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The Girl with the Make-Believe Husband: A Pandora’s Box

In The Girl With the Make-Believe Husband, Cecilia Harcourt has found herself on an unexpected adventure. After receiving a letter that her brother, Thomas – who had been in the colonies fighting Washington’s rebels – has gone missing, she summons all her gumption, spends all her cash, and boards a ship to New York. Her brother proves elusive, but she finds his best friend, Edward Rokesby, convalescing in an officer’s hospital. While she’s never met Edward, they’ve been corresponding through Thomas and Cecilia shifts her focus to making sure that Edward’s battle wounds are well cared for. In order to do that, however, she lies to his officers that they are married, and when Edward wakes with amnesia, the lie snowballs. As Cecilia and Edward navigated their way to happily ever after, AAR staffers Kristen and Emily were pleased to be along for the ride.

KD: So, Emily – why did you pick up this book? Because Julia Quinn is an auto-buy? Or because the premise intrigued you? To be honest, Ms. Quinn is such an auto-buy for me that I didn’t even read the synopsis until I opened this to review it. The woman could write a book about people falling in love in the middle of the bubonic plague and I’d buy it.

EBW: I love Ms. Quinn’s historical novels and I admit I didn’t read the blurb; frankly, the title is a bit of a spoiler! Though there’s nothing make-believe about the handsome and dreamy Edward. He’s delightfully and perfectly real.

KD: I found it fascinating to read a book about the American Revolution told from an English perspective. It didn’t feel any different on the human emotions side, but small moments – like referring to Washington as the enemy – took me aback and reminded me that there are always many sides to war. How did you feel about that twist on the setting?

EBW: I wasn’t crazy about it! I’m not certain exactly why, but I much prefer my historical romances set anywhere but North America. That said, it was interesting to read about the war from the perspective of British soldiers – their morale, their living conditions, their impressions of the city and its inhabitants. They’re always depicted as the enemy, and I did like this role reversal.

That said, I do wish Ms. Quinn had devoted more of the novel to the mission Edward and Thomas Harcourt were on before Cecilia arrived. Cecilia travels across the Atlantic based on a letter indicating Thomas is injured, but when she arrives, Thomas is missing and Edward is unconscious. Their mission is murky throughout the novel, and I don’t think she ever adequately tells us just what they were doing – did you?

KD: It’s interesting that you’re averse to North American historicals, because I usually quite like them! I get weary at times of England, so I like to wander the globe as authors will let me. I don’t love Westerns as much, but this era of the burgeoning colonial enterprise is so interesting to me. But on to your question – I agree about wanting more of Edward and Thomas. I loved the development of their friendship – mostly through the letters at the start of each chapter – but one of Ms. Quinn’s strengths is writing familial connections so that didn’t surprise me. Getting more of their mission would have been welcome.

In thinking about the story itself, the first chunk of it is based on deceit. This is normally a hard pass for me – love based on a lie. However, it works here, but I do think it took way too long to put all the pieces together. Plots like this make me nervous about the love that’s growing and it keeps me from really engaging with the characters. So for me, the pacing of the disclosure was just a little off, but I’m also picky about this plot device. What are you feelings?

EBW: I’m also not crazy about lies as the foundation of a relationship – but I can forgive the deceit if the liar comes clean or the truth is revealed fairly early on. This isn’t even a Big Misunderstanding; Cecilia flat out lies to Edward. I was willing to go along with it, but as the story progressed, I was less sympathetic. Everything about Edward screams that he will help her once he understands the circumstances of her deception – they’re friends of a sort before they ever meet, and Thomas was Edward’s best friend, but Cecilia persists in lying and I started to dislike her for it after a while.

On that note, once the truth was revealed, the story gained momentum. I enjoyed the first half, but did you think it dragged a bit? I liked playful, flirtatious amnesia-Edward, but I adored conflicted, love-addled Edward. Did you have a preference?

KD: I didn’t find the first part dragged, but that could have been my internal tension about the deceit propelling the story rather than the story propelling itself. I also preferred the Edward that emerged once the truth was revealed. Amnesia goes with deceit for me – it makes the story feel shaky and tenuous – and so I found a bit more difficulty connecting to him in the first half. I was still delighted by him, but the post-revelation version of him was more compelling.

EBW: And let’s talk about our liar just a bit. What did you think of Cecilia? Ms. Quinn seems to want it both ways with her – it seems she’s prone to impulsive decisions (travel planning and fake marriages), but her life in Derbyshire with her father belies that. Love made her do it? For her brother? For Edward?

KD: That is a great question. I think duty to her brother made her do it, and duty is probably deeply tied to love. If Thomas is her only true family, then when all the other social or familial ties are severed in Derbyshire, the love would win out over duty to the estate and she would be compelled to go. I can also see the letter announcing Thomas’ illness to be a traumatic event so significant in her life that something snapped, as it were, and she made an out-of-character decision. I’m not sure if I’d classify it as “wanting it both ways”; more that sometime life creates circumstances where we are forced to act out of character.

EBW: Oh yes! I like that idea – that the letter and then the event taking place in Derbyshire with her father and Horace conspired to make her snap. I think you nailed it; I’m rethinking her character in light of that idea. Complacency is a hard habit to shake. When Edward woke up, so did she!

KD: In sense of a trope, this is brother’s best friend, which is one of my fictional catnips. It’s not always an auto-buy for me just based on the trope, but it is absolutely a premise that will make me take a closer look. It communicates a level of trust and relationship that makes me usually feel more grounded in the love story and I appreciate it. Is it a trope you normally like?

EBW: Hmmm… It’s not an auto-buy, but I like it. I loved the sneak peeks at the friendship between Edward and Thomas, and I particularly loved the snippets of the letters between Thomas and Cecilia, and then Thomas, Edward and Cecilia. It’s so clear that Thomas knows what’s happening between them and it’s a happy development. Well, wait – it was obvious to me. Did you feel the same?

KD: Absolutely. Dude totally knew what was going on and was probably into it on a level. He clearly loved his sister and Edward and didn’t discourage the connection.

EBW: I loved the snippets of the letters that marked the start of each chapter and wish there had been more of them. Did you like them as a plot device?

KD: I love letters when they’re as short as they were here – snippets and nothing more. I am not a fan of epistolary novels, but using them as a seasoning versus a main course was a lovely insight into their lives prior to the start of the book. In wanting more of them, does this connect to your wanting more of Edward and Thomas’ pre-book life? Would you have liked some contrast and seen Edward’s letters home?

EBW: YES! I ALWAYS WANT MORE! Backstory, love story, epilogues… in this case, particularly because Edward and Cecilia are half in love before they ever meet, I think Ms. Quinn really cheated the reader by not including more of their correspondence. Some of my favorite scenes/moments were the fake bickering between Edward and Thomas as he’s writing about Edward to Cecilia. Does that make sense? Edward is eavesdropping and inserting his own thoughts and Thomas is commenting on them.

KD: Makes total sense and I agree. I love really great dude friendships in books, so to only give us that in teases was disappointing

EBW: Since you’re also a JQ fan, do you feel like the Rokesby books have a slower, more nostalgic air about them than her other series? Though I enjoyed this story, I wish the book had a bit more urgency. It felt slow until the last quarter (for me, the best part) – did you feel that way?

KD: You know, I haven’t noticed a shift between other books and the Rokesby books. I’m not as much into action or drama in my romances – it’s why I tend to shy away from NA, for example, as I am anti-angst – so Ms. Quinn’s novels are like a cozy fictional home for me. My affection for the Bridgerton gang is deep and I really enjoyed getting to know the Smith-Smythes as well, but I suppose that quiet, nostalgic air you refer to is kind of how I felt during most of her works.

EBW: Should we talk about Thomas? WTF- I did not expect that! Without spoiling the storyline, were you happy with the resolution for this character? I wasn’t. It seemed like Ms. Quinn teased his awesomeness and then… It’s probably my least favorite part of the book.

KD: AGREED. When that resolved – especially Edward’s interactions with Captain Sourpuss (not his name, but that is how he will be referred to in my head for perpetuity) and all the conversation there, it all felt a little “I need this guy to get them together but then I’m not sure what to do with him”. Plus, it felt abrupt. Not enough to significantly detract from the story for me – but since you’ve brought it up, yes, it was a speed bump in my enjoyment. What’s your overall verdict?

EBW: I’m giving it a B. She saved the best for last, but for me it was a bit too late. I needed more about Edward and Thomas (I hated the resolution of his story line!!!!!), and I wish Edward and Cecilia’s letters had been better incorporated into the story.

KD: It’s a B+ from me – I can’t bump it up to a DIK because of the conceit foundation, but I’m sure it’s a book I’ll read again.


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06/02/2017 4:28 am

I was very unhappy with the supposed resolution of Thomas’s participation. I’m hoping that future books may make a change. I just can’t trust or like Colonel Sourpuss (Excellent name for him), and with Andrew in the Navy there is still the potential for interaction with the British armed forces.

05/31/2017 7:22 pm

I think there’s a shift in the tone of the books – I felt with the Smythe-Smith books Quinn had transitioned into comic writing, almost more than romance writing. (I think she has a really good comedic voice.) But this book was all romance, except perhaps for Miss Finch. I did find the first part slow, but read the rest in one sitting.

I enjoyed the setting – but I’m British, so I didn’t know anything about New York at that period, so it was all new to me.

I thought the officers were unusually complex – maybe that’s part of the change in Quinn’s writing style, but I can’t remember her having such minor characters who weren’t one note. I suspect there’s a lot of back-story that she knows about what happened before Cecilia arrives that isn’t in the book.
It could be, of course, that she put it in and then had to take it out, because of length considerations, or because it wasn’t pertinent to the story we were reading. But I did wonder if it’s not there because there’s another book – there seems to me a book-shaped hole in the narrative that might prove to be Thomas’s story.
I loved the letters – from Daddy-Long-Legs onward I’ve loved letters in books. ( I’d love an epilogue of letters between the h/h in later life.)
I also really liked the ending of the book – not a cliff-hanger, just straight up channeling her inner Scheherazade.

Kristen Donnelly
Kristen Donnelly
05/31/2017 3:36 pm

The language doesn’t bother me as much, but I can see how it would others.

I was surprised by how much Duran’s amnesia plot worked on me – I think because Crispin’s awakening is about marrying his old self and his new in a very self-aware way. Edward’s, in this book, was less mature.

05/31/2017 7:27 am

Letters almost never work for me in historicals because they are typically written in modern voice. I think it’s easier for me to suspend disbelief in anachronistic dialogue because we know very little about how people spoke out loud, whereas we have thousands of letters that just don’t look like the letters in novels. (I still don’t like modern dialogue, though, and Quinn is one of the worst offenders.)

An exception to the letters thing is Connie Brockway’s My Dearest Enemy. The setting is later which might help, but also the content and the subtext of the letters is so delightful.

Caz Owens
Caz Owens
Reply to  CarolineAAR
05/31/2017 9:30 am

I am a big fan of epistolary novels or stories in which letters are important to the plot, but you’re right, they do need to be handled carefully. Laura Kinsale’s My Sweet Folly is a good example, I think.

Caz Owens
Caz Owens
05/31/2017 6:41 am

I’m going with audio for this one as I just can’t squeeze it into my reading schedule! But amnesia is always difficult to pull off in a romance and while I loved the Duran and Sherry Thomas’ Tempting the Bride (another amnesia story) I can understand why that plotline doesn’t appeal to all. I don’t recall the focus being so strongly on the guilt of the person practicing the deception in either of those books, though.

Reply to  Caz Owens
05/31/2017 7:17 am

I loved the Duran too. I thought what was interesting was that both characters had to confront their own shortcomings as a result of the amnesia “reset” – the lying heroine admitting she’s not a virtuous as she wanted to think, and the hero getting a chance to be an entirely different man. Thi

Dabney Grinnan
Dabney Grinnan
05/30/2017 3:14 pm

It’s interesting that this book and another big recent historical release–the last Meredith Duran, A Lady’s Code of Misconduct–both have fraudulently claimed weddings due to amnesia on the part of the hero. In the Duran book, it didn’t really work for me. Have you guys read that one?