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Portrait of a Scotsman by Evie Dunmore


I will start out this review by saying straight away that I did not particularly like the first two books in this series. I'm not sure why, there were just things that did not click for me. Some of the characters were not as likable as I wanted them to be - and I don't mean that in a way of shaming women into being likable, but more like they could have been kinder and more relatable humans. In this book, you meet two people who are flawed in very different ways, and they are working on gaining self awareness and figuring out how to go from there, possibly together. The inner voice of especially the heroine in this book was so relatable and beautifully written. There were lots of really beautifully written sections throughout the book. Though the author notes that the inspiration for the story was the myth of Hades and Persephone (which I buy), the parallels with Henry James's Portrait of a Lady are also stark (beyond the title - or maybe this connection was just particularly noticeable to me, because that's my favorite book of all time). If you do not want spoilers for this book, I would recommend that you stop reading now…

The premise of the book is that the heroine is sort of tricked into marriage by the hero. I say sort of because there is something between them right from the start, and she is hardly forced to do the thing that compromises her and forces her hand, but he definitely motivates things along because he cannot help but treat getting her to marry him as he does his business deals rather than waiting for things to evolve more naturally. That is how he is used to running his affairs, and that's how he has been running things for awhile, and he cannot get himself to veer from that strategy. They get married, she tries to run away to France, and he does not let her. Instead, he takes her go to Scotland on one of his business trips to check out a mine he purchased. This time they spend in Scotland is pivotal to show how she grows from being a completely innocent and hidden away person, owned by her father and her family, now owned by her husband, to starting to find her own voice.

He, on the other hand, is still trying to exact revenge for what was admittedly a really difficult beginning for him. You can feel how he grapples with wanting to become a softer person but understanding that the world is not kind to softer people. He has not been that way in a long time, and he does not know how to find that side of himself again.

A lot of the criticism I have seen for this book focuses on it seeming like she was being unnecessarily harsh to him. On the contrary, I think that what this book underscores is that we are a product of our environments. She is who she is because it is how she is trained to be: she was groomed to be a lady of Society. You watch her slowly start to shake off those pieces of herself, but then struggle with resetting her expectations and world view. His situation runs parallel to hers, though their pathways are different, and I loved seeing the characters evolve.

I loved that at the end, even when he tells her that he loves her and wants to be with her, she does not give up her needs. She does not let go of the fact that she needs their coupling to be her choice, and she needs time to belong to herself and think about who she is. However, I did not love the role that the other characters from the other books played at this point. It was nice that they were supportive friends, but at the end when the main characters are trying to have a moment together, and her friends are trying to pull her away to make sure that she does not give up on her needs...that was too much. Her friends being so unkind to him is unnecessary; they should have been there as an understanding third-party, understanding that these two love each other but that she needs some space. Directing anger at him simply was not necessary while he is being so kind, appropriate, and apologetic to her. He was hurting, and as much as she is working on evolving herself, so was he.

The other part I did not love at the end was when he asks if she is spoken for upon reuniting. I wish that they had split with the unspoken understanding that they would get back together. They are still married, after all, not divorced, and I wish that when they had seen each other again it would have been immediately obvious that they belong together. The fact that he had to ask that if she was coupled with anybody else at the time and that she kind of replies in a wishy-washy way at first threw me off. I wanted more of an immediate “absolutely not, I definitely want to be with you and I missed you terribly and how could you even think that.”

Again, though, I was impressed with how the characters change, both of them. The narrative showed a commitment to their flawed natures, a commitment to them not being perfect, a commitment to them being who they are. She has to figure out who she is beyond her small sphere: so innocent and hidden away and closed off. She is trying to find her place in the world, and he is helping her with that to some extent, while he is also trying to find his place in the world, especially after he does exact his revenge against the one person that he needs to. Noteworthy is that he goes through with this revenge even after she asks him not to do that; this plays a role in their estrangement, even once she understands why he felt the need for revenge. It worried me at first that she did not fully understand why he could not stop himself, to be honest, but then I realized, how could she? Again, she is being a product of her environment just as he is.

I also loved all of the political background: the information about workers rights at the time was really fascinating. It was a history that I did not know a ton about, and I loved watching the characters grappling with being the ones who hold the power. They debate questions about wielding that power so that you are not irrevocably upsetting a balance that society needs but at the same time nobody is being thoroughly exploited or killed. Finding that balance to ensure that everyone understands it and it works for everyone is something that I found fascinating, especially as they were quoting contemporaries of the time. The MMC’s politics were refreshing, and you watch her slow realization that you cannot just save everyone easily, that society is a big place and complicated place with an arguably necessary hierarchy and a structure, and there are political machinations that need to happen.

I found that the main plot points were unsettling and surprising from a romance novel perspective, but at the same time it made the story more believable and relatable. Even though I did not like the first two books in the series, given how much I liked this one, I will definitely seek at the fourth one in the series. Hopefully it follows the same track as the third one. So, I highly recommend this book, but I still don't love the first two and didn't love the return of the characters from the first two either. Honestly, I would recommend reading this as a standalone.

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