by Erin Satie
Series: Sweetness and Light #1
Publisher: Little Phrase
Publication Date: June 19, 2018
I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.My rating:
Bonny Reed is beautiful, inside and out.
A loyal friend and loving daughter, she's newly engaged to her small town's most eligible bachelor. She's happy for herself--but mostly for her family, who need the security her marriage will bring.
An old enemy shatters her illusions.
First Baron Loel cost Bonny's family her fortune. Now he's insisting that her fiancé has hidden flaws, secrets so dark that--if she believed him--she'd have to call off the wedding.
How will she choose?
When the truth comes out, Bonny will have to choose between doing what's right and what's easy. Between her family and her best friend. And hardest of all--between her honor and the love of a man who everyone wants her to hate.
I’m not sure what it is about me reading relevant books lately (maybe it’s just my frame of mind), but this is a timely lesson about doing what’s right versus doing what’s socially acceptable, about making mistakes and redemption, and, as Dumbledore puts it, “the choice between what is right and what is easy.” We’ve also got a fire, orchids, an African princess, an eccentric heiress, a lending library, caviar, and a mutiny, all set in the Victorian time period.
“No doubt it’s your gift for flattery that has made you beloved from one end of New Quay to the other.”
“I’m an honest person who looks for the best in people.” Miss Reed clucked her tongue. “It’s unfortunate that you give me so little to work with.”
As the son of a privileged aristocratic family, Loel was raised to do what’s best for his family, over his own needs or those of others. As a young man, he accidentally knocked over a lantern on the docks one night, burning down the docks and warehouse district in New Quay and ruining the fortunes of many of the families, including Bonnie’s, making him a pariah in the town and with his family. Now her family’s only hopes of returning to their previous lifestyle are for her to marry well – specifically, for her to marry Mr. Gavin, the son of the only wealthy family that escaped the fire with their money intact. Bonny knows she’s beautiful – sometimes she feels beautiful but useless, like the butterfly in her favorite painting – and she’s known him since she was a child, so while she doesn’t exactly love him, she’s anticipating the wedding with glee, if only for the benefit to her parents and younger sister. Then her fiancée openly admits, during his proposal no less, to resigning himself to settling for someone who’s merely kind and beautiful (but not rich). It’s the first crack in Bonnie’s vision of what marriage to Mr. Gavin will be like, and after comments from Loel, who she meets while soliciting donations for the women’s lending library she runs with her best friend, she finds more evidence that Mr. Gavin is not the gentleman he’s presented himself to be. Bonnie is torn between her happiness and fulfilling what her family sees as her obligation to lift them out of poverty. Alongside that, as reparation for knocking over one of Loel’s prized orchids the first day she visited him, she’s been visiting him nearly every day to care for the orchid, and her feelings for him are… complicated.
“Her optimism wasn’t a delusion. It was a choice. She had enough experience of misfortune—as he well knew—to justify a repellant, gloomy outlook on life.
But she preferred not to make herself, and everyone around her, utterly miserable.”
I loved how Bonnie is unflaggingly optimistic, even in the worst circumstances. Bonnie has her own “burning down the docks” mistake, and while that shakes her somewhat, she’s still able to recover and keep going. I loved her best friend Cordelia – she was a great foil, fierce and outspoken where Bonnie is quiet and kind – and their lending library for women. My favorite part, though, was Loel’s greenhouse and his orchids. It felt like they were a secondary character of their own, and I was particularly interested in the fate of “Bonnie’s” orchid. Loel, the town pariah, though initially rude to Bonnie, slowly shows himself to be the opposite of the town’s golden boy Mr. Gavin – a man who always does the right thing, even at great cost to himself, and someone who thinks of others, not just himself. Their relationship starts off slow, but is quite satisfying – they both realize how impossible even something like a friendship between the two of them would be because of the history between their families.
“On the contrary,” Cordelia returned. “That’s why I must leave my family.”
“You love your parents.”
“I do love them, but they’re wrong,” said Cordelia. “And I’d rather make my own mistakes than theirs.”
There’s a lot more external conflict than I was expecting, to the point where it felt like every time Bonny regained her equilibrium, literally a new worst possible thing would happen. It was a bit anxiety-inducing for me, and I did have to put the book down and walk away more than once. It felt like there was a bit too much going on, especially with the trip to London and the two new characters we meet there. While there was plenty of internal conflict, as well, it almost felt like, with all the other stuff being thrown at them constantly, Bonnie and Loel didn’t have the mental bandwidth to fully come to grips with how they felt about their relationship.
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Bonny silenced her friend with an abrupt wave. “Besides, it’s years too late to change my mind.”
“Let us be exact.” Cordelia’s voice sharpened on the last word. “It’s too late for you to change your mind without upsetting anyone. It’s too late for a change of mind to be easy or painless. But”—Cordelia narrowed her eyes—“it is not too late.”
But, even with all that, the book boils down to a lovely story of mistakes, and how we make recompense for our own mistakes and forgive others for theirs. From how Loel handles the disastrous fire to how Mr. Gavin handles a much more private indiscretion, to the many and varied mistakes Bonnie makes, it’s watching how each character takes responsibility – or not – that moves the plot along. Without getting too spoileriffic, there’s a particular choice Bonny makes while she’s in London, a choice that is extremely unladylike and opens her up to a world of gossip and ridicule, but quite literally saves people’s lives. It’s an interesting exploration of how one mistake can permanently alter everyone else’s perception of you, despite a lifetime of other actions before or after. And it’s not just mistakes written large across the sphere of society or the town of New Quay, but also the ones that two people make in a relationship, and how dealing with those mistakes can either lead to resentment and disdain or to a closer harmony.
Overall, though I found it a bit of an emotional rollercoaster, I very much enjoyed this book, and I’m looking forward to Cordelia’s book!