Ben is depressed and hard-pushed to find a way forward. When his fellow survivors force him to talk about how he feels, he admits, albeit reluctantly, that he is struggling to come to terms with his new position in the world:

‘[I]t has taken me six years to face up to the fact that … I will never get my life back as it was. I will always be a cripple.’ (p.15)

This facing reality, or confronting life as it is, as opposed to what it might have or should have been, is the crux of the matter for many a Balogh novel. At the beginning of her books, her heroes and heroines are often just making do, passing time, while living lives of quiet desperation. Yet, soon afterwards, through clever plot twists, well-placed obstacles and the introduction of a feisty/needy hero or heroine or two, Balogh’s protagonists soon show their mettle, coming into their own. By the end of Balogh’s books, her protagonists have found their way to a better, brighter future and to a personal resolution that brings them peace and, more importantly, enduring love.

Ben, like some of the other survivors, finds himself back in postwar England in a new, albeit arguably better social position than when he left it. For Ben, this is the result of his eldest brother’s demise in a somewhat pedestrian accident (bringing home again the fragility of life at that time). However, this change in circumstance leads to problems for Ben – not least a disgruntled younger brother in residence at, and in control of, Ben’s new family seat.

Instead of dealing with his brother, Ben chooses to travel to County Durham to stay with his sister, Lady Gramley, after he leaves Penderris. There, he meets newly widowed Samantha McKay, who lives at nearby Bramley Hall. Like Ben, Samantha is trapped by her position and family circumstances. Her husband, Captain Matthew McKay, had been bedridden for the five years before his death from injuries sustained on the Peninsula and Samantha’s energies had been completely exhausted by his care. Now, Samantha finds herself at the mercy of her controlling father-in-law, the Earl of Heathmoor, and his humourless daughter, Matilda, both of who have very rigid ideas about how Samantha should conduct herself. By the time she meets Ben, Samantha is suffocating and is desperate to escape.

Ben and Samantha’s first encounter, while Samantha is out walking her dog, Tramp, is less than auspicious and brings to mind Mr Rochester’s first meeting with Jane Eyre. Ben is, by comparison, far more violently vocal in his opinion of Samantha – and her ‘pathetic excuse for a dog’ – after he almost tramples them to death with his horse. Both Samantha and Ben are left feeling indignant, but when Ben later apologises, the couple reach an understanding, not least because each wants more than anything to ‘dance’.

Ben and Samantha are at odds with a society neither of them really understands. Until the war intervened, Ben believed his life and career were clearly mapped out for him; now he must strive to find a new path. Samantha, in turn, is the daughter of a Welsh actress, who knows little of her family other than she is a quarter Gypsy and that she has an estranged brother and a father-in-law who both disapprove of her. It is the latter’s extreme paucity of spirit that leads him to remove Samantha from her home when she fails to conform to his expectation of how a widow should behave. This brings home to the reader the instability of most women’s financial situations in the early 19th century, even women from more privileged backgrounds and this is something explored in different guises in other Balogh novels.

Luckily Samantha does have options – her mother left her a small cottage, little more than a ‘hovel’, she believes, on the southwest coast of Wales, but still somewhere to rest her head. In Ben’s company, Samantha travels to Wales to claim her inheritance and in doing so discovers more than she could ever have hoped for – a family she didn’t know existed, a home for herself and her dog, and love, long-lasting true love. Ben, in turn, finds his place in the world and a woman with whom he can joyfully share it.

The Escape, like Balogh’s other books, is extremely well and tightly written, well paced and well plotted. It’s a very good historical romance novel. It’s not my favourite, thus far, in the series – I think The Proposal is pretty flawless to be honest, but that’s just an aside. The Escape showcases what Balogh does so effortlessly in her books – it builds up context and history for the other books in the series and sets up new strands that will, no doubt, be picked up and developed in later ‘Survivors’ Club’ titles. Ben and Samantha apart, the hinterland of characters, some of whom one knows will no doubt appear in other guises in later books, is cleverly and soundly constructed. And this all just adds foundation to Balogh’s world, making the characters inhabiting it and the circumstances that they often find themselves in completely believable. Her people aren’t perfect: they’re flawed, fallible men and women who act in ways we not only understand but often empathise with.  That’s what makes them real. That’s what makes them appealing. And that’s what makes us go back to Balogh as a writer, time and time again.

She is master of her universe.

 

The Escape, Book Three of the seven-part* the ‘Survivors Club’ series, is published on 1 July 2014.

 

Survivors’ Club series:

 

The Proposal 12707039

 

 

The Proposal (Hugo’s story), Book One (US cover featured).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mary Balogh The Arrangmentimages

 

The Arrangement (Vincent’s story), Book Two (UK cover featured).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Only Enchanting Balogh book 421805544

 

Book Four, Only Enchanting (Flavian’s story), published in autumn/fall this year (see US cover, left).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*A digital first novella, The Suitor, was also published as a prequel to Book 2.

 

 

Notice: Please note the above images and quotations are intended to be for promotional purposes only. In no way, have we have intentionally breached anyone’s copyright.

This review is ©The Literary Shed, 2014. All opinions expressed are our own. It can only be reproduced with our permission. Please contact us if you wish to do so and please credit us accordingly.