Historical Wonktastical: Not Quite A Husband, but Quite a Wonkomance

Who says a wonkomance must languish in obscurity? This installment’s offering was the 2010 RITA® winner for historical romance!

Popularity and acclaim notwithstanding, Not Quite a Husband is a wonkomance of the first order, and it was the book that first alerted me to the possibility of wonk in a historical (thank you, Sherry Thomas!). In this case the main font of wonk is the heroine, Bryony Asquith. Doctor Bryony Asquith, rather–and that right there tells you this won’t be your garden variety Victorian-era ingenue heroine.

Cover of Not Quite a Husband

Bryony is a surgeon, a skilled and respected professional woman, who nevertheless falls under the spell of a society darling and marries him. Their marriage lasts barely a year before disintegrating. That much we know at the beginning of the book’s primary story, set three years later in India. In the course of learning how and why they split up in the first place, we also see that they probably needed to become the people they are now in order to actually be together…but right up until the end, the book keeps us in suspense about how that will happen. In the meantime we relive the most painful, poignant moments of their brief marriage in flashes, until we finally have the entire picture.

Leo has been enamored of Bryony since childhood, and in his continued fascination with her adult self he overlooks the fact that her lifestyle–that of a busy, practicing doctor–is a very poor match for his own. He writes brilliant mathematical papers, and his expedition to Greenland was a success, but for all that, he’s a bit of a dandy and enjoys his position in society. He starts the courtship by teasing the seemingly unapproachable Bryony, who chastises him for pretending to seek a kiss, revealing her lack of tact in the process in a scene that I just adored.

“I apologize. I didn’t mean to take it as far as I did. But you were so delectably innocent–“

“I am not. What’s making love but a penis penetrating a vagina, discharging semen in the process?”

He was taken aback. Then he smiled lopsidedly. “That is most edifying. And here I thought it was all about valentines and sonnets.”

“Well, I’m glad one of us is amused,” she said huffily. She made for the door, but he reached it before she did. 

“You are angry. Was I truly reprehensible?”

“Yes, you were. […] I will have you know I do not lack for masculine admiration. And I know exactly how to sin to keep my virtue intact. There is frottage. There is manual manipulation. There is oral stimulation. Not to mention good old bugg–“

He kissed her. 

Well, with all that talk of frottage and buggery, who wouldn’t? Then he whispers some sweet nothings, namely telling her she smells of industrial-strength solvents. Winning! Anyway, soon thereafter, Bryony proposes to Leo, and he accepts her.

To me, this book was all about what kinds of experiences do and don’t change people. Marriage doesn’t change people in and of itself. But both Leo and Bryony expect a transformation. Leo thinks he is marrying an original, the remarkable girl he fell in love with as a boy and never got over as an adult, his dream woman who will blossom as his wife (specifically, he thinks she’ll relax once she has sex). Instead, he finds himself wed to a woman he rarely sees, who’s cold and distant and takes things very, very seriously. She’s still as socially awkward as ever. She’s not a fun girl, is Bryony. Not at the breakfast table, not in bed. Whereas Leo starts out blithe and becomes a broken mess before they can reconcile, Bryony starts out broken, alienated by her intelligence, her chosen path in life, and her general reserve when it comes to human interaction. She looks to the marriage with Leo to save her, transform her from an ugly duckling into a swan–and when it fails to, they both feel betrayed in more ways than one.

She’d been gambling. And their marriage was the bet upon which she’d staked everything. Because if he loved her, it would make her as beautiful, desirable, and adored as he. And it would prove everyone who never loved her definitively wrong…

Not exactly Paris in the springtime... (Image by Rchughtai)

Their parting is inevitable. When they finally meet again, in India (it’s complicated), their reconciliation won’t be easy in any way. They’ve already suffered separately for three years, but now they must suffer together in order to mend their relationship, because what does change people is hardship. Accordingly, these two broken, miserable people will have to figure out their massive communication issues (it always comes down to that, doesn’t it?) while simultaneously navigating their way across potentially lethal terrain during the middle of a major uprising against the British presence. [Go to Sherry Thomas’s page on the book for more on that, because she talks about the actual history behind this historical–the setting is described as vividly as any I’ve ever read, and I think indicates the author’s own level of wonkified obsession with detail and love of the language, in the best possible way.]

As if that weren’t enough, Bryony’s developed a white streak in her hair (overnight, from shock, right before she leaves him). So she’s a social misfit, older than he is, not traditionally beautiful to begin with, and has a big white streak. Oh, and I wanna say she also can’t have children, maybe. While formerly dandified Leo, by the time he meets up with Bryony in India, is bone-thin from almost seven weeks of breakneck travel, and also in the early stages of a malaria attack; he continues to suffer from that extremely unsexy illness through the better part of the rest of the book.

They’re not looking or feeling their best. They’re cranky. They’re under pressure. They have a wretched history together. And people are shooting at them. So you just know there will be fantastic sex.

I love all Sherry Thomas’s books, and they’re all wonky in their own special ways! Buy this one from the following purveyors:

Amazon | Barnes & Noble
Kobo | IndieBound
Random House | Powell’s Books

About Delphine Dryden

Areas of wonkery: geek culture, kink/BDSM, science for those who are not mathematically inclined, educational psychology. Read more >
This entry was posted in Certified Wonktastical, Historical Wonktastical. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Historical Wonktastical: Not Quite A Husband, but Quite a Wonkomance

  1. Ruthie says:

    Whoa. Must buy and read this book immediately. Damn you, Del Dryden, for seducing me with one wonked historical after another!

    Seriously, though, I love broken marriage books, and I love your discussion of how they expected the marriage to magically fix them, and it did nothing, so they had to suffer and fix themselves. Sounds awesome.

    • You should just put Sherry Thomas on autobuy right now, actually. Seriously. So, so much love for her. The characters are just so unusual. And talk about le mot juste. Her use of the language is freaking awesome, like you can tell this woman loves words (made all the more impressive by the fact that evidently English isn’t even her first language, something I didn’t know until after I’d read a couple of hers). Her book “His at Night” is one of my all-time favorites.

  2. jenreads says:

    This is a great choice for a wonkomance. It’s so wonky I sometimes thought it would be best for them to just cut their losses and get on with life. A great read with nice emotion.

    I love the site. I wouldn’t have read the very good, The Duke is Mine, without your wonderful review. That would have been my loss.

    Ruthie, I really liked your book too.