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REVIEW: Unforgivable by Joanna Chambers

Dear Ms. Chambers:

I picked up this book, the first I’ve read by you, because I was intrigued by the blurb. I’m fairly cautious about trying new writers, but marriage of convenience stories usually get my attention, and wronged heroine stories pique my interest even more.

Unforgivable by Joanna ChambersWhen Unforgivable opens, Rose Davenport is just recovering from a near-fatal illness. She is self-conscious, to say the least, about her looks, which have not recovered quite as well. But when she meets Gil Truman (a meeting engineered by their respective fathers) she is pleasantly surprised by how kind and warm he seems towards her. It makes Rose feel better about their arranged marriage, which her father has just told her about. What Rose doesn’t know is that Gil actually isn’t told about the marriage until after he meets her; he would’ve been considerably less welcoming if he had been. Not only does Gil have no interest in marrying this young (Rose is only seventeen), quiet and mousy-bordering-on-homely girl, but he is in fact in love with another woman. Unfortunately, he’s informed by his father that gambling debts, estates in danger of being lost, no choice, yada yada yada etc. etc. So it’s a very different Gil that Rose encounters when next they meet – at the altar.

After the wedding, Gil takes Rose to a remote estate and dumps her there, having consummated the marriage, but only just. He isn’t truly awful to her, but he is pretty cold, mourning his lost love and resenting the hell out of his father. Maybe it wouldn’t be so painful to read about if Rose weren’t so young and vulnerable (traits that Gil recognizes, and which make him feel guilty, but don’t really make him treat her any better). Rose is hurt by the realization of just how unwanted the marriage is, but by the time Gil leaves she’s recovered enough backbone to tell him that she hopes she never sees him again.

Five years go by, and Gil is living it up in London, philandering and carousing. Meanwhile, Rose has regained her looks, her health and her confidence, and impulsively decides to travel to London and confront her ne’er-do-well husband. Even more impulsively, upon discovering (from her father’s mistress, with whom Rose is friendly) that Gil will be at a masked ball the night she arrives in town, Rose allows herself to be convinced to attend the ball in disguise so she can check up on him while remaining incognito.

I think we all know where this is heading. And it’s familiar ground, really. The somewhat high-concept “hero cheats with his own wife at a masked ball” plotline has been used before, memorably by Mary Balogh, among others. In addition to that element being familiar, there are a number of other elements of the plot that remind me of many of the historical romances I’ve read in the past year – I’ve read a lot of MoC and estranged couple stories.

That said, familiarity isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In Unforgivable, the familiar is given new life. There’s nothing remarkable about the story or the characters – but it’s a good story, well-told in fine prose, and characters that are imbued with some depth; they can be sympathetic and exasperating in turns. Of the two, Gil is the character who could be seen as unsympathetic (and probably will be to some readers), but I felt for him as he tried to come to terms with giving up everything he wanted because he had to clean up his father’s mess. He doesn’t treat Rose as he should, but that makes his remorse and repentance very satisfying (the book is a bit old-school in that respect).

Rose is definitely more sinned against than sinning, but she’s not a martyr. It’s nice to see her grow from the sad, defeated girl she is early in the book. Like many an abandoned heroine, she comes into her own by managing her husband’s estate, and she does it well, gaining confidence as she matures and grows more competent. There was a point in the book where I felt that Rose was taking too much responsibility for the state of her marriage, and I was dismayed because I had a pretty good idea of where *I* thought the blame belonged, but she straightened up before too long.

I liked the flashes of humor in the book, as in the exchange of letters Rose has each year, first with Gil, and eventually with his secretary, inviting her husband to spend Christmas with her. Rose eventually becomes quite sardonic in the exchanges, while the secretary struggles to maintain some dignity though the reader suspects he’s mortified by his employer’s husbandly neglect:

21st December, 1812

Dear Mr. Andrews,

Thank you for your letter of 2nd December. I enclose, by way of a Christmas gift, a lambswool scarf. I beg that you will wear this to keep off draughts. It will not do for you to neglect your health. My letters to my husband must not go unanswered. In fulfillment of my wifely duties, I will send another invitation next year. You may wish to draft your reply now to save time.

Kind Regards

Rose Truman,
Countess of Stanhope

 

Overall, there is nothing very new and different in this book; it’s simply a familiar type of historical romance, done very well. My grade for Unforgivable is a B+.

 

Best regards,

Jennie

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has been an avid if often frustrated romance reader for the past 15 years. In that time she's read a lot of good romances, a few great ones, and, unfortunately, a whole lot of dreck. Many of her favorite authors (Ivory, Kinsale, Gaffney, Williamson, Ibbotson) have moved onto other genres or produce new books only rarely, so she's had to expand her horizons a bit. Newer authors she enjoys include Julie Ann Long, Megan Hart and J.R. Ward, and she eagerly anticipates each new Sookie Stackhouse novel. Strong prose and characterization go a long way with her, though if they are combined with an unusual plot or setting, all the better. When she's not reading romance she can usually be found reading historical non-fiction.

34 Comments

  1. Kati
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 12:06:58

    I must confess that I consider Chambers or Tumperkin, as I know her, to be an online acquaintance. But that in no way takes away from what I consider to be a lovely and talented writing voice. I’m looking forward to reading this one. Thank you, Jennie for a review that makes me want to drop everything and read.

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  2. Brie
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 12:14:23

    I think Ms. Chambers is good at taking familiar tropes and themes and infusing them with uniqueness and freshness. She did it with The Lady’s Secret and its cross-dressing heroine, and looks like she does the same here. Your review makes me even more eager to read the book.

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  3. Janine
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 12:16:52

    Sold! I love redemption stories and they’ve become a lot more rare than they used to be.

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  4. Isobel Carr
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 12:59:38

    I think for every reader who talks about wanting something different from historical, there is at least one (or more) who wants this:

    [A] familiar type of historical romance, done very well.

    I think they’re often just quieter about it, because they’re mostly getting what they want out of the genre.

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  5. Little Red
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 13:03:54

    Sounds promising.

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  6. Jill Sorenson
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 13:30:34

    Great review! I loved The Lady’s Secret and this one also. I followed Tumperkin’s blog for years & we’ve exchanged a few critiques. It’s nice to stay acquainted with a lovely voice from blogland through her fiction.

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  7. coribo25
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 14:33:44

    Sounds like a good book, but shame on Samhain for such a cheap and lazy cover.

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  8. MrsJoseph
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 14:41:12

    Sounds good!

    I tried to use a couple of the purchase buttons but they did not work for me. Specifically I tried the button for Kobo and ARE.

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  9. Janet W
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 14:50:59

    This is one of my very favourite tropes. It’s super hard to get, but this sounds a lot like The First Snowdrop by Mary Balogh — and I’ve worn that story out. It’s so great to read that there’s a new story in this vein — can’t wait!

    And me too, I know the author as Tumperkin — congratulations on New Release Day!

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  10. Lauren
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 14:53:08

    @coribo25: Funny! I thought, just by looking at the cover, that it would be a modern day romance, until her age, of only seventeen, was brought into it.

    I guess I need the ginormous jewel coloured dress, which has the back undone, to tell me right off the hop that it is a historical?

    I’ll be getting this book. My problem lately has been all of the smarmy love at first sight books. I’ll be trying this one out.

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  11. bam
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 15:00:26

    Tumperkin! I love her. Must read this.

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  12. Jennie
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 17:24:29

    @Brie: I was wary of The Lady’s Secret because of the cross-dressing (not a fan), but your comment has convinced me that it may be worth giving a chance to.

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  13. Jennie
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 17:33:32

    @Lauren: I’m not a fan of love at first sight at all. Thankfully there’s none of that here. I think Rose is attracted to Gil (initially) because he’s handsome and kind and she’s very young, but she gets over it when he doesn’t treat her so well. His initial kindness was good to see though because it reminded me that he wasn’t an irredeemable jerk.

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  14. Susan/DC
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 17:39:58

    Just out of curiousity, how old is Gil? I wonder because his actions are more forgiveable if he too is quite young (not necessarily 17, but even early 20s). Nonetheless, the book does sound interesting. I like the snippet of Rose’s letter to Gil’s secretary.

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  15. Jennie
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 23:06:13

    @Susan/DC: He’s 22, I think. He reads as pretty young, early in the book.

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  16. Cara
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 23:40:35

    I can’t seem to find this book on any of my normal buy-sites: ARe, B&N, or Books On Board. Help?

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  17. HJ
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 02:25:04

    Another one-time follower of Tumperkin here (she introduced me to some good books). I loved The Lady’s Secret – cross-dressing is a favourite trope – and I loved this one, too. I didn’t think of it in terms of a familiar plot at all because JC’s writing was so good that the characters became very real to me, as did their motivations. I felt that the conversation between Rose’s father and Gil near the end of the book was quite key, because it explained Rose’s self-control (as well as the other, more spoilerish, reason). I agree with Susan/DC that Gil’s age is relevant to the extent to which we are able to sympathise with him; he was only 22 when they married.

    I thoroughly recommend this book.

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  18. Review: Unforgivable by Joanna Chambers | Smexy Books
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 07:37:40

    [...] Reviews: Dear Author – B+ [...]

  19. cbackson
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 09:32:04

    Oh man, I am a huge fan of the marriage-of-convenience plot. Any other recommendations in this vein?

    (For my money, the killer app of marriage of convenience stories is Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, but that’s not precisely a quick, escapist read.)

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  20. LG
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 10:07:12

    @Cara: It’s still a new release at Samhain, so it might be available at ARe in a week or so. At least, I’ve noticed delays when it comes to Samhain new releases. Or, you could get a Samhain account and get the 30% off new releases price – that should be good until next week Tuesday.

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  21. Shelley
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 12:36:36

    This looks very promising. Thanks for the great review!

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  22. willaful
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 14:01:05

    Check the spelling. I pre-ordered this at Books on Board, so it should be there!

    I’m afraid I have to disagree with the general praise. I found this book familiar too, and to me it suffered in comparison with the books it reminded me of. (Unforgiven by Mary Balogh particularly comes to mind, as does Ravishing the Heiress by Sherry Thomas and An Infamous Marriage by Susanna Fraser. I like Tumperkin very much and loved The Lady’s Secret, so I feel lousy about not loving this book too. I did find it very compelling and emotionally involving, but also frustrating and unsatisfying. It’s an old skool book without enough of an old skool payoff.

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  23. willaful
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 14:18:13

    Well damn — although Unforgivable is right there on my Books on Board bookshelf, it certainly does not seem to be available in the store, under title or author. Very weird.

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  24. Jennie
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 16:50:12

    @HJ: Yes, I like the way Rose’s father was portrayed, and his relationship to both Rose and Gil. It was more realistic and nuanced than the typical romance father who marries his daughter off for essentially selfish reasons.

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  25. Jennie
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 16:56:34

    @cbackson: Have you read Sherry Thomas’ Ravishing the Heiress? (Jane reviewed it here: http://dearauthor.com/book-reviews/overall-a-reviews/a-minus-reviews/review-ravishing-the-heiress-by-sherry-thomas/) It’s not a perfect read (for me anyway) but it is incredibly emotionally involving.

    I love Lymond! Though it takes SO long to get to the HEA, and then it’s so few pages…but it’s probably one of the most satisfying endings in fiction for me.

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  26. Jennie
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 17:09:45

    @willaful: Hmm, interesting. I actually read and reviewed An Infamous Marriage recently and didn’t like it nearly as much as Unforgivable. Oh, well, different strokes, etc.

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  27. Nikki H
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 20:02:02

    This sounds exactly like what I need to rekindle my love of historical romance.

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  28. willaful
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 20:25:49

    The Fraser book had a much stronger sense of time and place, and it spent more time on developing a relationship between the characters, whereas in Unforgiven, they’re at odds for most of the book. That makes for a very intense read, of course. Indeed, different strokes.

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  29. Lenice
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 20:30:19

    Just finished this book last night.

    It was very readable and I have to agree with the highlights you mention in the review, with one exception. Rose had these lovely moments in the early parts of the book where she demonstrated agency (the night she knocks on Gils door during their honeymoon, and as you say the way she goes about living her life in the intervening 5years, and ultimately her choice to seek out Gil in London). But for me there was something very unsatisfying about Rose’s choices as the book progresses – much more passive and long sufering. In particular her love for Gil was hard for me to accept given I didn’t really feel as though I was shown many ways in which he behaved that were particularly admirable, respectful or loveable from Rose’s point of view (she seems to call up an idea of a man she imagines he might be from her first meeting with him at 17 combined with the tiny crumbs of good behaviour he occasionally displays ). She does seek to challenge him eventually on his boorish behaviour but it felt for me that his response was not what it should be and not enough for me to understand why she would feel as though she loved him. It’s defiantly outside the realm of a historical romance (except maybe ina CourtneyMilan novel) but I personally would have loved to have seen her get her HEA with Wil Anderson . That choice would feel like a continuing growth toward looking after herself, plus he sounded very attractive: all that simmering sexual tension and the obstacle of class to be overcome! That’s a dramatic conflict I’d enjoy reading :)

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  30. Moriah Jovan
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 21:07:00

    I’m hesitant to post, but the book’s kind of gnawing at me, and the more I think about it, the madder I get.

    Rose is definitely more sinned against than sinning, but she’s not a martyr. It’s nice to see her grow from the sad, defeated girl she is early in the book.

    I didn’t find this to be true. She’s a martyr all the way through the book. At first, it’s natural; she’s 17, sick, and thinks that a handsome boy-man talking to her for 20 minutes as if she means something is true love. Then she gets a clue and stops trying. Five years later, she’s headed to London to confront him and does this masquerade thingie and goes back home. Then she turns into a martyr all over again, always accommodating his bad behavior, telling herself she loves him for…what, precisely?

    If this were a gothic and we were not treated to his POV, the whole thing would’ve worked, but since we do see his POV, we see that he’s just kind of clueless (I’ll say it: stupid), even AFTER his enlightenment.

    She is defeated at almost every turn all the way through the book. It’s okay if you’re racking up his sins, but the grovel should be commensurate with the agony–and it’s not.

    Like many an abandoned heroine, she comes into her own by managing her husband’s estate, and she does it well, gaining confidence as she matures and grows more competent.

    And here is one big problem in the book: The major things that change them both–their separately lived lives, the choices they make, the things they learn throughout the five years they’re apart–are all completely missing.

    One day she’s 17, and 20 pages later she’s a powerful chatelaine who acquired all this knowledge and grace on her own. How did that happen? How did she learn this? Until the end of the book, I simply didn’t believe this because it was never shown.

    Between each section was a huge gap of time during which they CHANGED, but that was never shown. We’re just told “they changed.” There was a real pacing disconnect here that jolted me around.

    Of the two, Gil is the character who could be seen as unsympathetic (and probably will be to some readers), but I felt for him as he tried to come to terms with giving up everything he wanted because he had to clean up his father’s mess.

    Gil was 22 and pissy when he was forced to get married. Don’t blame him a bit. But by the time he’s 27, he’s regressed to acting like an 18-year-old who got the car keys taken away from him. He’s throwing a perpetual temper tantrum and it got really old really quick, particularly when he was sulking after his masked woman left. He never gave Rose a thought, acted like he wasn’t married, and couldn’t remember what she looked like, but late in the book we’re told he read all her letters. This is something we should have seen as it happened, not told after the fact because all his thinking about Rose happened some time between sections.

    Which brings me to the point of love.

    She has no reason to love him. Ever. He’s never given her a reason. Not once. Not even at the very end. Even his microscopic kindnesses are thoughtless and his major sins are kind of hand-waved away by both of them.

    She “falls in love” with him when she’s 17 and he’s nice to her for 20 minutes. Then she “falls in love” with him when he’s kissing her during the masquerade. To add insult to injury, after five years of sticking his prick in anything that moves (and yes, she has to face his former paramours–alone), he thinks that this masked woman he doesn’t recognize is The One True Love For Him. Why? They sleep together–but he’s not sleeping with HER, his wife. She leaves in the morning. He’s heartbroken.

    I can see why, during his awakening/enlightenment, he would see what there is to love about her, but she LOVES him (not just “in love with” him) because she caught a crush when she was 17 and he gave her good sex one night when he thought she was another woman and he gave her good sex at night when in the day he was an asshat to her. Such lovable qualities in a man.

    The good parts: It was very readable. The prose was lovely. The descriptions were excellent. And I’m still going to read the author’s other book because I like the cross-dressing heroine trope.

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  31. Jennie
    Jan 17, 2013 @ 00:45:21

    @Lenice:I could forgive Rose’s sort of martyrish behavior in the middle of the book because she did eventually tell both Gil and her father off for the wrongs they’d done to her. That was good enough for me.

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  32. Janine
    Jan 17, 2013 @ 11:27:25

    I finished Unforgivable late last night. I’d give it a C+. The plus is due to its readability — it kept me up late reading and I read it almost in one sitting (with a break for eating). That doesn’t happen to me very often. The book was entertaining and angsty, both of which I enjoy. It reminded of Mary Jo Putney’s Dearly Beloved (sans rape, incest, and epilepsy), a book I used to love 20+ years ago and still feel some fondness for as a result.

    However, I have to agree with Willaful that Unforgivable didn’t bring much new to the table. It read like an old skool romance in that Gil was an ass for much of the book. I was looking forward to the redemptive aspect but I didn’t really see him redeem himself. His behavior after five years had passed was actually worse than his transgressions against Rose at 22, because he no longer had a good enough excuse by then.

    I also agree with Moriah that there wasn’t really a good reason for Rose to be in love with Gil — other than the fact that she was trapped in a marriage to him and short of his death, he was her only avenue to a HEA. Will Anderson was kinder and more honorable to her, and when SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER Rose wrote to Gil to tell him she was pregnant, I actually found myself idly wishing it really was another man’s child as Gil suspected. That was no less than he deserved, and it could have been an interesting wake up call for him to man up and be a real husband to Rose. Not that most romances would go there.

    I’ll even go further and say that although I liked Rose much, much better than Gil, I also didn’t see a good reason for Gil to fall in love with Rose. That is, I could imagine a story in which he got a chance to see her inner strength, warmth and kindness and then fell in love with her, but this wasn’t that story. They meet again and she’s a beautiful stranger and boom, he’s in love. Before he knows a thing about her but what she looks like and what she’s like in bed.

    He falls in love with her for the same reason she loves him — because the plot requires it. And the actual falling in love part, which is often the most pleasurable part of a romance, is skipped over in favor of a lot of dumbass moves by Gil and to a lesser extent by Rose. This does entertain and provide a lot of angst (I shed more than one tear) but ultimately it comes at the expense of a rock solid HEA. I do believe that Gil’s regret is sincere in the end, but even then, he has to figure out what to do to make Rose happy with someone else’s help. I have no confidence that he’ll master that skill on his own.

    I would read this author again because despite all the above, this was an enjoyable reading experience. But writing this, I think I’ve talked myself into a slightly lower grade of C/C+.

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  33. GrowlyCub
    Jan 17, 2013 @ 22:38:37

    @Jennie: and Willaful

    I find if interesting that you both brought up the Thomas as I did as well in my review. By contrast, I found this one much better on the grovel/payoff scale than the Thomas which was an utter, upsetting disappointment for me.

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  34. willaful
    Jan 18, 2013 @ 13:50:45

    @GrowlyCub: I can totally see that POV. For me, what worked so well in Ravishing the Heiress was the devlopement of their relationship, their importance to each other, over time.

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