Anne Jewel is the single mother of an illegitimate son. She's worked hard to carve out a good life for herself and her child, but it hasn't been easy amidst the judgment of those who don't know her or her situation. Thanks to the recommendation of friends, she found employment at Miss Martin's School for Girls and lives a content life there. Those same friends happen to be related to Anne's son, so they invite the two of them to Wales for the summer holiday. But as a simple school teacher, Anne isn't entirely comfortable in the opulence of a manor house surrounded by aristocrats. She takes long walks along the shoreline, where she chances to meet Sydnam, the scarred, reclusive estate manager. At first Anne is frightened by his appearance, but as she gradually gets used to him, they become good friends and she begins to develop feelings for him. But her life is at the school back in Bath, so when the summer comes to an end, she goes home, believing that Sydnam doesn't care for her in the same way she cares for him.
Sydnam Butler is the younger son of an aristocrat who followed his older brother to war on the Continent to prove his bravery, but he returned badly scarred both inside and out. Needing something to focus on besides his infirmities, he offered to become the estate manager for an old friend of the family. In Wales, he's found a refuge for his battered body and soul. When Anne comes to stay for the summer, he's instantly smitten by her beauty and finds that her young son is an artist, just like he used to be before the war claimed his right arm. In each other's company, they discover comfort from their painful pasts and respite for their loneliness. But Sydnam fears that Anne could never truly love a man as disfigured as he, so when her summer comes to a close, he bids her farewell, believing they'll never see each other again. Will Anne and Sydnam find their way back to one another, and if so, will they be able to put aside their respective pasts to find healing in each other's arms?
Simply Love is the second story in Mary Balogh's Simply Quartet about the four teachers who work at Miss Martin's School for Girls in Bath, and it's the fifth story by her I've read overall. All of her books I've read to date have been somewhat slow-paced, which I've come to recognize as her writing style. However, this one seemed a bit more languid than the rest. I think this is owing in large part to the conflict between the hero and heroine being entirely of an internal nature. There are no villains or external problems for them to overcome, merely them coming to terms with certain painful events in their pasts that tend to keep them apart. I can appreciate this type of storytelling, and as an introvert myself, I can also appreciate introverted characters. But I felt at times, that Sydnam and Anne took their introversion too far, making assumptions about how the other one feels rather than communicating and actually asking. It was at these times that I often became frustrated with them. Quite frankly if nature hadn't intervened, they never would have gotten married and given each other a chance to share a happy life together. It just didn't entirely make sense to me that they could develop such a close month-long friendship that even led to one afternoon of love-making (although it wasn't very good for either of them), and simply part ways without even trying to make a go of it or even writing letters to one another to see what might happen. I know that each of them had a lot of hang-ups, so I tried to be forgiving and understanding, but they did confound me at times with their extremely reserved natures.
Anne came from a gently bred but not aristocratic family. When they encountered financial difficulties just as she was starting to think of marriage, she offered to find employment as a governess for a few years to help out. Since it was obvious to me very early in the story, I don't think I'm giving too much away by saying that she was raped by the son of her employer and found herself pregnant as a result. Ever since her life has been difficult to say the least, as she was basically forced to raise her illegitimate son on her own after being ignored by her family. She's been estranged from them ever since. The wife of an old friend recommended Anne to Miss Martin's School for Girls and she's been teaching there ever since and has finally created a comfortable life for herself and her son. Then those same friends invite her and young David to accompany them on a summer trip to a family-owned estate Wales. There Anne meets the estate steward and strikes up an unexpected friendship with him. The two spend a lot of time going on long walks and simply enjoying each other's company until the month-long holiday is up, and Anne returns to her job in Bath.
Anne is a wonderful mother who loves her son more than life itself. Despite the circumstances of his birth, she's completely devoted to him. Although she's found a new family in her fellow school teachers and she doesn't come off as too tortured, she definitely still harbors some bitterness toward her parents and siblings, which is understandable given that they all but abandoned her after she told them what happened to her. While she doesn't dwell on the rape either, she still has some issues with intimacy as well. She may not have gotten off on the right foot with Sydnam, running away from him at first sight of his disfigurement, but I loved that she eventually came to a place where she could completely overlook the scars and appreciate the wonderful man inside that made him beautiful outside as well. Anne was a strong woman who'd admirably made it through a lot of difficulties in life that might have destroyed a lesser person. I just wish that she'd been a little more forthcoming with her feelings for Sydnam, rather than bottling them up inside and nearly missing out on the best thing that had ever happened to her.
In his youth, Sydnam was a talented and sensitive painter, but needing to prove his mettle, he followed his brother into the military and went to fight in the Napoleonic War. There he was captured and tortured for information before his brother finally found and freed him. But by then the damage had already been done. He lost an arm and an eye and has disfiguring burn scars on the right side of his face and body, and he still occasionally suffers from severe nightmares. Sydnam spent months recovering from his injuries and it took a supreme force of will for him to get back to the land of the living. But he's since made a new life for himself as the steward of Glandwr in Wales. As the younger son of an earl, he's wealthy in his own right, but he needed to work to feel useful again. When Anne comes to visit, he's smitten by her beauty but disappointed when she runs away from him. His life on the estate has been fairly reclusive, but as steward, he has to deal with people and has also had to get used to many of them looking at him with disgust, although it still hurts on some level. The friendship he eventually forms with Anne is a surprise and a welcome respite from his loneliness, but when she chooses to go back home to Bath, he lets her go, thinking that perhaps she won't want a life with a man who isn't whole anymore.
I liked Sydnam. He's a sweet, kind man, who's definitely a beta hero. I love me a good beta hero, but much like with Anne I felt he was too reserved with his feelings. When he simply allows her to leave without even trying to talk her out of it, I couldn't help but feel frustrated. I did appreciate him for being very responsible. I also liked that he gently prodded her to reconcile with her family and helped her through that ordeal, as well as gave her a welcome place within his own family. Sydnam didn't just lose body parts and his handsome good looks in the war, but also his ability to paint, which in many ways, has been the harder pill for him to swallow. He tends to avoid painting as a result, but Anne's son, David's artistic talent and a bit of prodding from Anne gradually coaxes him back into the art world as well, which was good to see.
I didn't discover until after reading the first book of the Simply Quartet that the series is basically a spin-off of the Bedwyn Saga. I'm pretty sure that Sydnam was previously introduced in those books, as he's great friends with all the Bedwyns. Whether or not Anne was previously introduced is a little more unclear, although she is also great friends with Joshua who is a cousin to David and who also ended up paired with Freyja Bedwyn in Slightly Scandalous. After making my discovery about the series, I had initially said I'd go back and read the Bedwyn books first before continuing with the Simply books, but feeling rather daunted by the prospect of reading eight books (including the prequels), I changed my mind and decided to press on. While it might have been nice to have previously known all the supporting characters in this story, it didn't end up being much of a detractor, as I didn't feel like I got any spoilers, nor did I find myself in any way lost. But the entire Bedwyn clan, along with their spouses and children, put in appearances during the month-long holiday. They're quite the fun and happy bunch, and I couldn't help but enjoy their attempts at matchmaking. Later in the story we get to meet Sydnam's family. His brother's story was told in A Summer to Remember, one of the Bedwyn Prequels. Then there are the other two teachers from Anne's school, Susanna (Simply Magic) and Claudia (Simply Perfect), who are the best of friends to Anne. And there was a brief visit with Francis and Lucius (Simply Unforgettable), showing that Francis is enjoying her fame as a singer and the couple are still deeply happy. Anne's son, David, was a great character, too, always eager to make friends and play with the other children no matter whether they were the same age or younger, but at the same time, he can behave sullenly like any child which made him more realistic.
Overall, I enjoyed Simply Love for its story of two broken people who find unexpected love and healing from their past hurts with each other. In many ways, Anne and Sydnam were perfectly suited to one another, if for no other reason than that they were able to understand what the other had been through on some level because of their own experiences. However, I still felt like the balance of their relationship was off. Normally when one character is reserved, the other is more outgoing to even things out. Having them both be so reticent and uncommunicative made me feel like they were a little too much alike and that there was something missing between them. It rather muted the actual romance because they spend so much time in their own heads. That said, though, I admired both Anne and Sydnam for taking the lemons that life had handed them and doing their best to make lemonade, and I think that is what kept me reading and generally liking their story. They were two strong characters who simply wouldn't give up on life. I just wish they'd been more reluctant to give up on each other as well, because as is, it takes a very long time and a push from circumstances beyond their control for them to finally see that they're perfect for one another. So Simply Love ended up being a good read for me, just not quite as good as some of Ms. Balogh's others that I've read so far. But I do look forward to continuing the series to see what the future holds for the bright, sunny Susanna, as well as what kind of man it takes to loosen up the rather stiff Claudia.
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