JOINT REVIEW: An Infamous Marriage by Susanna Fraser
Dear Ms. Fraser:
Jennie: I requested your book from NetGalley more or less on a whim; the blurb described a couple who hastily engaged in a marriage of convenience finally coming together after having been separated by the hero’s military service, and the obstacles they face. I’ve recently read and enjoyed several similar stories, so I thought I’d give An Infamous Marriage a try.
Sunita: I had committed to reading this, and when I saw that Jennie was going to review it I thought a joint review would be fun.
Jennie: Jack Armstrong is on a brief leave home from service in Canada, visiting his mother, who suffers from dementia, in his home village of Selyhaugh. He stops in to see his good friend, the Reverend Giles Hamilton, and to meet the new wife Giles has been singing the praises of in letters. Jack finds Giles deathly ill with the chicken pox, and his wife understandably distraught. Giles, knowing that he is dying, extracts a promise from Jack and Elizabeth to wed after he passes; he knows Elizabeth is alone in the world and fear what will happen to her without Jack’s protection and name.
Neither is keen on the idea – Jack has no interest in marrying a woman he doesn’t even know, and further, Elizabeth does not impress him much. He finds it hard to believe that this pale, plain little woman is the beauty Giles raved about in his letters. Elizabeth, naturally, is even less enamored of the idea – she loves her husband, is full of grief for his impending death, and can’t imagine marrying again before his body is even cold (and the marriage needs to be immediate, since Jack has to return to his regiment in Canada).
Nevertheless, after Giles dies, both agree to honor their promise. Jack will get something out of it – a caretaker for his beloved mother (this didn’t make too much sense, since the family is wealthy enough to have servants and the mother already has a devoted nurse, but I guess Jack knows that Elizabeth is trustworthy and there’s something to be said for not leaving something so important to paid help). Elizabeth, who was orphaned as a teenager (her father was involved in an embezzlement scandal and committed suicide; her mother died shortly after) and had only her cold, hard uncle as kin after that, has the security that Giles wanted her to have. And honestly, though the set-up could seem high-concept, my understanding of the time and place leads me to believe that Elizabeth’s options were limited and her situation dire after her husband’s death.
So, Jack and Elizabeth marry. They spend one chaste night under the same roof, and then he returns to the wilds of Canada. Elizabeth settles into life in Selyhaugh pretty well, getting over some initial judgment from those who found her second marriage to be unseemly in its haste, and developing a good relationship with Jack’s mother and the workers on the family farm. Meanwhile, Jack and Elizabeth have fallen into a regular and lively correspondence, and developed something of a friendship.
This friendship is interrupted when a local matron with a dislike for Jack’s family takes it upon herself to pass on gossip she’s heard about Jack’s extramarital exploits in Canada. In what seems like an unlikely coincidence, the matron just happens to have a cousin in Canada who lives in the same area where Jack is stationed, and that cousin just happens to feel the need to write her about Jack’s supposedly scandalous behavior. Elizabeth, humiliated and angry, abruptly withdraws from Selyhaugh society, and her letters to Jack turn cold and terse.
Sunita: I really liked this first part of the book. The setup was believable and the way the characters related to each other (or didn’t) was well portrayed. I enjoyed the way Elizabeth grew close to Jack’s mother and established her place in local society. I agree the letter relied on coincidence, but I was so happy to see Canada used as a setting (and authentically, too) that I forgave it, and the idea of a gossipy letter letting the cat out of the bag worked for me.
Jennie: While I will admit to being drawn to infidelity stories – well done, they can be very emotional and angsty, which I love – in this case, the drama over the infidelity never made a lot of sense. Elizabeth states that she hadn’t expected Jack to be faithful during his time in Canada – after all, their union was an unconsummated marriage of convenience, one that Jack was pretty much strong-armed into. But she’s angry because she feels like he should have been more discreet. Jack, for his part, didn’t really think his screwing around would make news so far away, and I don’t think he’s entirely unreasonable there. Furthermore, it’s unclear really how scandalous his behavior actually was – there were only a few women, actually (and in the one case that was really somewhat unseemly, it turns out Jack was more or less innocent of the wrongdoing he was suspected of). Elizabeth’s reaction thus seems out of proportion and really sort of unfair.
Though I wasn’t entirely in sympathy with Jack – one of the problems I had was that he felt somewhat inconsistently characterized for the first half of the book. The younger Jack who meets and marries Elizabeth out of duty seems rather stoic and honorable – perhaps even a bit uptight. Jack’s behavior in Canada, as explained by him later to Elizabeth, seems to be mostly driven by insecurity and immaturity, neither of which we really saw in him earlier. He apparently matured late physically and even when he went into the army was undersized and acne-prone. Supposedly even years after he had filled out and become attractive to the opposite sex, he was insecure enough that he wanted to flaunt his conquests a bit in a place where he felt safe to do so.
Which is okay, I guess, but again, it would’ve worked better if the groundwork had been laid earlier, so that he didn’t seem like so much an entirely different person. He changes again when he decides that he wants a real marriage, and the ultimate effect is that Jack feels like kind of a shallow character, thinking and behaving as the plot requires at any given time.
There were elements of the book that I struggled over because though they were realistic, they made me like the characters less. With Elizabeth, it’s her determination not to “give in” to Jack too easily; essentially, she wants to make him suffer for his behavior (she is also motivated by the fear that if she folds quickly this time, it will set a pattern for their marriage that won’t be to her advantage). Again, this is realistic but somehow the way it was written did not make me sympathetic to Elizabeth; she comes off as immature herself, and calculating. Okay, maybe “calculating” is a little harsh, but I was willing to be on Elizabeth’s side here; somehow her response lessened the impact of Jack’s wrongs against her and drained some of the tension out of the conflict. I didn’t get the feeling she was *really* hurt by the infidelity, and if that was the case I thought she should have a more mature and reasonable response to the situation.
Sunita: The middle part of the book was a real letdown for me after the strength of the first part. I agree that Jack’s characterization seemed inconsistent; he was honorable, but he had no sense of how his activities as a married man could affect his wife. He was angry at being married, but then he sees Elizabeth and suddenly changes his mind.
The other problem I had was that Elizabeth’s turnaround happened so quickly. She’s been nursing her anger for years, but it only takes Jack three or four days to break down her barriers? And then suddenly they’re building a life together? That was too quick a switch, and I think ending this area of conflict between them hurt the book in the end. Halfway through, they’re quite happy with each other, but the reader knows there are many pages left to go.
Jennie: Yeah, Elizabeth seemed to mostly be holding out for form’s sake, which wasn’t very satisfying, and it was clear that some other conflict was going to have to crop up to justify the length of the book.
Jack lost me a lot (not that I was overfond of him to begin with) with his continued enthusiasm, throughout the book (almost to the end) for war and fighting. He makes it clear early on that he’s not happy to be going back to Selyhaugh, and would rather stay with the army and engage in conflict – any conflict. Lip service is given to the need of men to test themselves in battle, and this has the ring of realism (even if I don’t personally understand it), but again it’s written in such a way that Jack is less sympathetic than he ought to be (or at least could be, in my eyes). A good job is done of showing him to be someone who feels constrained by village life and not terribly interested in the workings of his modest family estate. That’s fine. But rather than conveying that Jack feels at loose ends with no wars to fight, or that he is uncertain of his place in the world, the sense that I got was that he was an overgrown child who didn’t really understand the horrors of war.
Sunita: This part worked better for me than it did for you. I saw Jack as a career soldier who was happy in his chosen profession. The itch to get back into battle is one that other authors have explored, especially during this specific period (1814-15), so I accepted it. But I had trouble with the switch from the initial conflict between them, which was internal to the relationship, to the external conflict over Jack’s rejoining the army. I understand why the switch happened from the point of view of the plot, but it didn’t feel smoothly done.
Jennie: I guess I’m more used to romances (maybe because they are written largely by women?) emphasizing the awfulness of war rather than the gung-ho attitude Jack displayed. It would have bothered me less, I think, if Jack was more strongly characterized from the start.
One other minor complaint: there’s a conflict late in the book that I could see coming a mile away. While I know of the famous dictum about a gun introduced in the first act going off in the third, still I’m not sure it’s necessary to have a character muse so many times: “Gee, I told this big lie to my beloved but luckily it can’t come back to bite me, nosiree bob.” You might as well put giant blinking neon lights around the statement.
Sunita: Yes! I thought this was so unnecessary, and it actually made me angry. On thinking back over the book, the only reason I can see for having it there was as homage to the Heyer book that is recalled in the title. They are going to undergo enough trauma in the pages to follow without this conflict. Why not just let that provide the necessary angst? I also really didn’t like the letter. It may be historically accurate that men in his position wrote letters of that length and fervor (I don’t know), but it didn’t feel organic to those scenes.
I did appreciate the depiction of Brussels and the battle (although just once, I would like to read about characters who do NOT attend the Duchess of Richmond’s ball). If you’ve read a lot of books that feature the period, the scenes and set pieces will be familiar, but Fraser manages to put her own spin on them, which is no mean feat.
Jennie:I liked the Brussels setting as well; for some reason I have an affinity for romances that include Brussels on the eve of battle, maybe because I’ve read at least a few good ones. Though you’re right about the ball; I hadn’t thought of it but that must have been a very crowded ball, with all of those fictional characters in attendance!
Okay, I know, bitch, bitch, bitch. In spite of my complaints, the characters are still relatively pleasant, the writing is competent, and the book is readable enough. It just didn’t go much beyond that for me, which is why my grade is a straight C.
Sunita: I can’t disagree with your complaints, but I really liked the first third of the book and I am so happy these days to read about relatively adult people engaging (mostly) in relatively adult behavior, that I was grateful for that. And Canada! Please, authors, more Canada. My grade is a B-.
Jennie and Sunita