Mary Fleming and John Bexley are the “white sheep’ of their large families, written off as hapless, boring—and thus suitable for each other. But they’re no sooner married than John is sent off on a two-year diplomatic mission.
Upon his return, John and Mary find that everything they thought they knew about each other is wrong. They’ve changed radically during the long separation. They have to start all over. It’s surprising, irritating—and somehow very exciting…
Married to a Perfect Stranger is the rather sweet and enjoyable story of a young couple who are separated just a month after their marriage, because the husband – who works at the Foreign Office – is sent to China as part of a diplomatic delegation. When John Bexley returns to England almost two years later, the couple quickly realises that their spouse has become a different person in the intervening years; and that if they are to make any kind of life together, they will have to work at getting to know and understand the virtual stranger to whom they are married.
I love stories like this, where the characters fall in love after the wedding and have to actually work at a relationship. There’s a sense of realism that goes hand-in-hand with that aspect of the story as the reader is shown that not everything in the garden-of-romance is rosy all the time. Although John and Mary are married when the story begins, we learn that they more or less drifted into marriage because their respective families viewed them as misfits and wanted to get them off their hands. As a result, they didn’t know each other very well when John left – and now he’s back, any memories or preconceptions that remain are quickly shown to be useless when it comes to piecing together the essense of the other person as they are now.
When, a month after her marriage, John leaves for China, Mary is packed off to stay with her Great-Aunt Lavinia. While not far from Mary’s family home, they rarely visit, so have no idea that Lavinia is unwell (she is suffering from what we would recognise today as dementia), and it’s down to Mary to take over the reins of the household. She has always been rather timid and shy, but there is no-one else she can turn to; and she is surprised to find that not only does she enjoy managing the household, she’s very good at it.
John has also made some discoveries about himself during his absence, and is returning to England a much more dynamic personality than when he left; he is determined to make a success of his chosen career and to advance through its ranks.
One of the things Ms Ashford does very well in the early stages of the book is to show the chaos that Mary has to deal with on a daily basis, which immediately communicates to the reader that she’s both clever and efficient, and has become the lynchpin in her aunt’s household. John arrives when the house is in uproar and is dismayed to discover that his previously timid wife has turned into a “managing female” – and he makes that dismay clear in no uncertain terms. Mary can’t believe that the taller, broader, still handsome but utterly infuriating man who did nothing but scowl at her, insult her and then order her to return to London – is the easy-going young man she’d married. But she refuses to be cowed and besides, has to arrange care for her aunt before she goes anywhere.
John comes off as an arrogant arse during his first encounter with Mary; it’s all about him and what he wants and he looks set to become one of those domineering husbands who expects his wife to be a doormat. Fortunately, once Mary joins him in London, he’s calmed down and his initial panic at the thought of having the “wrong” kind of wife to help advance his career has dissipated. That’s not to say that there aren’t still difficulties ahead for them – they do continue to clash and become frustrated with each other as the story goes on, but by this time, they have both accepted that they have to work at their marriage and are prepared to do so.
Both principals are well-rounded characters, who clearly have some emotional baggage to deal with in addition to navigating carefully through the uncharted waters of their marriage. John is the third of four boys and the butt of the endless childhood jokes at his expense recounted by his two older siblings. It’s obvious that his family never expected him to amount to much and he has been overshadowed by the forceful cleverness of his brothers. They believe him to be unremarkable, dull and without ambition; they are dismissive of his job and think he’s destined to stay in a junior post for the rest of his life.
Mary has always been the perfect quiet, biddable daughter. Her overbearing mother thinks she’s a bit of a dreamer and doesn’t really understand her; but Mary is a very talented artist who likes to draw and paint portraits, and has the rare gift of being able to infuse her work with a true sense of the personality of her subject, sometimes revealing things about them they would rather keep hidden. It’s a talent that lands her in hot water at one point in the story which serves to highlight the importance placed on reputation and societal standing, and the way in which women’s opinions and abilities were so often completely disregarded at this time.
Ms Ashford does a very good job of showing how John and Mary support each other and gradually get to know and fall in love with the people they are now. Their relationship is well developed as they agree to start afresh, become friends and eventually lovers, and earn each other’s trust.
There’s an interesting and informative sub-plot running through the story about John’s attempt to put together a network of informants who can help him to obtain information about the situation in the Orient. This injects a bit of suspense into the story and the author has clearly done her homework – but it didn’t quite ring true for me and felt a little rushed at the end. I also noticed a bit of head-hopping going on which, while it didn’t happen too often, did mean I had to back-track occasionally, just to make sure I knew whose PoV I was supposed to be in.
With those reservations in mind, I’d certainly recommend Married to a Perfect Stranger to anyone in the mood for a gently moving, character-driven historical romance.