From the desk of Katie Jackson:
Regency romances have their fair share of obstinate, headstrong girls, yet it is always a delight to discover another less-than-perfect heroine. Especially when “pictures of perfection, as you know, make me sick and wicked,” as the incomparable Jane Austen once wrote. Joanna Barker’s Otherwise Engaged is one such Regency romance with an imperfect heroine getting herself into unladylike scrapes and earning our respect along the way.
Rebecca Rowley is a bold, rebellious young woman with a sarcastic wit and a determination to leap over fear as if it were a hedge she wished to jump with her horse. While riding bareback. On muddy ground. Hatless. In other words, Miss Rowley had a tendency to be reckless. Her brother William admonished that “you could cut stone with a tongue that sharp.” (588)
During a visit to Brighton with a friend, Rebecca encounters Edward Bainbridge, the charming son of her deceased father’s business partner-turned-enemy. The longstanding animosity between their families is a puzzle to them both. No matter what others might think—or perhaps because of it—Rebecca does what she wishes, pursuing the enticingly off-limits Edward.
Yet she is not without remorse. She tries to be a dutiful daughter and a trustworthy sister, to protect her beloved mother and brother from worry. And it is those good intentions that lead her to hide her sudden and secret engagement to Edward. Arriving home to Havenfield in Hertfordshire, Rebecca is certain she will get to the bottom of the mysterious feud on her own and win her family over with her explanations and, eventually, her betrothed’s charm.
Rebecca’s fearless attitude, while not precisely appropriate for a Society lady, turns out to be a useful trait indeed when she unexpectedly rescues a young girl in a perilous situation. She is rewarded for her considerable efforts by making the disagreeable acquaintance of her new and seemingly unpleasant neighbors, Lieutenant Nicholas Avery and his much younger half-sister Olivia.
The following day, Rebecca is the reluctant recipient of a remorseful visit from the Avery siblings. “Oh, lovely. A forced, insincere apology. My favorite kind.” (364) But as she learns more about their unfortunate circumstances, she realizes that she “had judged them. Quite harshly, in fact.” (433) Rebecca begins to see that the initial, aloof impression they gave was a result of their uncertainty and discomfort with each other, as well as the pain of their losses.
As the burden of her secret engagement weighs heavier with each passing day, Rebecca continues to pursue answers that will allow her to reveal to her family her desire to marry Edward. “The truth was elusive, broken, and divided until it was unrecognizable.” (654)
At the same time, seeing a need for resolution—and never one to turn away from a challenge—Rebecca also begins to form tentative friendships with Nicholas and Olivia, who so desperately need to understand each other better. “Clearly, Lieutenant Avery wasn’t making any progress.” (1111) “‘Heaven knows nothing I do seems to make any difference,’” he said. “‘I think heaven knows you are trying,’ I said. ‘And that is quite good enough.’” (1113)
Rebecca begins to understand them better herself when Lieutenant Avery explains his desire to return to his naval duties:
“‘The moments of beauty make every difficulty worthwhile and every hardship bearable.’ I stared at him. I stared because I could not reconcile his words with the man who stood before me. He was a navy officer. He was strict and unyielding, self-assured and principled. I thought I’d known who he was from the moment we’d met, but clearly I had only glimpsed the surface of his character.” (757)
As Rebecca’s admiration for Nicholas grows, she must discover a way to fearlessly face her greatest challenge yet … that she is otherwise engaged.
Admittedly, I am not a fan of first-person point-of-view—having been spoiled by the multi-faceted, immersive qualities of many deep third-person stories—and I did not initially enjoy my journey in the mind of the somewhat self-centered Rebecca Rowley. But Joanna Barker’s powerful writing, as usual, persuaded me that this realistically flawed character had her redeeming qualities, after all.
The romance was slow and steady and believable. I had one expectation in particular that was thwarted with an unforeseen twist, and the conclusion left me with a contented smile.
This is a story about well-intentioned people making mistakes, yet still being worthy of happiness. It demonstrates how “love was real and strong and brave. Love was sacrifice and compromise.” (3473) Otherwise Engaged is a touching tale of friendship, devotion, and acceptance of others … just as they are.
4 out of 5 Regency Stars
- Otherwise Engaged: A Regency Romance, by Joanna Barker
- Covenant Communications, Inc. (October 12, 2020)
- Trade paperback, eBook, & audiobook (266) pages
- ISBN: 978-1524413705