Friday, April 13, 2012

The Perfect Wife by Jane Goodger

It takes a perfect love to break an imperfect heart.

An outsider among Newport's graceful debutantes, modest Anne Foster was the perfect choice to fulfill the desires of at least one man. But Henry Owen's intentions were far from honorable -- marriage was merely his last recourse to secure his inheritance. For a time it gave Anne a chance to dream. Until she was abandoned and discovered her first love's true nature...

In a world where beauty defines society, the perfect wife has devised the perfect revenge: become a jewel among her peers, draw her errant husband back into her arms... and break his heart. Yet nothing is as simple as it seems -- and the secrets that once destroyed a perfect love, may be the very secrets that can save it...

Reviewer: avidscribe
What a gem of a story! You know, sometimes I don't need all the angst of some of the stories I'm more inclined to read and I go back to a historical romance and occasionally find a story such as this I just fall in love with.

Rhode Island, 1893

Henry Owen courts the naive, adoring, overweight 21 year old Anne Foster in order to gain his inheritance and save his family’s home. She’s everything he dislikes in a woman—blonde, shy, homely, vacant and—putting it kindly—plump. And not pleasantly so. Conversations with her are tedious, punctuated by her irritating habit of giggling at nearly everything that comes out of his mouth. He looks at her and feels sorry for her and he hasn’t even broken her heart yet.

Henry is rugged and dangerously handsome, his careless elegance a magnet for every single woman looking to marry well. At the age of 27, he can have anyone. Unfortunately he can’t have everything. Unless he marries, he will lose Sea Cliff, his family’s summer home on Jamestown. His inheritance is out of reach to him until he turns thirty or marries. He can’t wait, however; each coastal storm erodes the bluff the house is perched precariously on and in order to save it he needs a wife. Not just any wife. The perfect wife. One who is ugly and will be so grateful to be Mrs. Henry Owen she won’t question why she is abandoned right after the ceremony. Because Henry doesn’t want a wife. He’ll set the woman up with money and provide for her generously but he doesn't want the interference of a wife in his life.

If only his fragile, invalid grandfather would relent and give him the house now, Henry would give up his inheritance altogether but his grandfather refuses and will not say why. For all he cares, the house could fall into the bay below. The grandfather has controlled Henry’s existence from the moment his parents died fifteen years ago in a boating accident, their bodies never found. The summer cottage is the last vestige Henry has of his parents. It has his childhood memories wrapped up inside its timbers, joyful times when he was a young lad enjoying the salt-tinged air and playing in the soft sand of the beach below. Idle times when his beautiful mother and adoring father loved him and he was their world. He cannot let the house be destroyed when the means to save it is within his grasp.

There’s two stories being told here. Why does the grandfather feel so determined not to let his grandson have the cottage? His story is told in the form of a letter he is writing Henry, to be read only after his death.

Anne’s close friend Beatrice thinks Henry is a bounder and not to be tolerated but there’s no convincing Anne who adores Henry as much as she hates her own giggle. She disdains the silly twittering girls who always monopolize men like Henry. The man probably doesn’t even know she possesses a brain. In the weeks before their marriage, however, Anne comes out of her cocoon and grows more confident, talking and laughing with Henry and relishing the look he give her sometimes, as if she’d purely surprised and delighted him. Henry has a conscience and he can’t get over what he does to Anne. He hates himself for not thinking of Anne’s feelings in all this but only his obsessive need to save his beloved Sea Cliff.

Henry marries her and abandons her the same day, claiming he has a business emergency. In the ensuing wake of his hasty departure, Anne is puzzled by his absence and returns to her parents' home. Three weeks later, Anne is served papers for divorce and her parents force her to move out because she is a fallen woman now and they refuse to bear the weight of her disgrace. That Anne’s abandonment by her husband causes her to be a social pariah, too, is bitterly unfair when she's done nothing wrong but is the aggrieved one.
Girls were "ruined" every summer in Newport. But few would bear the consequence of it their entire life as Anne was certain she would. Money could repair most damage. Money, accompanied by a good marriage, could do wonders for a ruined girl. Girls were "ruined" for a week, then recreated by desperate parents the next. And men, well, they were never truly ruined, unless they went broke. All it took was scads of money for them to be restored to their rightful place. But Anne Foster, once inconsequential fifth daughter of the fabulously wealthy New York Fosters, was ruined forever.
Two years later, Henry, a member of the Four Hundred, has emerged unscathed, still an object of desire and now wealthy beyond his dreams. Anne, the invisible girl for most of her life and now notorious because of one man, returns to Newport to attend a ball and exact revenge on Henry. In a classic ugly duckling tale, Anne emerges a swan. Poised and cool, in the aftermath of the divorce and her broken heart, she’s lost weight and is now a gorgeous creature with flawless skin, brilliant blue eyes and her hair elegantly pulled up and off her delicate shoulders.

The plan she and Beatrice have concocted preys on Henry’s weakness for beauty. She will get him to love her and then dump him and let him know what it feels like. It’s the very classic and heartfelt cry of every overweight woman: see ME. Love ME. I'm here under all this fat. And it’s the classic story of the wounded woman who loses weight, finds lots of male attention and hates every one of the doting fools for never noticing her initially because she wasn't a pretty package at first; men who see only the outer wrapping and not the intelligent and interesting woman underneath.

Anne is whisked away by Henry at the ball who has no idea who she is. She is shocked at the way he dances with her, his hand curving around her 18” waist, the tone he's using is intimate and she’s never experienced this Henry before. He is flirtatious, dazzling, now gazing at her the way she’d always dreamed he would. Before, she’d hoped for him to kiss her with the passion she’d felt toward him. Now she knows she can get that kiss she so longed for, and from a man who thinks her a stranger.

And he kisses her in the garden, the night cloaking their intimacy from prying eyes. She is completely unprepared for the fierceness of her desire for this loathsome man who has done her such harm. Henry’s practiced mouth leaves her shaken to the core. He asks her name and she tells him to go to hell and runs away from his embrace, back to the throng of partygoers who now know who she is: a fallen woman, disgraced by the very man she disappeared with moments before.

Henry returns utterly smitten. He tells his friend Alex he’s fallen in love and Alex informs him the mystery woman was none other than his very own former wife. As he looks around, he sees sympathy in the eyes of those around him, not the rebuke he thinks should be there. He is appalled by the hypocrisy of a society that would give him sympathy but ridicule poor Anne who did nothing but have the temerity to marry him. He has turned her into a woman people scorn and ridicule.

As he sees her being publicly cut by the entire Four Hundred the next afternoon, he vows to do something to help her. He sees Mrs. Astor alighting from her carriage and goes to talk with her ...

Henry is not a complete wretch, as Beatrice's mother points out to Anne. She is certain Henry is at the heart of the turnabout. Who else would be able to get an audience with not only Mrs. Astor but the Great Trumvirate in the illustrious Four Hundred within the course of a day and convince all of them to back Anne's cause? Guilt is a powerful emotion, the mother avows.

They are thrown together as the summer's social season starts up in full swing with dancing and tennis, picnics and suppers, beach and boating fun; everyone who is anyone follows the crowd. Anne still vows revenge but at times cannot feel the loathing she should for this man. If only Henry wasn't so damned good looking, so attentive, so likeable ...
Don't make me like you, not when I'd just decided to hate you for the rest of my life,
she vows.

Henry can't look at Anne without wanting her. She consumes his every waking thought, why can't he leave well enough alone?
"I can't let you go, Anne,"
he tells her just before his mouth swoops down to kiss her yet again.

It's not an easy path to happiness for either of them, but then, it wouldn't be a compelling read if it were. Anne is slurred in the local gossip rag, then there's the matter of an unread missive being found that reveals Henry's reasons for choosing her as he did two years before that destroys Anne's trust. The next day a hurricane slams into Newport and Henry goes missing—his boat is found torn apart, possibly scuttled. His best friend thinks he sailed off into the storm after being rejected by Anne because of the contents of the letter.

What I enjoyed most about this book was the glimpse into the times and the rigid societal mores all examined from a woman’s POV. It's hard to believe in this day and age that Henry's abandonment meant Anne lost her family, her friends (aside from Beatrice) and all her hopes and dreams of marriage and children. The unfairness of Anne's censure is appalling; the importance that a simple nod from the likes of Mrs. Astor carried in those days is fascinating. Just like that, Anne goes from shunned to accepted. When Tessie Oelrich, Mamie Fish, and Alva Vanderbilt also acknowledge Anne, her place in Newport society is completely secured. Loved the character shading of Mamie Fish. Loved her sense of humor.

By giving Anne another suitor, we get, too, another glimpse at how a divorced woman was perceived in that era. The man is riveted by Anne's beauty as much as her divorced status that speaks of a worldliness and sophistication she does not possess. He has no idea she's still a virgin, the presumption being that a divorced woman will be up for an affair. His every look, every touch, no matter how innocent, has some other darker meaning that apparently Anne is supposed to understand but does not. I found myself worried for her that she was up against a rogue and so utterly inexperienced. The man is used to getting everything he wants, from women to his yacht, everything has been his for the asking. And now he wants Anne. Henry has to protect her innocence while not revealing it.

Really, a delight. A well written, nicely researched, involving story with likeable characters and a satisfying ending. Five of five stars.

Publisher: Signet


Kimberly @ Caffeinated Reviewer said...

This sounds delightful! Thanks for sharing it.

Anonymous said...

A wonderful review for a moving story that gives me only one option but to read it !!!

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