*THE FOLLOWING REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS*
I'm so glad I came across this book! I loved it, even more than I thought I would!
It tells the story of Marianne Daventry, a seventeen-year-old girl living in Bath with her grandmother, a wealthy woman who constantly reminds her that she needs to be an elegant lady, with all the refinements expected from her, to secure herself a husband, hence a good position in a respectable household. And though she tries to improve herself, both in beauty and accomplishments, she knows she's not destined to such a thing, for a very specific reason, described in such a beautiful way...
"Once upon a time there were twin girls born to a man and a woman who had longed for a child for years. These girls were the sun and the moon to them. [...] Cecily was the sun, and I was the moon."
Marianne had always lived reflecting the light irradiated by her sister Cecily, and though they both get along very well and there's a tender, sisterly love between them, the truth is that she always considered herself the inferior one, because of Cecily's dazzling beauty, elegance and talents. She really tries to be the woman her grandmother wants her to be (even more when she decides to name Marianne as her heiress), but she just can't. It goes against her true nature. Marianne is a free-spirited, lively girl, and the corset of society is painfully stifling.
The love story is clean, and beautifully written, though there were a few things I need to mention. For starters, I found some ways of saying things that didn't seem fit for the Regency period, like some expressions or words. More than once I had the feeling that, if it wasn't for the mention of dresses, balls and other details of the time period, the story could have been told in a modern setting. But it is only a few moments, and it didn’t take away the story’s charm. And, as much as I know it wasn't the point of the scene, at the first line of the love letter they wrote together, I simply burst into laughter (I felt a bit guilty after that, knowing the meaning the whole scene has, but I couldn't help it).
It also bothered me a little the fact that Marianne discovered she was in love with Philip a little bit too late. I mean, by the point of the story in which she realizes the truth about her heart, everyone else (including me) already knew what was really going on. Until then, she struggled with mixed feelings. On the one hand, there was Philip's reputation as a flirt and his tendency to steal hearts with no intention of keeping them, thinking that his behaviour towards her was nothing more than that; a game he played for his own amusement, with her heart as his plaything. And on the other hand, there was her sister Cecily, who knew a lot more about flirting, suitors and romance than her, declaring that she wanted to be mistress of Edenbrooke by marrying Philip's wealth and title, and had already planned a way for him to fall on his knees and propose to her.
What I love the most about this story is the way it shows how love can become someone's everything. Marianne isn't perfect. She's just as naïve, carefree and free-spirited as any seventeen-year-old girl, with a passion for art and nature, who enjoys twirling around in a meadow more than the refinement of the ballroom. She struggles to become the elegant lady her grandmother commanded her to be, but at the end, it's not her. It is that simple. She's not ambitious, she doesn't become fully aware of the fact that she's now the heiress of forty thousand pounds; she doesn't want to love because she has to. She wants to be, simply, herself:
"I dreamed quietly of marrying someone whom I loved deeply, and who loved me madly in return. If such a man could not be found, then I would not marry at all."
And that purity is what conquers Philip's heart from the very start, whose titled and wealthy façade hid the simplicity of a man who only wanted to be loved for himself, and was ready to run away to escape his family's scheming and the supposed attempt of this girl that would come visiting to ensnare him. They both wanted the same thing. To be rid of convention, and stay true to themselves. In one sentence, Philip says it all, for both of them:
"I want you, all of you, just the way you are."
I don't know why there are so many hateful reviews for this book. I know it is not exactly the most brilliant piece of historical fiction ever written, but instead it is complete with a beautifully simple love story, in which the characters try over and over again to do as they should, and ultimately what they want is what they have to do in order to find a much longed-for happiness, which doesn't lie on how elegant the lady is or how charming and wealthy the gentleman can be, but in the affinity of their souls, and the joy of staying true to their own hearts and minds. And that's a sort of elegance that no silk dress, no finely studied dance steps, or any amount of money, can give.
I know that everyone has their own opinions about this book, and they can consider it as they please, but I felt that I had to do with this story the way Philip and Marianne did with each other. They had their faults, yes, and in many ways they weren't what was expected from them, but in the end, they learned to love in despite of them, choosing to see the best in each other; after all, they didn't seek perfection in each other, but instead the fulfilling of the need they had to be loved just for themselves, with their flaws, and their mistakes.
Lovely read, overall. I will read more by this author, that's for sure!