From the desk of Debbie Brown:
Neville Cross doesn’t fit the mold for a leading character. He’s appeared in the previous books of this series in a relatively minor role, and that’s where he seemed to belong. It’s true that, physically, his description as “a gentle giant” and “[a] handsome, golden Galahad” ordinarily would make him an ideal protagonist. Unfortunately, his personal history dispels the visual image. He doesn’t own his own estate, doesn’t have a boatload of money, and doesn’t have much in the way of charm. He grew up dirt poor in a miserable orphanage, where he experienced hunger and neglect. His years working and living at a convent in the neighboring village weren’t any kinder to him. Fortunately, his successful childhood friend, Justin Thornhill, brought him to live at the VERY remote Grayfriar’s Abbey. Most significantly, though, a serious head injury when Neville was just a lad continues to affect his word-finding ability; he’s incapable of speaking with any eloquence. Due to his halting speech, the poor man is more comfortable in the stables with the animals than in the house. He has no desire to see the world, feeling safe where he is and avoiding people he doesn’t know. Not exactly the adventurous, swashbuckling hero type. It takes a talented author like Mimi Matthews to allow Neville to shine as he does in her newly released The Winter Companion (Parish Orphans of Devon #4).
The “companion” in the title refers to Clara Hartwright, Ms. Matthews’ equally unlikely heroine. Justin and his wife, Lady Helena, are hosting his two friends and their wives for a month-long Christmas house party at Grayfriar’s Abbey, along with Neville, of course. Clara arrives as a paid companion to Mrs. Bainbridge, aunt of one of the wives. Clara’s brother Simon currently attends Cambridge, an experience she herself covets but is not attainable for a woman. As reparation for some dreadful misstep Clara made that ended both Simon’s tutoring lessons and her teaching position at the village school, she pays his university bills from her wages. More importantly, Simon has agreed to send copies of all his lesson notes so Clara can learn along with him. She hopes eventually to leave her current employment behind. “She couldn’t attend a proper university, or earn a position in the scientific community. But there was nothing stopping her from being a secretary to a scientist, or a gentleman with an interest in natural history.”
Neville meets Clara shortly after her arrival. Although it’s unusual for a companion to have a dog, she inherited a pug named Bertie when her previous employer died, and Clara couldn’t bring herself to abandon him when there was no one else to give the old boy a home. Her appearance at the stable makes Neville more tongue-tied than usual, but his affinity with animals is obvious and Clara entrusts Bertie’s care to him, believing the quiet man to be merely a groom.
When Neville turns up inside the Abbey as part of the house party, it is Clara’s turn to be taken by surprise. Instinctively, she recognizes that Neville’s slow, simple speech is not a true indication of his intellect. The two share a love of animals and nature, and they develop a close friendship. But when she receives troubling news about Simon, Clara must go to Cambridge to investigate, and it seems likely that she and Neville will not see each other again.
The Winter Companion, in addition to telling the story of Neville and Clara, serves as a satisfying conclusion to the series, showing the thriving marriages of Neville’s childhood companions—Justin Thornhill, Tom Finchley, and Alex Archer—and giving all four Parish orphans their satisfying Happily Ever After. Although there’s enough relevant background to treat this as a stand-alone, I certainly recommend reading the others.
Interestingly, Ms. Matthews follows a different path in this final volume. While the previous books are mostly event-driven, this has a more character-centered plot. It may feel slow to those readers who prefer a lot of action, but I really, really love these characters. Clara is a smart, driven woman stymied by limitations imposed by men, and she also suffers excessive guilt over an innocent youthful mistake. Neville grapples with feelings of inadequacy compared to his worldlier, confident friends; his real limitation is fear rather than his speech disorder. The two characters are refreshingly believable, and they face real problems. Their romance is sweet despite some plausible hurdles. No life-threatening drama, no thrilling chase scenes, and no fantastic feats of valor or other melodramatic tropes. “They weren’t Romeo and Juliet for heaven’s sake. They were two sensible adults.”
That’s the beauty of this straightforward story. It takes a gifted writer to elevate the ordinary to something extraordinary, and Mimi Matthews has the goods.
5 out of 5 Stars
The Winter Companion: Parish Orphans of Devon (Book 4), by Mimi Matthews
Perfectly Proper Press (February 11, 2020)
Trade paperback, & eBook (316) pages
Cover image courtesy of Perfectly Proper Press © 2020; text Debbie Brown © 2020, Austenprose.com