After the Wedding by Courtney Milan (Worth Saga, #2)

After the Wedding by Courtney Milan (Worth Saga, #2)

Is Courtney Milan capable of writing a bad book? No, but she’s trying new things, and while this isn’t her best work, it packs an emotional punch.

After the Wedding by Courtney Milan
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An advance reading copy of this book was generously provided by the author.

By day, guest reviewer Catherine Heloise works as a division coordinator in a medical research Institute. By night, she sings Bach and Brahms and other composers whose names do not start with B, bakes incessantly, worries about politics, reads as much escapist fiction as she can get her hands on (these two things are related), and writes three blogs — one about food, one about politics, and, most recently, one for short stories inspired by the Paris Metro. She also writes an occasional music blog. Periodically, she want to review a book, but starting a fifth blog would be ridiculous, so here she is… Authors she loves to read include Lois McMaster Bujold, Connie Willis, Robin McKinley, Laura Florand, Megan Whalen Turner and Courtney Milan, but that’s really just the tip of the iceberg. storiesunderparis.net (fiction) | catespeaks.wordpress.com (politics) | catescates.com.au (food)

After the Wedding is the second book in Courtney Milan’s Worth Saga. This series centres around the Worth family, who fell from grace some nine years ago, when the Earl of Chatford and his oldest son, Anthony, were convicted of treason. The Earl was executed, and Anthony was transported to Australia, but he disappeared from the ship en route and was presumed dead.  The rest of the disgraced Earl’s children were left to fend for themselves.

In Once Upon a Marquess [ BT | Amz | iB ], we met Judith, the oldest sister, who has been holding the family together as best she can.  But her best wasn’t quite enough, and After the Wedding is the story of Camilla, the sister who went to stay with their uncle when she was twelve and has not been seen or heard from since.

You don’t absolutely need to have read Once Upon a Marquess before you read After the Wedding, but I think it does make the reading experience richer. While the central plot is self-contained, and there are no significant spoilers for the previous book (it’s a romance novel — we know she married the Marquess, right?), there is clearly a much longer-running plot arc going through the entire series that is being set up in these early books. There are also family dynamics that carry through from the first book — though since Camilla has to deal with them out of context, the reader is also able to do so.

When the family was disgraced, their uncle offered to take the children in — all except for the ‘difficult’ youngest daughter. Judith refused on behalf of the family, but 12-year-old Camilla felt that love was all very well, but she would prefer not to starve, and so she accepted her uncle’s offer. Unfortunately for Camilla, her uncle didn’t know what to do with her, and six months after taking her in, he sent her off to live with his cousin’s family. This also didn’t work out, and Camilla has been passed on, and on again, becoming a companion, then a ladies’ maid, then a maidservant, until, by the opening of this book, she is working as a maid-of-all-work for Rector Miles after being sent away from her last position in disgrace.

“Rector Miles offered to take me in. To provide me with spiritual instruction. He kindly offered me half wages for his trouble.”

“Hmm. And did he provide spiritual instruction?”

Camilla shut her eyes. “Yes.” Her voice shook. “He reminded me at regular intervals that I had very little hope at redemption. He told me I was a disgrace and an embarrassment and that I should consider myself lucky to have my half pay.”

Rector Miles makes Camilla change her name so that she can’t disgrace her family further, and teaches Camilla that the part of her that continually hopes to be loved is in fact the devil tempting her, and must be refused. And after 18 months in his household, Camilla is beginning to believe him.

One touch that I did like is that Camilla really is a ‘disgrace’ by the standards of her time. It isn’t all a terrible misunderstanding. She did kiss the footman, and they didn’t stop at kissing, either. She ‘practiced kissing’ with Larissa, too, and they both liked it, and that’s why she was sent away from that family. She falls in love easily and often and commits to it at once. She keeps hoping to find that one person who will be her home, and she sees the best in everyone and everything. The problem is, the reverse never seems to apply.

Camilla means to be good, but finds it hard to follow the rules that have been set out for her. (At one point, she reflects that her tombstone will read ‘Camilla tried to be good, but not for very long’.) She just can’t let go of that spark of hope, no matter what she is told. Nor can she resist flirting — just a little bit — with Bishop Lassiter’s handsome valet, Adrian Hunter.

Adrian Hunter is not, in fact, Bishop Lassiter’s valet, or indeed any sort of valet at all. He runs his family’s pottery works, and is doing a favour for Bishop Denmore, his uncle on his mother’s side, with whom he has a complicated relationship. You see, while Adrian’s mother was the daughter of a duke, Adrian’s father was black, and when the two decided to marry, Adrian’s mother was promptly disowned by her family, who told everyone that she was dead.

Denmore is an affectionate and loving uncle to Adrian — but strictly in private. Even his servants are not permitted to know of the relationship between them. Denmore will, he assures Adrian frequently, acknowledge him one day, but the time is not yet right. The reader can see pretty clearly that the time will never be right, but Adrian continues to hope that his uncle will live up to his promises, though he is finding it harder to believe as the years pass and nothing changes. When his uncle asks him to pretend to be a servant and infiltrate his rival Bishop’s household, in order to prove that said Bishop is up to no good, Adrian agrees with great reluctance, and only on the condition that after this, Denmore really will acknowledge his family.

Of course, this goes horribly wrong, not least because Adrian is a terrible valet. And then Rector Miles and Bishop Lassiter, for reasons best known to themselves, conspire to trap him and Camilla in a room together and coerce them into marriage. Camilla would not, actually, be averse to this, if only Adrian were not opposed to the whole thing — all she wants, really, is someone who will stay with her and not leave her, and Adrian is kind and has a nice smile. Adrian, on the other hand, is absolutely incensed, and determined that they will seek an annulment. But his uncle refuses to assist unless Adrian can bring down Lassiter first, and so the rest of the book is about Adrian and Camilla teaming up to take down the villains and to get their marriage annulled, not-so-incidentally falling in love along the way.

You see the problem…

I’ll be honest: I found the first third or so of this book deeply painful to read.  Milan does a very good job of portraying emotional abuse and its effects. Camilla’s situation is particularly awful, because her poverty and reputation mean that she is trapped in the situation. And while Adrian does at least have a family who loves him, his uncle is pretty terrible and knows just how to push his buttons. Because we are inside the characters’ heads, we are witnesses to just how this affects them.

Also, while Adrian is a kind, generous, caring person, who wants the people around him to be happy, he is also screamingly oblivious at times to the utter desperation of Camilla’s situation. It’s understandable that he does not want to be forced into marriage with a woman he barely knows, but Camilla has no job, no reference, and no family or friends who will help her, and almost no money. Her clothes are threadbare, and she is being helpfully advised by the people around her that her only real career option at this point is to become a prositute. But he wants an annulment because they both ‘deserve better’ than marriage without love. Which … I know this is a romance novel, and perhaps I’m a horrible pragmatist who doesn’t deserve to read love stories, but I really wanted to smack him and his patronising compliments when he said that.

To do him credit, once he does figure this out, he makes it very clear that he will ensure that Camilla is left with a position and sufficient funds to give her security after the annulment, but it takes him far longer than he should to realise how dire her situation is.

(Also, by about halfway through the book, I ceased to understand why Adrian didn’t want to be married to Camilla. He likes her and respects her and is attracted to her, and he’s pretty sure he is falling in love with her. She has already fallen in love with him. But they still need to get an annulment because … they need to know they have chosen each other? I am a horrible pragmatist, and I found it hard to buy this argument.)

I’m making it sound as though I don’t like Adrian, and I do. It’s almost impossible not to. He means incredibly well, and mostly lives up to this. And he’s pretty young, so one can hope that he will grow into his intentions given time. But he is quite self-absorbed in some ways, and he has a relapse late in the book that had me literally cringing and going oh no, oh no while I was reading it. It’s perhaps a matter of axes of privilege and oppression. Adrian is dealing with a fair bit of racist rubbish, one way or another, that creates a lot of background noise in his life (I like the detail that he changes his accent wherever he goes to match the people around him to counteract his ‘foreign’ appearance), and this gives him less space to recognise how difficult things are for Camilla, particularly because being poor and female are not problems that he has ever had to face.

Despite my intermittent desire to smack Adrian, there was a lot I liked about this book. For one thing, there was the humour. Milan is brilliant at writing scenes that have me laughing inappropriately in public places, and this book was no exception. The visit to Mrs Martin, a wealthy widow who is completely over men and their bullshit, is absolutely magnificent, and I could read this book for her alone:

“Oh.” Mrs Martin tilted her head and looked at him. “You are likely lying, and I’m too old to be taken in. But it I sa nice story.” She glanced at Camilla and her eyes softened. “You’re too pretty to fall into this sort of scheme, dear. You should know — men who lie never change. If you’re looking for work after this man cheats you, too, do consider coming to see me.”

Camilly choked.

“But do go on,” Mrs Martin said. “It’s a new lie, at least, and at my age, you don’t often see new things.”

Mr Hunter seemed taken aback but he continued “I […] had thought to make some donation to a cause […] I heard that you had given money to the parish and thought it sounded like as good a way as any to offer my assistance.”

Mrs Martin clapped her hands. “Oh, that’s good, that’s good!”

Camilla stared at her.  “It … is?”

“I know how this one goes now! You have access to princely funds, but you just need someone to make a donation on your behalf. You’ll give me a bank draft for my troubles, or some such. Right?”

The secondary characters in general are a delight. The younger Worth siblings, Theresa and Benedict, play a fairly significant role in the book, but we also get to meet Adrian’s oldest brother, Grayson, and the artists at the pottery manufactory, not to mention Mrs Beasley, who looks after the local telegraph, collects gossip but never gives it out, and has … opinions about her neighbours.

“My husband is out at the pub,” Mrs Beasley said as she settled near Camilla in a rocking chair. “And the children are grown, so it leaves me with little to do of an evening but knit and plot the demise of my neighbors.”

Mr Hunter, sitting on the other side of the table, looked up at that in something like consternation.

“A little joke!” She laughed. “I don’t knit! Obviously, I crochet. Also, I don’t wish to destroy allmy neighbours.  Only Ruford Shamwell and his uncontainable goats.”

“Of course,” Mr Hunter said. “I see.”

“Hm.” Mrs Beasley rocked in her chair. “Now that I’m making a list, I must add Bertrand Gapwood. He keeps throwing his chamber pot in the alley…”

I also enjoyed Camilla reading over the old annulment cases in the ecclesiastical law books and befriending the wronged women she finds there. In the end, when she decides to do whatever is necessary to get that annulment, it’s less about Adrian’s ideals and more for the sake of the other women who might, in the future, be wronged by Rector Miles and Bishop Lassiter. It’s a very #metoo moment.

I also liked Camilla’s determination to seize hope after all, and the ways she learns to value herself, and to make her own decisions about what she deserves. And I liked Adrian’s final confrontation with his uncle, and the way it does, still, leave a door open for happiness, if his uncle ever chooses to walk through it. There was a strong theme of learning to see through the bullshit that others have chosen to put on you in this novel.

I love Milan’s work, but After the Wedding really pressed my buttons, and I wound up reading the story three times because I simply couldn’t review it fairly on my first two passes. On my first read, I found the story utterly harrowing. Milan really knows how to write emotional abuse, and desperation, and helpless, awful situations, and that’s just what she does for the first third of the book. This overshadowed everything else for me, and I was still depressed even after things improved for Camilla. On my second read, I was just so angry with Adrian and his idealistic obliviousness, and I couldn’t get past that to appreciate his better qualities (which, oddly, I’d enjoyed on my first read). It was only on my third reading that I was able to enjoy the story. I don’t know whether this says more about me or about the book.

Having said all that, I’m still not sure that it’s a perfect book. For me, the pacing wasn’t quite right — the story dragged a bit in the middle, and while the narrative has a very positive message about hope and finding one’s own value, I felt that there was not enough brightness to adequately balance the darkness of the early part of the book. I think, too, that it suffers a little from middle book syndrome. Milan is clearly setting up some really big and ambitious plot arcs which will not be fully resolved for several books, and once those books are written, this one is going to work a lot better — but at the moment, a lot of pages are devoted to matters which have no payoff just yet.

Milan mentioned that this book was very difficult to write, and represented a change in direction and theme for her, and I think that shows. It packs more of an emotional punch than her earlier work, but it also feels a little less polished in places. It’s still a good book — I don’t think Milan is capable of writing a bad book — but she is trying to do new things and she has not yet mastered them to the degree she has mastered the things she was doing before. Accordingly, I don’t think it’s her best work. But I do think it’s the book she needed to write to get to her best work, and I will be fascinated to see what she is doing in a book or two.

If you like your romance with a bit of angst, then I think you’ll enjoy this book. But if you are feeling a bit emotionally fragile and want something to cheer you up, I wouldn’t recommend this as a comfort read.  Try The Suffragette Scandal  [ BT | Amz | iB ] or Trade Me  [ BT | Amz | iB ] instead.

Content advisory: Emotional abuse, racism

You can find an extract of the book here. Self-published.

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What do you think?