Torn by Karen Turner
Karen Turner 2013
Large Format Paperback
In 1808, when Alexandra Broughton is fourteen, her mother returns from court to the family home with a new husband, a bun in the oven, and new step-siblings for her children, Simon, Alex and Annie. None of them are used to having their snobby, social-climbing mother at home, but her affair with Gerrard Washburn, Earl of Thorncliffe, has caused King George III – a well-known prude and quite different from his son, Prince George – to expel her from court with the decree that they marry.
The upset to the Broughton children’s daily life is soon forgotten – it’s hard not to like Lord Thorncliffe, and when baby Meg arrives they’re all smitten (except her mother, who lacks motherly love). It’s the arrival of Gerrard’s two children from his previous marriage, Patrick and Maeve, that change everything for Alex. Maeve is a happy, enthusiastic, loving girl of the same age as Annie – who shares her mother’s sense of vanity and ambition – but Patrick is Alex’s beloved brother Simon’s age, and the two quickly become friends. Stuck in the middle, Alex puts her efforts into being childishly petulant and difficult, resentful that Patrick has come between her and handsome, popular Simon.
Yet she’s also drawn to Patrick in ways she barely understands. As Alex matures she puts aside her dislike and resentment towards Patrick and the two become friends, but the friendship is strained by Alex’s unrequited feelings for Patrick. Once both Simon and Patrick are of age, they both decide to sign up for the war against Napoleon, despite their family’s protestations. Simon uses his medical pre-training from university to help the wounded, while Patrick buys an officer’s rank and sees real battle. With the two men she loves most in such danger zones, Alex struggles to sit quietly at home and wait.
Meanwhile, her mother has arranged a marriage for her with a young Scottish lord, Hamish, a preening, vain man who, it readily becomes apparent to the reader, has more of an eye towards pretty young men than he does his affianced bride. Alex was resigning herself to marrying Hamish – a contract that doesn’t seem breakable – when Patrick returns from war and everything changes.
Torn was a refreshing change from either your typical “Regency Romance” or the many historical fiction novels set in the era that strive to mimic Pride and Prejudice. Turner has focusses on the historical period by going to historical sources rather than fictional ones, which gives a fresh perspective on the early 19th century (pre-Regency). She also turned the lens of the story onto the Napoleonic War, which I appreciated – Austen never focussed on that, her characters just bought a shiny red uniform and everything was tickety-boo. The descriptions of the hell’s of war will resonate with readers because they sound just like the descriptions of the World Wars that we’ve absorbed, because despite the changes in weaponry, tactics or political context, war is war and what soldiers endure doesn’t change all that much.
This is a coming-of-age novel set over the course of several years while Alex is a teenager. While Turner has made efforts to use diction and syntax appropriate to the period, Alex’s first-person voice is often a bit contemporary, a bit too modern. It’s not that people didn’t swear or speak in more relaxed ways, just that some of Alex’s phrasing sounded a bit too late-20th-century, and jarred. That aside, it’s clear that while certain expectations of young women have changed drastically, the struggles and inner turmoils of adolescence and young love remain unchanged over the centuries. We can change our costumes, our expectations and perspectives as much as we like, but at heart we’re no different from people living in any other age.
The novel was a bit slow and uneventful, which I wouldn’t have minded except that for much of the book it lacked the tension it needed to propel the narrative – and the reader – forward. The story doesn’t pick up until after Simon and Patrick join the war. Much of the first half is made up with establishing Alex’s rude behaviour towards Patrick, and their prickly understanding. It’s just hard, following the exploits of a not-very-likeable girl going through the pains of adolescence. Perhaps it’s that fact, that in the first half of the book, Alex isn’t a very sympathetic character – you can sympathise with her resentment and understand her behaviour all too well, but it goes on for too long. Patrick has the charisma to carry the story and keep you reading – there’s just something about him, from his moments of casual cruelty to his raw sex appeal, his sense of humour and moments of loving tenderness. He keeps you on your toes, that’s for sure, though it’s one of my personal hang-ups that I don’t like hearing men calling women “bitch”, especially when they’re in love with them.
This isn’t a standalone novel but the start of a series, and the ending, while no cliffhanger, is a prelude to the second book, Inviolate. In fact, I would say that the entire novel (Torn) is a bit of a prelude. It establishes the characters, who drive the story forward, and their dramas, as set-up for where the story will go from here. There is a definite feeling that the second book will have more of a dramatic punch than this one, as the stakes are all out on the table and the way things ended in Torn definitely leave you reeling a bit. (I think we’d all agree by the end that Annie is despicable, shallow and lacking in character.) Alex does make me want to shake her though, especially at the end where she lets Patrick’s past mistakes and reputation over-rule everything she knows about him, and instead takes the side of the sister she never respected. What’s with that? I could understand Alex’s emotions but after the initial shock, where’s her head? She’s an intelligent girl who shows, time and again, a lack of maturity and understanding of others. I guess she’s inherited a bit of her mother’s superficial outlook, but it was disappointing and slightly contrived for the sake of drama and tension. I’m on the fence a bit over the ending, and I’m not sure where the prologue and epilogue, told by an elderly Meg who has something important she needs to commit to paper, is going. She’s not telling the story, that’s for sure, so she must know some painful secret.
Overall, a solid first novel that will appeal to those readers who like a slowly evolving historical fiction story set pre-Regency, populated by familiar characters and narrated by a young, torn heroine who feels all-too human.
My thanks to the publicist for a copy of this book.
“Turner is a writer with promise and fans of historical romance/fiction are encouraged to give Torn a read. I’m interested to see how the story and characters develop.” Write Note Reviews
“Karen Turner has a great story to tell, and even though I was a little unsure about the authenticity of some of the language used, I was sufficiently drawn in by the beautiful descriptions of landscapes, gowns, riches and love triangles.” That Book You Like
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