Trashy Read 2012 #4: Trial by Desire, by Courtney Milan
After reading and loving The Governess Affair last week, I decided to take another dip into Courtney Milan's back catalogue. Trial by Desire is only her second novel, but people love it, so I decided to try it out. I had a feeling I'd like it; I just didn't realize how much. I love this book. As in, I am ready to declare it as one of my all-time favorite romances.
Ned and Kate Carhart got married when they were young and naive, but Ned mysteriously left for China only a few months into the marriage. Three years later, he comes back at an inopportune time. Kate has been secretly helping women out of abusive marriages, and she's in the middle of helping the wife of an earl when her estranged husband randomly reappears. They are no longer the same kids they were. Kate, after years of worrying that she was the reason her husband left, has an inner strength that she channels through her work helping others, work that no one knows about. Ned, who battles depression (not known as such then, of course), has learned how to "tame his dragons" and is now ready to make things up with his wife. But they first must learn to trust each other again.
This book has a lot going for it. There's the fact that Kate is an incredibly capable heroine who doesn't let gossip and angry men deter her from what she sees as her calling. There's the plot of the abusive earl and his wife, which works in perfect sync to the development of the main characters (trust me, romance novels don't always get this formula of external plot/internal character down quite right; this one does it perfectly). And finally, there's Ned. Ned might just be the most original romance hero I can ever remember encountering. He's not the alpha male type we usually see in historicals, nor is he a victim of a tragic past, another historical cliche. Instead, he has very real problems that he learns to deal with better. Milan gets depression just right; she obviously understands how self-esteem plays into it and that people aren't defined solely by their down or up moods. Ned constantly worries that he's not good enough, but Milan doesn't allow those worries take over his characterization. Yes, he is afraid, but he's also charming and big-hearted and really funny. In fact, Ned might be one of the funniest romance heroes I've ever encountered. He's fully-realized and I have no trouble believing he exists, a rare feat in romance.
Courtney Milan is a really good writer. She's good at pacing and plot. Her characters are realistic, and she lets them come out through their humor and human moments, both good and bad. Trial by Desire is some of the most rewarding fun I've had reading romance in some time, and Milan has single-handedly made me interested in romances again. Luckily, both she and Loretta Chase have new books out this summer. Best. Summer. Ever.
Note: One weird thing I just have to point out. All through the book, we get mentions of Ned's brown eyes, which Kate adores. And yet the guy on the cover (who is kind of creepy, I think) has bright blue eyes. Which is unfortunate, as brown-eyed heroes are so rare and so wonderful.