Mary Balogh is, for me, the current best writer of Regencies (although Georgette Heyer was, of course, the utter master). Balogh's writing career has spanned several decades and this book, along with the previous two in the series ('The Gilded Web' and 'Web of Love') were originally published in the early 1990s and have now been reissued. Despite their theoretical age they don't feel particularly 'old fashioned' but instead are great stories in their own right, displaying some themes that Balogh developed further in subsequent novels (particularly in 'The Gilded Web').
This book follows Lady Madeleine Raine, sister to Dominic (hero of the last book) and Edmund (hero of the first book) and James Purnell, brother to Alex (heroine of the first book). Madeline and James had various dealings in the first book and Madeline's dissatisfaction with life and inability to commit to marriage were shown in the second book (James was away in Canada working). In this story James is about to return for a short visit and the expectation of his arrival is considerable. Madeline hopes that when he arrives she will be able to put aside her strange yearning for him that has spoiled the last four years, Alex just hopes to see her brother again.
When James arrives he and Madeline instantly feel the attraction they always had between them and yet their behaviour to each other is the same as always. James seems surly and unfriendly, Madeline silly and air-headed. The first half of the book shows them both trying to find an interest in other people as prospective marriage partners but discovering that they can't somehow leave each other alone. In the second half of the book Madeline and James find themselves together and yet not communicating, wounding each other with silences and chatter and behaviour and thoughts.
The strength of this book is in the characterisation, but it's also its weakness. James and Madeline seem to hurt each other and despite their being reasons behind the misunderstandings it seemed all rather too overdramatic. Surely one of the two of them might have said the magic sentence that made everything alright, but no, because the story required them to be separate. We learn a lot about James and why he has become surly and why he fears he is unable to love and yet there were also a couple of loose ends at the close of the book, for example whether he can forgive himself that his father died unreconciled to his son. This isn't an easy read much of the time because of the heartbreak that hero and heroine cause each other. Madeline isn't always that easy to like, either, because she can appear shallow. Still as a book this is far ahead of most of the other Regencies being published today and historical setting and language are all accurate and seamless.
Fans of Mary Balogh will like this book, although perhaps not as much as her more recent offerings, but it would probably help to have read the previous two in the 'web' trilogy first to help follow the action and understand the characters.
Until the last chapter and half or so, this was a dismal story about James, who couldn't get over his upbringing and forgive himself for an indiscretion in his youth, and Madeline, who had been treated badly by James in the past and continued to be treated badly by him. The publisher's description provides an overview of the plot, but that makes the hero sound far better than his actions indicate. What it doesn't say that is that the only love or romance throughout most of the book involves views into the lives of secondary characters. The style of writing was interesting, in that occasionally a scene would be written from the viewpoint of James, then from the viewpoint of Madeline. But no matter how you look at the scene, it nearly always had the same result: Madeline would try to be warm and caring, and James would say something cutting or nasty. The fact that he immediately mentally castigated himself for it, didn't make him any more likable. Throughout the book he tells himself that he is creating the miserable life he swore he would not have, after living with a father who was cruel and oppressive. There are dark hints of beatings and mistreatment related to the father's extreme religious nature. James decides he is unable to stop himself. Never does he even once TRY to stop himself, he just lashes out, broods, or says unpleasant or very hurtful things!! Unless you have to read it, I'd skip it and recommend, if you missed reading Tino Georgiou's bestseller--The Fates, go and read it.