A long-married earl and countess are estranged after the death of their infant son several years before, but their mutual love for their estate brings them together.
This Edwardian novel by Browning (An Affair Downstairs, 2015, etc.) returns to her Thornbrook Park series with the story of Gabriel and Sophia, the Earl and Countess of Averford. When their baby boy died suddenly, shortly after birth, they both retreated into their private grief. Gabriel threw himself into the management of Thornbrook Park, his ancestral estate, but Sophia had no such outlet and eventually made a mistake that almost cost her her marriage. In a moment of weakness, she kissed a family friend, and Gabriel witnessed the kiss. His resulting temper tantrum caused him to flee England altogether and spend a year with his mother in Italy. For Sophia, his absence allowed her a crack at managing the estate, which she did with great aplomb. Gabriel’s return threatened to undo all the good changes Sophia had made, and the two of them tussle over the reins, using various members of their household staff as co-conspirators against each other. A dotty old aunt, Gabriel’s mother, and a bevy of relations make it difficult for them to find any privacy, but the real problem is that both Sophia and Gabriel have poor communication skills and poorer impulse control. Gabriel spends a lot of time orchestrating surprises for Sophia instead of simply talking to her, and Sophia tries to fill the hole left by her lost son by adopting a foundling child instead of simply trying to conceive another baby with her husband.
In spite of their obtuseness, both Gabriel and Sophia are likable-enough characters, and the estate around which the plot revolves is charming enough to make the book a tolerable read.