A Cousinly Connexion

When her Aunt Louisa–never very capable–loses both her husband and his heir (her eldest stepson), the competent Miss Jane Ash rushes to town to offer aid and comfort. What she finds there is chaos: a household in uproar; the youngest stepson turning into a slick and foolish town sprig; the blind teenager Felix throwing fits and suffering from being coddled; a pair of daughters nearing their come-outs without being anywhere near ready for them; two devilish twins; a baby; and an hysterical widow who is certain that her husband’s next heir–the only stepson she’d sent away to be raised by his grandfather–is going to avenge himself by making her family’s life a misery.

When the war-veteran Julian finally shows up and assumes his role as the head of his wild new household, he needs Jane’s help to get things under control. At the same time, Julian proves himself different than anyone expected: kind, intelligent, capable, and even forgiving of the fact that he’d been sent away as a little boy. Now all he has to do is learn how to be a father to seven siblings he’s never known, deal with his hysterical stepmother, and rescue the estate from bankruptcy. That’s a tall order for such a young man! (And Julian is much younger than the typical Regency hero.)

Then there is Miss Ash, who has become a part of the family and taken control of the household. What is to be done with her? She can’t go home to her tyrannical father and a distasteful suitor with unending proposals of marriage. But nor does it make sense to stay with Julian forever–even if these two sensible, “unromantical” people are falling in love.

I have to admit that I was a little disappointed with A Cousinly Connexion. Author Sheila Simonson set the bar so high with Lady Elizabeth’s Comet–my favorite book of 2012–that it was impossible to live up to her own standard.

Part of the problem is that so many of the same features that made Simonson’s other book stand out are also in this one: wounded hero who neglects his inheritance so long that he stokes the hostility of his new family; cast-out, unexpected heir to a major estate; the hero’s unexpected attitude and tenderness towards his new family.

At the same time, there are major differences: for example, the generous and kind heroine who has no other plausible suitors to her hand, and the book’s urban setting.

It is also written in the third-person. Whereas in Lady Elizabeth’s Comet, the first-person narrative (which, at first, made me wary) allowed the reader to become totally immersed in the heroine’s mind, A Cousinly Connexion shows us a more typical Regency world–one in which we witness scenes from the point of view of multiple characters. Third person is comfortable, but it was not as revelatory as Simonson’s intimate glimpse into Elizabeth’s psyche.

Yet, much of what made Lady Elizabeth’s Comet so good is present here as well. Her mastery of the period is nearly as detailed as in her other book, though this time she shows her expertise by using theatre as a central metaphor. “Yay!” says this theatre scholar, though Simonson does compare a character’s behavior to the acting of John Philip Kemble when the more appropriate and accurate parallel would have been with Edmund Kean.

The secondary characters in A Cousinly Connexion are stronger than the ones in Lady Elizabeth’s Comet: Felix, the blind half-brother whom Julian strives to teach independence and self-control, stands out as one of the most memorable minor characters that I have encountered. Julian’s former batman and current groom, Thorpe, commands the reader’s attention and affection.

It would be more fair to judge this effort by Simonson without comparing it to another of her books. Unfortunately, I find it impossible to do so. I can say that, on its own, A Cousinly Connexion is a strong, unconventional Regency that readers looking for something less formulaic are likely to enjoy. Recommended.

A/N: Since I have been dinging contemporary books for making their heroes “Gary Stus,” I feel honor-bound to acknowledge that Julian–as much as I like him–is probably one, too. He’s so capable, and everyone loves him. At least he has a gimpy leg, is “unromantical,” and has a bit of skin peeling off the tip of his nose . . . Without these flaws, he really would be too perfect.


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