I've just finished Mary Balogh's Simply Love, the second of the "Simply" books. I dare say another reader might see it as over-the-top in its emotional manipulation, but I found it very moving. Not angsty, but actually touching. And, for a work of fiction, surprisingly true.
This is not a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, even though Anne Jewell is undeniably beautiful and Sydnam Butler is one-half beastly. (He's scarred on the right side of his face, and his right arm is missing. He also wears an eye-patch. On his left side, of course, he's very handsome.) She's the mother of a child not only born out-of-wedlock but also borne of rape. These protagonists are damaged when they meet, and their respective scars affect both how they feel about themselves but also how others treat them. They're outsiders, determined to make the best of their lots in life.
Thankfully, Balogh cuts through all the nobility and self-sacrifice pretty quickly by having them, however implausibly, admit to each other the loneliness they experience. That's not exactly a meet-cute, but it's honest and must surely have been necessary to allow them to get to know each other. They don't precisely fall in love, but they marry nonetheless and that's when the real work starts.
Balogh seems to understand that people only face their demons when they're able to. Anne's reasons for not being able to face her family seem particularly flimsy, but they are her reasons. Sydnam understands that even if I (speaking personally) had a hard time with it. As I read of the early days of their marriage, I was annoyed that Anne could be so compassionate and empathetic to Sydnam's trauma, but so closed and hostile when he tried to return the favor. Generosity of spirit, I thought, isn't just lending a hand to a loved one, it's also letting a loved one help you.
In the end, I realized that Balogh is smarter than I am. Marriage (and now I am really speaking personally) provides a wonderful alchemy that makes it possible to face things that were too horrible to face before marriage. Sydnam is tremendously brave, and was before he married. It makes sense that he can face his demons first.
His bravery, though, makes it possible for Anne to be really brave for the first time in her life. She's a survivor, true, and fiercely loyal and determined -- all honorable traits. But not brave. I think it is when she sees Sydnam learn to paint with the "wrong" arm that she finds the courage within herself to return to the family she hasn't seen for a decade.
I don't know how this works, I just know it does. I was braver in my first marriage than I had been single, and I am braver still in my second marriage. Like Anne, there are some things I cannot yet see how to do, but that list is shorter than ever, and may someday be fully marked as "Done." I think it is reciprocal; I know that both my first husband and my current husband would say they have accomplished things as a result of marriage they would not otherwise have been able to do. That's the bravery of marriage: our spouse can't give it to us, but we get it nonetheless.
We read a lot of books about falling in love. Many evoke with power and insight the feelings of meeting, needing, losing, and finding that One True Love. But marriage -- real marriage, where sex doesn't solve everything and love is necessary but not sufficient for happiness -- is a uncommon topic in our genre. This book is about marriage, and as such is a rare and wonderful treat.
Simply Love could have had a different title: Married Bravery.