I stayed up way too late reading this book. It isn't action packed with swashbuckling mayhem, but the tension and emotional power builds so slowly that I didn't want to stop reading. I wish the ending had been stronger, but this is still one of my favorite historical series. It's all the best things of historical romance with witty dialogue and interesting characters, with the charm of small town settings that are so popular in contemporary romance. As we said in the book club chat for What I Did for a Duke, Pennyroyal Green would make a fantastic television series.
Evie is the notorious countess: a former actress and courtesan, she married an Earl who won her in a card game, and is now a widow after his sudden death. Evie is assumed to be cold, calculating, and ambitious, but she's really lonely, though unapologetic for her notorious past. She comes to Pennyroyal Green because she now owns a small estate there, and wants to start the next – very new and different – part of her life there.
Adam is the vicar of Pennyroyal Green, and a cousin to the Everseas, one of the two families of note in Pennyroyal Green. He's appeared in a few of the other books, and most notable for his exceptional good looks. His chuch is packed on Sundays, mostly with women interpreting double meanings in his sermons and hoping he's secretly speaking to them. When Evie asks Adam's help in making friends, he realizes that to create acceptance for her will be a challenge in the town, but despite the fact that he's drawn to her and would prefer to avoid her, he agrees to help, even though he's pretty sure it won't work.
Adam is one of the best, most emotionally layered, empathetic and truly alluring beta heroes I've read in a long time. Adam isn't dominant hulksmash or rakishly charming. He didn't grow up with the assets that the other Everseas had, and he is grateful for the living given to him by the Eversea family. He doesn't question whether he likes being the vicar; he is the vicar. But he is enormously well suited to the job. He understands the responsibilities he carries, and isn't a bully, pushing to get his way. He tries to subtly influence people in his parish, and tries to influence them for good reasons. He's aware of the effect he has on the women of the population, but tries very hard to be equally attentive to everyone so as not to hurt anyone's feelings. He is intrinsically a good, decent and morally strong man.
Adam's strength is one of the things that makes him so attractive as a hero. It's not physical strength, though there are scenes where he pitches in to dig fenceposts or repair roofs alongside everyone else. He was a moral and intellectual strength and decency that's powerful to read about, especially as the reader learns more about Adam's perspective.
I really can't say enough things about Adam as a character. He's really one of the best beta heroes I've read in a long time, and I can't stop thinking about the ways in which his character grew and revealed more of itself. He wasn't weak or a victim of anyone, and he wasn't unable to create change or fix things. But he did so much of his work in a peaceful and quiet way. His character was just fascinating to me.
In contrast, Eve had layers and depth, but not the same alluring draw as Adam. Evie doesn't regret her past, and she shouldn't, even though people around her try to tell her she ought to act ashamed for it. But she is affected by the fact that her past gets between her and Adam and she is the first to say that their relationship isn't possible.
I wish the idea of Evie as advisor to the young women looking for a confident role model had been more developed. But I loved, LOVED Long's portrayal of the female friendships around Evie. They weren't universally good or perfect, and they weren't relentlessly cruel and immature, either. They changed, and I recognized so many of the conversations and relationships shifting between the young women of Pennyroyal Green.
One of the best things about Evie is that she encourages people to think for themselves, not to follow their social leader. Adam does as well: he could easily abuse his power of influence as vicar, but his determination to be a good influence on everyone prevents him. Evie doesn't want to tempt young women over to the dark side of sex and infamy, even though everyone seems to expect her to do so. She also wants women to speak for themselves.
Evie's strength is in her confidence and her experience – both of which condemn her in the eyes of good society. She's made the choices she has for a reason, and her reasons are perfectly valid. No one was going to take care of her if she didn't take care of herself. I wish her past coming to greet her present was a better developed conflict, because (I realize I'm being vague and I am sorry) her past is a nonphysical thing between Adam and herself, and when a form of it is physically present, I wanted to see more of how difficult it would be for both of them. It came and went rather easily at the end of the novel.
Really my biggest disappointment was the ending. I looked down and saw I was 95% through the book – which seemed impossible because Evie and Adam were so far apart from one another. The ending was rushed, quick, and difficult for me to believe. I wanted to believe in the ending. I wanted to believe that the scene was possible, that everything would be solved, but it was like the last act of a Shakespeare play: Bob's your uncle, have a happy ending, bye now!
Even with the “Wait, that was the end? That's it?” feeling, I still enjoyed this book tremendously, and have two more cued up to read next. I love that I can bounce around in the series out of order and not miss much. Julie Anne Long is one of my favorite new discoveries in historical fiction and I'm peeved at myself for not trying her books sooner. This wasn't the best of the Pennyroyal Green books I've read, and I wished the ending had developed with the same deliberate slowness as the rest of the novel, but despite its flaws, it was still a wonderful read.