Anne Verlaine moves to the small village of Wyckerley with her husband, Geoffrey, when he inherits the title of viscount from his estranged father. Her marriage is an unhappy one, to say the least, strained at the best of times and abusive at the worst. Anne is a deeply lonely woman, who feels trapped by her loveless marriage and deceived by her husband's manipulations. Forlorn and depressed, she doesn't feel like she fits in anywhere, until Geoffrey's childhood friend enters their lives.
Christian Morrell is the local vicar whose handsome good looks are reminiscent of an angel. Anne is attracted to Christy's kindheartedness and calm demeanor. Geoffrey can't seem to resist the pull of battle and when he goes off to war again, he leaves Anne in Christy's care. The two grow close, sharing a deep bond of friendship that blossoms into a forbidden love. When Anne suddenly finds herself a free woman, her relationship with Christy takes a passionate turn, but Christy wants a lifetime with the woman he's come to love, while Anne sees herself as the least suitable person to become a vicar's wife. Just as they begin to find their way to compromise, they encounter an unexpected turn in the road that may destroy their newfound happiness and leave them both more desolate than before.
The first Patricia Gaffney book I read was Wild at Heart, which I loved for it's uniqueness and depth of emotion. I'm rather appalled to say that was nearly six years ago. I have no idea why I didn't read another of her books until now, other than that I've found a lot of equally talented authors who've been drawing my attention away since then. In any case, I'm so glad I finally got around to reading Ms. Gaffney again, because To Love and to Cherish was equally as unique in it's own way and filled with a richness of detail and sumptuous emotions that really grabbed me and didn't let go.
When I started the book, I wasn't sure if this would be the case. I was enjoying it, but it seemed a little subdued. The first 150 pages or so move rather slowly with not a great of relationship building from a romantic standpoint occurring between the hero and heroine. I did, however, like the slow-building friendship between Anne and Christy. It was appropriate for the circumstances, since she's a married woman when they meet and he's a minister. I also very much enjoyed how Anne, an atheist, feels more comfortable and can be more herself with Christy, a minister, than anyone else in her life. I felt it showed just how open their hearts were that two people from such disparate religious backgrounds could become so close. During this time, we see just enough of their interactions to feel the deepening of their friendship and a blossoming attraction, but sometimes I felt like the author was holding back somewhat on the emotional development. I'm not sure if it's because of the sensitive nature of the relationship or what, but I kept wanting to feel more or for something more to happen between them. At that magical 150 page mark, though, that all changes, and from there, we get an emotional feast that at times was so deep and intense as to leave me feeling either euphoric over their shared joy or a tad wrung out from their shared turmoil. Either way, I wouldn't have changed a thing about this part of the story. From that point on, it was practically perfect in every way.
In some ways, I think this story is more about Anne's journey, as she went through more changes and growth. When she first comes to Wyckerley with Geoffrey, her husband, and the hero, Christy's childhood best friend, she's in a very morose place. It's easy to tell that her marriage is an unhappy one, but exactly what makes it that way isn't revealed until much later in the story. All we get are little hints: that Geoffrey may have been cruel to her in some way or possibly even abusive, that at least one of his dissolute friends behaved inappropriately toward her, and that they haven't been intimate since their honeymoon. But the why of all these things unfolds slowly over time. When we finally learn the full import of what Anne's life has been like, I couldn't help feeling empathy toward her. She feels rather blind and stupid for having allowed her girlish self to believe Geoffrey's lies and manipulations and now she feels trapped in a loveless marriage. Yet she still feels some loyalty to her husband in spite of his treachery. When she meets Christy, Anne is in a desolate place. Even though she wasn't raised in the high life, she's now an aristocrat, and as the only aristocratic lady in town, she feels isolated and has trouble making friends. I could really relate to Anne in this way as well as her almost overwhelming sense of loneliness. Christy becomes something of a lifeline to her, so much so that when he reveals his growing feelings for her and tries to call off their friendship, she all but begs him not to. The last thing she wants to do is tempt him or hurt him in any way, but she feels like he's all she has. I really enjoyed watching Anne go on her journey to finding emotional wholeness, a deepening spirituality, and a growing sense of community with the people of Wyckerley.
I greatly admired Christy. He's an amazing man and most definitely a sweet beta hero, a kind, gentle soul who IMHO genuinely embodies his role as a minister. He always thinks of others first, even putting his life in danger at one point to bring spiritual comfort to a man who everyone believes is going to die. He truly cares about people, and is deeply committed to all of his parishioners. That's how things begin with Anne, with him trying to befriend her and bring her some comfort. It just so happens that he comes to care for her on a much deeper level than his other parishioners. Christy is the type of minister who really brings the love of God to his flock and doesn't judge them for their weaknesses. But at the same time, Christy feels like he's living in the shadow of his father, the former minister, and can't quite measure up. Anne, however, sees the truth and knows how much help he is to his congregation even when he can't. It's through his gentle, heartfelt faith that he brings about spiritual change in others, most especially Anne. Readers who don't like perfect heroes, probably won't care much for Christy. At one point, even Anne teases him, asking whether he has any flaws, because he seems so perfect, and in my opinion, he nearly was. But I loved that about him. He's a truly honorable man, who is also deeply self-controlled which I found very sexy and appealing. (Not every hero has to be a randy goat 24/7.;-)) Even though Christy is deeply passionate and desires Anne, he refuses to merely have an affair with her like she initially wants, but he's not averse to compromise when he's finally able to wear her down a little. This really helped to build a sense of anticipation and once he does get her to compromise, their intimate scenes are filled with tenderness and emotion while still being quite sexy and sensual.
There are a couple of very unique elements in To Love and to Cherish, the first of which I'll address being the faith message. In many ways the story almost reminded me of an inspirational romance, because this element is front and center throughout. This might bother some readers who are averse to religious messages in their books, but I found it refreshing, in part because it's rare to find a character outside of inspirational stories who has a deep faith in God like Christy does. At the same time, it wasn't like any other inspirational story I've ever read, because the characters act like real people. They curse, they have vices, they experience temptations and doubts, and they reason things out through logic and intellect, instead of merely following a set of pious, puritanical rules and regulations. The author also doesn't gloss over or completely omit sexual desire and even love-making, which no true inspirational author I know of would do. However, I actually liked all of these things much better than most inspirational romances I've read, because of how it all seemed more deeply rooted in reality with characters I could relate to. Even Anne's conversion experience was very organic and not the type that you would typically see in inspirational fiction, not to mention, Christy fully accepted her as she was before that, without trying to change her or placing unrealistic expectations on her. Even when she had doubts that she could ever make a suitable minister's wife, he completely trusted her.
The other unusual element is that a significant part of the story is told through Anne's journal entries. I appreciated the uniqueness of this storytelling medium, which is rarely seen in romance. They were well-written, and as a whole, I liked them. They give us some insights into Anne's life, and show her introspections in a different way. However, some of the earlier entries, during that first 150 pages, didn't delve quite as deeply as I would have liked. There are also a few interactions with Christy that Anne writes about in her journal that I think might have had more impact if written in real-time rather than after the fact in this narrative format. Otherwise, I liked this uncommon look into Anne's POV and think that it proves my earlier point that this story is a little more about her and her journey.
I also have to say that Ms. Gaffney did an incredible job of bringing the little village of Wyckerley to life, so much so that it became a character unto itself. Some of this is because of the author's sumptuous descriptions of the environment, while the other part is the people of the town itself. Throughout the course of the story, we meet many of the townspeople, who, of course, are also Christy's parishioners, and I came to care about all of them. In her author's note at the end, Ms. Gaffney says that she didn't originally envision this book as the start of a series, but some of the characters she created just wouldn't let go when it was finished. She wanted to know more of what happened in their lives, which is why it ended up being a trilogy. Although we don't get to meet him in this story, the presence of Geoffrey's cousin can be felt from afar. He comes to town and becomes the hero of the next book, To Have and to Hold. Then there's pretty, young Sophie Deene, who if memory serves is the niece of the mayor. Her father dies, leaving her the heir to his copper mine, and she becomes the heroine of the final book, Forever and Ever.
Overall, To Love and to Cherish is a wonderful, heartfelt story that makes the reader feel everything that Anne and Christy are feeling. If anyone starts it and isn't quite feeling it during the first 150 pages, I encourage you to stick with it, because it definitely takes off after that and is completely worth it. And for anyone who might be worried about a potential cheating element, due to the heroine being a married woman, there's no need for concern. Anne and Christy are very controlled in their relationship, never doing anything improper, not even kissing, until they fully believe she's a free woman. Except for the slow early parts that I mentioned, this was a great story. It has earned Patricia Gaffney a spot on my favorite authors list, and I'm very much looking forward to continuing the series and revisiting this quaint little town in the English countryside soon.
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