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Laura Lee Guhrke

REVIEW: Trouble at the Wedding by Laura Lee Guhrke

REVIEW: Trouble at the Wedding by Laura Lee Guhrke

Dear Ms. Guhrke:

In a way I wish I had read Trouble at the Wedding before the first two books in the Abandoned at the Altar series. The Edwardian setting, pairing of the bourgeois heroine from the American South and the titled but impoverished English duke, and mixed cocktail of the marriage for money and the reformed rake plots add up to an ambitious vision. But I’m not sure whether my expectations were set higher after the first two books, or if what struck me as fresh earlier now seems a bit worn, but whatever the reason, I found this third installment to be a bit of a kitchen sink of tropes and clichés, more interesting and successful in the concept than the execution.

Trouble at the Wedding Jana DeLeonAnnabel Wheaton may have catapulted from near poverty to great wealth, and from Gooseneck Bend, Mississippi to New York City, following the death of her father, but she still feels like the “poor white trash” she’s been called most of her life. A smart, independent, business-minded young woman who has already been burned by what she thought was true love, Annabel is determined to marry into the British aristocracy, trading her money for a respected title and a sedate and secure life overseeing her husband’s English estate and raising their children. The man she has chosen, Bernard Alistair, Earl of Rumsford, is not particularly exciting, but then that’s the point. Annabel has had her fill of exciting men, and she frankly doesn’t trust them. Instead, she’s looking forward to a life of security, which she is certain will more than compensate for a lack of passionate romantic love.

Not everyone is on board with Annabel and Bernard’s upcoming wedding, however, which is set for six short days away on the ocean liner Atlantic, a compromise solution to the problem of whether to hold the ceremony in New York or London. One of the dissenters is one of Annabel’s trustees, her uncle Arthur, who believes that Annabel deserves a better match and is determined to get Annabel to see how ill-advised her choice of husband is. Which brings Christian Du Quesne, the handsome, rakish, and nearly broke Duke of Scarborough into the mix, hired by Arthur to talk Annabel out of the wedding in exchange for a half a million American dollars, a sum that will substantially rehabilitate the family estate, which fell into deep debt under the control of his older brother Andrew, whose death has brought the ignominious and unenthusiastic second son into the title.

Christian does not have to stretch the truth in articulating his disdainful view of life in England, especially for the dissolute aristocracy, and once he makes the acquaintance of the lushly beautiful Annabel, his attraction to her, combined with his dislike of Rumsford, generates an urgent personal interest for Christian in convincing Annabel that she doesn’t want what she thinks she wants. Annabel, who is well aware of her tendency to fall for the bad boy, doesn’t want to believe the things Christian is telling her about the unsuitability of life as an English countess, and especially as the Countess of Rumsford, but because Christian promises her he will tell her all the unwritten rules of the life she is choosing, she cannot stay away from him long enough to remain immune to either his charms or his admonitions.

As is the case in many Romances featuring two outsiders, Christian and Annabel have a rapport that is evident to both of them, despite their mutual insistence that they would never suit as a couple. Still, that rapport creates a kind of fast friendship, which tolerates a great deal of mutual honesty and fosters a powerful mutual attraction. Christian tells Annabel of his own past, married to a young heiress who killed herself after miscarrying their baby, while Christian was traveling and partying with friends. Annabel tells Christian of her own humiliation at the hands of the town rich boy, who took Annabel’s virginity and then unceremoniously dumped her.  Which makes Annabel even more determined to go through with the wedding and take the life she wants, and even as Christian admits defeat and drinks himself into a stupor, he inexplicably finds himself standing up at the wedding and calling it a “farce and a lie,” humiliating Annabel a second, devastating time and necessitating, in Christian’s mind, a proposal to save Annabel’s reputation.

But Annabel isn’t going to meekly accept Christian’s loveless sacrifice, and instead she engineers a strategy by which Christian will retroactively become one of Annabel’s trustees, thus making his wedding protest one of avuncular protection rather than scandalous insinuation. And in the meantime, Christian’s sister Sylvia volunteers to bring Annabel more fully into London society, where she can make an appropriate match and ultimately resuscitate her original ambition.

In many Romances, all of this set-up would have occurred in the first quarter or third of the novel, with the remainder of the story dedicated to unraveling Annabel and Christian’s true feelings for each other. Actually, many novels would likely turn the plot into one of marriage of convenience between the protagonists. That this particular plot occurs at the halfway point of the novel is indicative of its ambition, as does Annabel’s incredibly independent focus and resolve:

 

“First of all, let me say I owe you my most sincere apologies. My conduct was reprehensible”

“Which part?” she asked in a tart voice. “The part where you agreed to take money for talking me out of marrying Bernard? Or –“

“You know about that?”

“Uncle Arthur told me. Needless to say, he’s not feeling inclined to pay you that money now, so is that what you’re apologizing for? Hoping he’ll give it to you anyway? Or maybe it’s breaking up my wedding that you’re sorry about? Or maybe it’s because you called it a farce and a lie, and hurt my reputation? Or maybe it was the fact that you hauled off and kissed me last night? Which of those reprehensible things is the one you’re apologizing for?”

. . .

“We should become engaged.”

. . .

“Thank you for your gallant effort to save the day,” and the sweet drawling sarcasm in her voice told him his hope of an easy solution was rather out the window. “I appreciate it so very much, Your Grace. But I think I’ll pass.”

“You’re saying no?” He supposed he shouldn’t be surprised. No doubt she felt a bit let down by the idea, for he knew he hadn’t made any effort to put a romantic gloss on it. Nonetheless, she couldn’t really refuse. “But we have to become engaged. It’s the only way to avert a scandal.”

“It’s not the only way. It’s the simplest way, and the easiest way for you because it doesn’t affect your life at all.”

 

I really liked this Annabel. I was even willing to overlook the sitcom sorghum character of her Southern accent and idioms, as well as the cliché-ridden prose and conversation. I liked the fact that the book took a somewhat unexpected turn at this point and that Annabel seemed to be the engineer of her own rescue.

Then it all fell apart for me. Annabel and Christian find themselves in that push-pull of attraction and resistance, with Annabel literally begging Christian to stay away and then feeling disappointed when he complies. Christian is torn between doing “the right thing” and pursuing his own desires, even as he knows he doesn’t want another marriage to a woman who supposedly deserves better than a rake like him. Rinse and repeat.

I have recently been thinking about certain Romance character pairings where you have an almost unresolveable conflict. For example, a heroine who deserves to be loved for who she is and a hero who is destined to let any woman who loves him down. As often as we see these kinds of conflicts, I’m not sure they’re usually resolved by means that don’t seem almost supernatural, often in the form of a crisis that clues the hero in to how much he loves the heroine and wants to be the man she deserves. I have, of late, been pining for more realistic resolutions to these complex conflicts, and one of the things that frustrated me about Trouble at the Wedding was the way in which the dramatic tension in the second half of the novel is generated in part by Annabel’s increasing desolation over the depth of her feelings for Christian and his inability to love her in return.

Not only does this dynamic weaken Annabel’s character and undermine her independent resolve, it accomplishes this by manipulating the reader into desperately hoping that Christian will come to his senses and accept his own feelings are more than simple lust. It became a problematic dynamic for me in this novel because I kept feeling like I was put in a position where I had to depend on Christian for Annabel’s happy ending, which contravened so much of what appealed to me about her character. While that is typical Romance form, it was constructed at the expensive of a character who, for me, at least, was appealing to Christian for that precise independence that the romantic trajectory of the novel undermined.

Part of the issue may have been the relatively short time and page frame in which the second half of the novel proceeds. But I also think there was a difficult pairing of plot and character ambition and genre mimesis that went too far out of balance in the second half of the book. I also felt that there was more infodump in this novel than in the previous two, with passages that sounded almost like they were powered by cinematic adaptations of Edith Wharton novels or Wikipedia:

The door banged again and the young woman below looked back over her shoulder. “There you are at last!” she exclaimed as a girl about ten years old came into view, her age evidenced not only by her more diminutive stature, but also by the shorter length of her skirt, the sailor motif of her dress, and the fact that her dark hair was not put up.

As much as I appreciated the details provided, their integration didn’t feel as easy as in previous novels set during this same time, and that added to the kitchen sink feel of the novel for me. Still, had Annabel’s happiness not depended so very much on Christian’s change, I think I would have overlooked so much else in the novel. But that substantial disappointment made other elements seem more pronounced, undermining my appreciation and enjoyment of the more unexpected and ambitious elements of the novel. C

~ Janet

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REVIEW: Scandal of the Year by Laura Lee Guhrke

REVIEW: Scandal of the Year by Laura Lee Guhrke

Dear Ms. Guhrke:

Although I'm not always a fan of the back-to-back book release, in the case of Wedding of the Season and Scandal of the Year, I appreciated being able to follow up Will and Beatrix's story with Julia and Aidan's. Although their match-up was anticipated by the first book, they are, in many ways, an unlikely couple, and, in my opinion, engaging and compelling. Structurally, I feel that Scandal of the Year suffers from the same pacing problems that the previous book does, but emotionally, I find the romance more satisfying.

Scandal of the Year by Laura Lee GuhrkeJulia, the Baroness Yardley, has finally been granted a divorce from the man to whom her parents basically sold her after her scandalous and disastrous affair with a penniless but handsome poet and political radical. While she has never revealed the details of her miserable marriage, she spent most of her time as far away from her husband as possible – drinking, driving fast, smoking, and spending money — until her husband found her in bed with Aidan Carr, the Duke of Trathen. No one but Julia knows the circumstances under which Aidan ended up in her bed, including the upstanding Aidan, who remembered drinking and kissing Julia, but could never bring to mind the intimate details of their (in his opinion) reckless coupling. Which makes his recent notoriety as co-respondent in the divorce petition even more frustrating. But then, everything about "saucy" and undisciplined Lady Yardley is frustrating to Aidan, and it has been since their first meeting more than years ago, when he was a young duke at Eton and she was but a sassy, flirty, beautifully tempting young woman. Napping on a bridge against a spinning wheel. From the first, the fundamental differences in their natures was apparent:

She seemed to be some sort of actress, and he was a duke, and the only friendship that could come from that sort of situation was a rather unsavory one. Still, it would be unseemly to express that thought aloud. "So," he said instead, "you are an actress?"

"No, no, but I am in a play." She caught his puzzled look and laughed. "It's just a skit, really, to raise money for the orphanage fund. All the events today are for the orphanage."

"Ah," he said, a bit more enlightened. "So there's a fete on?"

"This afternoon." She waved the sheaf of papers in her hand again. "I have only a bit of time left to learn my lines, so I decided to find a nice quiet spot and see if I can memorize enough to keep from making an utter fool of myself today. I fear it's hopeless, though, for I've left it too late."

Aidan, who never made a fool of himself if he could avoid it, and who never left anything until the last minute, felt impelled to point out the obvious. "Wouldn't it have been wise to spend more time preparing for your part?"

"Well, yes," she conceded with another grin, "but why do today what one can put off until tomorrow?"

"You don't seem to be taking your role very seriously."

"Petal, I don't take anything seriously." She cast him a shrewd glance. "You, I'll wager, have the opposite problem. Do you drink?"

He blinked, taken rather aback by this seemingly irrelevant question. "No," he answered with a decided shake of his head. "I don't. Why do you ask?"

"You should drink, at least a little. You're wound a bit tight. A drink now and then would loosen you up."

"It did, I'm afraid. With disastrous results."

And thus it would again, quite a few years later. Although for Julia it is hardly a disaster, as she had been growing quite desperate to be free of her husband, who showed no interest in discarding his renegade wife.

Still, Julia does have a secret about that day, one that pulls on her conscience, although not more than her relief at her newfound freedom. Besides, she is not averse to making Aidan suffer a little, to tease a smile from him with some provocative banter or to make a blush break through his solid self-control. Still, it is Aidan's honorable nature that makes him the one she goes to, after her divorce, with the problem of her mounting debts, knowing that she can count on him to help her find a way out of total financial disaster.

Aidan is not unaware of the irony in Julia's request: "If this were a melodrama . . . I would make you my mistress." And yet, his own responsible nature and the seriousness with which he knows he must renew his search for a duchess (his erstwhile fiancée, Beatrix Danbury, having reunited with her first love in Wedding of the Season), knows this is not possible or even wise, although he is certainly plagued with incessantly carnal thoughts about Julia, which seem to increase in proportion to his frustration at not being able to recall their adulterous tryst. So he decides, in typical Aidan style, to test himself by making Julia his matchmaking advisor rather than his mistress, so he can basically inure himself to the appeal of her physical presence while he pursues his ducal duty.

This set up is very familiar, of course, and more interesting is the way the relationship between Aidan and Julia develops. First of all, Julia is not trying to undermine Aidan's marriage options at every turn. She takes her advisory position seriously and wants to see Aidan married to a woman who can appreciate him and whom he can appreciate, if not love. Julia is, herself, not interested in marriage again, let alone a romantic relationship with a man, and she already feels that prick of guilt for having Aidan named in her divorce case. Aidan on the other hand, is a man who takes his responsibilities seriously, who does not spurn the traditions of his rank and position, but that does not mean he is uptight or a prig. Once he is decided on a course – including the sober seduction of Julia — he is straightforward about it and honest with himself. And as in Wedding of the Season, the obstacle here to Aidan and Julia's everlasting happiness is a basic conflict between what each wants and believes they need. Julia is matrimony-averse, and Aidan is matrimony-intent. While we can see the opposites attract logic of their mutual passion, each is stubborn in their position and understandable in their logic:

"Aidan, you can't possibly want to marry me."

"Why not?"

She sat up. "I'm a scandal, that's why."

"So am I." . . .

She took a deep breath, and resumed the conversation. "You are only a scandal because of me. Besides, being considered a scandal is different for a man."

"In the eyes of society, perhaps. Not in my eyes. And I don't care what society thinks anyway."

"That's loved blind eye talking, darling. You've always cared what society things."

"I care about you more. I love you."   . . .

"I'm divorced, Aidan. My reputation might – only might – be salvageable. And it might not. If not, you'd still be stuck with me."

"Are you saying I would be ashamed of you?," he asked, buttoning his trousers. "I wouldn't, I shouldn't, and I'm not. I won't ever be."

She could see from the level stare he gave her and the grave earnestness in his voice that he meant that, too. But though he might mean it now, would he still mean it five years from now, if society still threw his choice of duchess in his teeth? Ten years from now, if their son was not accepted into Eton because of her? Twenty years from now, if their daughter wanted to marry a man who rejected her because of her mother? Would Aidan still feel as he did now? Julia didn't know. She didn't want to find out.

For me, the pleasure of this book was in Julia in Aidan, in watching them spar with themselves and their feelings for each other. I love that she calls him Petal, and I love that he can tease her right back, sometimes so subtly she's not sure he's doing it. The prose is serviceable, if not lush, and the clichés I've noticed in other books are evident but did not feel as intrusive to me in either this book or the last (perhaps because I enjoyed both more than the previous series?). There were sections where I felt I was reading details repeated and not yet edited out, a few unintentionally funny lines (e.g. “It was déjà vu all over again” — if this was meant to anticipate Yogi Berra’s quote, it was blatantly anachronistic), and some grammatical roughness, all of which I chalked up to the ARC format and hope were fixed before final publication.

Further, there are several substantial sections of flashback, which felt somewhat overweening, even though they all delivered some important information about Aidan and Julia’s relationship and/or each character individually. What I found interesting about this was that for all of this backstory, I feel that some of the most valuable context for this story was what I gleaned from Wedding of the Season, not from the extensive flashbacks in Scandal of the Year. I am curious to see if readers who are not familiar with the first book when they read this one will have the same take on Julia and Aidan as readers who are.

Ultimately, had the pacing here matched the promise of the two characters, it would have raised the book to another level. Unfortunately, what was another interesting, largely internal, conflict got solved almost magically, undermining the structural integrity of the characterizations and cheapening the ultimate resolution. So, while I actually enjoyed Julia and Aidan's story a bit more than I did Beatrix and Will's, the grade for Scandal of the Year remains the same: B-

~ Janet

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