All but ignored by his father for refusing to marry a woman he did not love, Thomas Pendleton has lived a meagre life at the Oxford and Cambridge University Club. The one bright point in his lackluster arrangements is the close friendship he shares with one Mr. Andrew Nash. Not only is Andrew there whenever Thomas inevitably makes a fool of himself when he’s in his cups (not to mention helping him out with finances every now and again), he’s the only person towards whom Thomas feels any warmth or connection.
When Andrew challenges Thomas to return home to Branmoor Hall for the holidays to attempt a reconciliation with his estranged father, of course Thomas agrees. After all, it’s the very least Thomas can do given the platonic intimacy they share. Indeed, there is nothing Andrew could possibly do to lose Thomas’s friendship.
Andrew, however, isn’t quite so sure. He’s always wanted to help Thomas overcome his family troubles and is convinced a trip home is just the ticket. What he doesn’t count on is how the change in venue brings his carefully contained feelings of affection and even love for Thomas powerfully forward. Doubly troubling is the fact that Thomas’s arrival is greeted with cold contempt by Thomas’s father, the Duke. With emotions running high, it takes all of Andrew’s will power to keep himself from overstepping his place…yet he feels he must act lest he risk losing Thomas forever.
Here is a little holiday book that seems pretty cut-and-dried until the ending throws you for a loop. Thomas and Andrew pretty much toe the line in terms of melodramatic characterization. If your really want to read between the lines, Thomas has something of an addictive personality. Despite receiving barely enough of an allowance from his father to sustain himself, he still manages to have a drinking and gambling habit. While it’s a bridge too far to say that Andrew enables him, I think the prose treats this character quality sort of prosaically. Andrew doesn’t mind bailing Thomas out a time or ten and keeps him in line when he’s “in his cups” (a phrase that gets over used). Just glossing over all that, however, I think the intent is to show Thomas as a man at loose ends, not sure where he fits and just killing time with the habits.
Andrew, on the other hand, is sort of the needy friend. Thankfully, he does not come off as overly clingy or trying to justify his own existence by always riding to Thomas’s rescue. Actually, it’s probably more like Andrew is making a surrogate relationship with Thomas—you know, since they could never be lovers, Andrew probably feels he may as well make himself otherwise indispensable. Indeed, the whole story stems from Andrew’s desire to somehow help Thomas reconcile with his father. It’s all well intentioned and when Andrew struggles to keep his fantasies just that—fantasies—it serves to build tension between these two bosom buddies.
For me, the highlight (outside the twist at the end) was watching these two go from the fastest of friends to being on tinter hooks. This is helped along by the fact that they are decidedly overly familiar with one another when in their own rooms at the university club. Of course, this gets misread as out-and-out sexual relations by a servant arriving at an inopportune time. While we know Andrew’s always fancied Thomas, you’ll get a front row seat to watching Thomas grapple with the idea of men feeling attraction and even something deeper with other men.
There’s a full cast of side characters no less well developed than the two main characters. Which is to say they’re not exactly avatars for a trope, but they’re too convenient for plot’s sake to grow into full-fledge people in their own right. The one exception is perhaps the Duke himself, but this ties into the twist at the end that, frankly, comes a bit too late and from a character I was not definitely not invested in. So despite the “ahah! I see what you did there” moment at the end, the fact that it comes from this thorn of a character didn’t really inspire me with thoughts of re-reading the whole shebang to consider people’s words and actions from this new point of view.
All that said, the story is reasonably well put together. The forward states that Fessenden did a rewrite to better match the peerage system so that sort of got me comparing it Downton Abbey of all things. The familiarity between the people downstairs and upstairs feels a bit contrived by comparison, but it does add levity and pads the story a little bit (meaning its a good faith attempt at world building). So if you’re fan of period stories (think mid to late nineteenth century?), holiday stories, and stories where divided families overcome their differences, you’d definitely enjoy this sweet little story.
A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.