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REVIEW: A Counterfeit Betrothal by Mary Balogh

Dear Ms. Balogh,

I’ve long been a fan of your traditional regencies from the 1990s and when one I hadn’t read before was recently reissued in a 2-in-1 edition with your classic The Notorious Rake, I purchased it. A Counterfeit Betrothal contains two romances each of which affects the other.

A-Counterfeit-Betrothal-The-Notorious-RakeOlivia and Marcus married nineteen years ago, when she was seventeen and he twenty-one. It was a love match, and they were joyous when their daughter was born. A few years passed with no more children, but they remained very much in love, until little Sophia’s illness prevented Olivia from attending the wedding of Marcus’ good friend.

At Olivia’s insistence, Marcus went without her, but at a party before the wedding, he and his friends from his university days got drunk. Marcus’ friends mocked his stodginess as a married man and dared him to go to “a tavern of low repute” with them. In his drunkenness, Marcus slept with a girl he didn’t know.

Afterward, Marcus’ conscience made it hard for him to spend time with his wife and to make love to her. Olivia kept asking him what was wrong, and finally, Marcus confessed all. A horrified Olivia could not forgive her husband, and so, after five years of marriage, they separated and spent the next fifteen years apart.

Marcus and Olivia’s daughter Sophia is now eighteen and at the prodding of her friends, she decides to enter into a counterfeit betrothal with Francis, the youngest son of a duke and duchess who were close friends to her parents. Francis used to tease Sophia and play pranks on her when they were children, but he’s willing to go along with the scheme that may just reunite Sophia’s parents.

At first Marcus and Olivia both want to prevent their daughter from marrying at such a young age. Their own youthful marriage failed, and Francis has a rakish reputation. To this end, Olivia travels to Clifton Court and she and her estranged husband join forces.

The years have been kind to Olivia and Marcus, and each still finds the other attractive—perhaps even more attractive than in the past. They treat each other with courtesy and honor, and when Sophia tells them how happy she is to have them both at the same place at the same time, they resolve to spend more time together to ensure her continued happiness.

Rumors of Marcus’ affair with Mary Gregg, Lady Mornington, have reached Olivia’s ears, and she believes Marcus to be an insatiable philanderer. In reality, Mary is only a friend to Marcus, but he has in fact had a few encounters with prostitutes, in addition to keeping a mistress in the year immediately following his separation from Olivia.

None of these encounters satisfy Marcus. He has never forgotten his love for Olivia or his guilt for hurting her badly. And so, one day, when he finds her in the walled and hidden garden that used to be their special meeting place, one thing leads to another.

Marcus finds Olivia more responsive than she’s ever been in the past and assumes the worst—that another lover, most likely her friend Sir Clarence, has taught her a greater degree of passion than he himself ever had. In reality, Olivia has remained faithful to Marcus for all the years of their separation.

Jealousy still rears its ugly head, and Marcus, in his anger, treats Olivia coldly after their encounter. Olivia wishes she could just go back to her peaceful home, but for Sophia’s sake, she remains at Clifton Court and tries to pretend that she and Marcus aren’t lashing out at each other.

Meanwhile, Sophia and Francis put on their charade, which Francis insists requires kisses, and kisses that involve tongue at that. As Sophia’s parents grant their consent to the marriage and wedding preparations begin, Francis begins to worry that he’ll be trapped into marriage. Sophia reassures him that she would rather marry a snake, an eel, or a rat, and in the next breath, talks about how to get her parents to come visit them together after the marriage takes place.

Will Francis and Sophia indeed be trapped? And will Olivia and Marcus resolve their differences and make Sophia’s counterfeit betrothal scheme worthwhile?

I had mixed feelings about A Counterfeit Betrothal because I liked the Francis/Sophia subplot much better than Olivia/Marcus main romance. I didn’t feel sufficient motive was given for Marcus’ initial infidelity. If he and Olivia were so blissfully happy (they both insisted this was the case in their thoughts) then why did he allow himself to be tempted into such a betrayal?

There are some lovely moments early on in the Olivia/Marcus part of the plot, including their first meeting at the secret garden and the caring way Marcus initially treats Olivia. But the misunderstandings between them drag on, and on, and on, to a point where I didn’t feel at all sure of their happy ending.

The other thing that really ticked me off about Marcus and Olivia’s reunion romance was the double standard. Marcus slept with the tavern girl while living with Olivia, and for all his guilt, during their estrangement he had a mistress for a year (he actually thinks about how he’s used the lovemaking techniques he learned from her to make love to Olivia), and then a handful of encounters with prostitutes, so by my count he has had several partners other than Olivia in the course of their marriage.

Olivia, meanwhile, has only slept with Marcus and has otherwise been entirely chaste. Her friendship with Clarence isn’t even as much as a flirtation for reasons revealed in the hidden spoiler.

Spoiler: Show

Clarence is gay. (I didn’t love the treatment of Clarence’s sexual orientation because Olivia initially recoils to learn of it and Clarence stays completely chaste too—maybe I’m reading too much into this but it seemed to me that there was an implicit criticism of same-sex relationships here.)

And yet, despite the fact that Marcus’ infidelities are very real and Olivia’s only perceived, the amount of anger each holds toward the other is at least equal. I would even say that Marcus expresses his anger to a greater degree. And when they finally get back together, Olivia shoulders a lot of blame for having been so unforgiving in the past and not allowing Marcus to be “human.”

This last angered me too because Olivia would not have had a forgiveness problem had Marcus not felt the need to cheat and unburden his conscience to her.

What I enjoyed most in this book was the secondary romance with Sophia and Francis. This was clearly written for comic relief and managed to be pretty funny at times, especially when the two banter and bicker in ways that clearly reveal their attraction.

At times the Francis and Sophia relationship feels like a cat and mouse game but because we don’t delve much into their heads, it’s hard to know which of them is the mouse and which is the cat. The transition from fake betrothal to real love was romantic and sweet.

Though Francis and Sophia are many years younger than Olivia and Marcus, their love feels more mature and long lasting to me. Unfortunately that was not enough to overcome my feelings about Marcus. C-

Sincerely,

Janine

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Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character driven novels in historical romance, fantasy, YA, and the occasional outlier genre. Recent examples include novels by Katherine Addison, Meljean Brook, Kristin Cashore, Cecilia Grant, Rachel Hartman, Ann Leckie, Jeannie Lin, Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, Miranda Neville, and Nalini Singh. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, “Kiss of Life,” appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.

20 Comments

  1. Susan
    Aug 27, 2014 @ 11:54:24

    I totally agree with your review. I thought this book would be a sure thing when I started it, but quickly became frustrated with both the Olivia/Marcus and Sophia/Francis relationships, particularly the former. I set the book aside about three-quarters in, intending to try to finish it someday, but I’m not sure I’ll make the effort now.

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  2. Janine
    Aug 27, 2014 @ 12:25:36

    @Susan: Thanks. The beginning was so lovely that I thought this might be a good one. The Sophia/Francis relationship improves a lot toward the end, actually. Since you already have the book, it might be worth picking up again just to read about them. But Olivia/Marcus– I was left with the impression that they can’t resolve their differences enough to find their way out of a paper bag.

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  3. Jayne
    Aug 27, 2014 @ 13:07:35

    Sigh. This is another author I used to gobble up but whom I haven’t read lately – either her new books or older reissues. This one certainly won’t tempt me back into the Balogh fold.

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  4. Janine
    Aug 27, 2014 @ 13:13:40

    @Jayne: Some of the older ones still hold up, but I haven’t read the new books in a long while either. I wouldn’t start with this one, at all, but I hope some of her great ones like Indiscreet, Snow Angel, and A Chance Encounter get reissued eventually.

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  5. azteclady
    Aug 27, 2014 @ 13:30:34

    I don’t believe I have this book in the humongous TBR mountain, which is good, because there’s no point in even starting something that’s going to make you angry (I read the spoiler, by the by, but even without it, the fact that Olivia is blamed–both by Marcus and the text–for being angry over the cheating, would make me see red).

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  6. Janine
    Aug 27, 2014 @ 13:36:39

    @azteclady: To clarify, Marcus doesn’t exactly blame Olivia for being angry over his infidelity, but he does (especially once he jumps to the conclusion she and Clarence are an item) resent her anger over it, as well as blame her for the affair he thinks she’s having with Clarence. The latter struck me as hypocritical. Olivia is the one who most blames herself for not allowing Marcus to be “human.” But she is still blaming herself for it very late in the book, so it seemed like it could be something the reader is meant to take away from the text.

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  7. Kate Pearce
    Aug 27, 2014 @ 17:01:22

    I really enjoyed this book because I think Mary Balogh is one of the few writers who actually writes romances about real, messy, fallible people of that time who act as men and women would’ve then rather than as ‘us modern folk’ would. I always like that ‘grit’ in her books. But I might be in a minority. :)
    The fact that her couples end up together always makes me believe in the power of love to overlook a partner’s real and sometimes significant failings.

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  8. Janine
    Aug 27, 2014 @ 17:46:40

    @Kate Pearce: I like the gritty, dark elements in her books a lot too and often respond similarly to what you describe, but this one didn’t make me believe in the relationship at all.

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  9. Susan/DC
    Aug 27, 2014 @ 17:55:20

    I only think this one is worth reading because it is a prequel of sorts to “The Notorious Rake”, which is one of my favorite Balogh’s. The heroine is Mary, Lady Mornington, and the hero is the semi-villain of “The Trysting Place”. TNR upends a number of trad Regency tropes, and even within the shorter trad length it presents fully realized characters and a believable romance.

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  10. Ducky
    Aug 27, 2014 @ 18:04:11

    I have this Balogh romance and I did enjoy it and I am someone who usually stays away from stories that have infidelity as a subject.

    I thought the young couple was very charming and I was rooting for the main couple to work out their problems and get back together. Context and circumstances matter to me a lot when it comes to infidelity. He was so young and naive and got drunk and gave in to peer pressure. I am not condoning his cheating but I did feel bad for him and for them both because of all those wasted years. It was clear they still very much loved each other so I was glad for them at the end.

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  11. tina
    Aug 27, 2014 @ 20:00:35

    I read this book during a power glom of old MB books a few years ago. I very much enjoyed this one because it was unexpected. I had thought Sophia and Francis were going to be the main couple and it was going to be very light, was much more happy that it was Marcus and Olivia instead.

    I found Marcus and Olivia rather fascinating. In some ways I found this book a bit subversive because of course in romance the idea is that we want to see the couple fall in love as that is the ultimate goal. But what Balogh did here with Marcus and Olivia (as their younger selves) is that she presented us with the couple who met that ideal — they were IN LOVE. But told us it simply wasn’t enough.

    I felt their younger selves had put each on these pedestals, they were rather smug in the perfection of their relationship too. But when the time came when there was actual adversity in their relationship they were ill equipped to handle it. They knew how to be blissfully in love, but they did not know how to be married.

    I also think their biggest issue wasn’t the infidelity, per se, but rather their inability to communicate. All of the accusations, counter-accusation & butt-hurt feelings was nothing but smoke & mirrors to the fact they did not know how to talk to each other, which is what doomed their marriage in the first place and threatening to doom them again.

    For the most part I think Balogh’s early stuff is very smartly written and , like Joan Wolf, she manages to infuse her stories with a weight and grit you don’t often see in historicals anymore. And, again like Joan Wolf, she packs a lot of story into a rather smallish word count.

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  12. cleo
    Aug 27, 2014 @ 20:18:49

    @Tina – “They knew how to be blissfully in love, but they did not know how to be married.”

    What a good way of putting it. I haven’t read this book, but I recognize that situation.

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  13. Ducky
    Aug 27, 2014 @ 21:33:50

    @tina:

    Oh, yes, tina, you put it so eloquently. While I was reading I kept thinking if they would just talk to each other…

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  14. Keishon
    Aug 27, 2014 @ 23:34:19

    I know this has nothing to do with your review Janine but….I loved The Notorious Rake. It is up there in my top ten. I used to read her a lot as well and loved Heartless, Thief, Indiscreet, Snow Angel, etc. Lately? Nah. I do read mysteries these days but I quit reading her long before that.

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  15. Janine
    Aug 28, 2014 @ 01:09:24

    @Susan/DC: Yes, but Mary barely appears in A Counterfeit Betrothal; other than in one brief scene we just have references to her. For the most part, she remains off page.

    @Ducky:

    Context and circumstances matter to me a lot when it comes to infidelity. He was so young and naive and got drunk and gave in to peer pressure. I am not condoning his cheating but I did feel bad for him and for them both because of all those wasted years.

    You know, I was feeling much the same way early on and I was very willing to forgive Marcus, but I wanted to see him earn that forgiveness. And instead I saw him get angry at Olivia for something she hadn’t even done, and treat her poorly and fail to communicate with her. It was not his behavior as a young man that I had trouble forgiving, but his actions fifteen years later, when he was forty years old and should have known better.

    @tina: I’m glad you and others here enjoyed the book more than I did. I do want to respond to this point:

    I also think their biggest issue wasn’t the infidelity, per se, but rather their inability to communicate. All of the accusations, counter-accusation & butt-hurt feelings was nothing but smoke & mirrors to the fact they did not know how to talk to each other, which is what doomed their marriage in the first place and threatening to doom them again.

    True (I agree with everyone else that you put that very well). But nothing in their behavior during their reunion convinced me that they’d learned to talk to each other. I closed the book feeling they would never communicate well.

    SPOILER
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    Buried Comment: Show

    Had they not been forced into one another’s company by Olivia’s giving birth at the end of the book, they would have gone their separate ways. It took her several months to tell Marcus she was pregnant, for goodness’ sake.

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    END OF SPOILER

    That was a very disappointing way for them to resolve things, I thought.

    @Keishon: Have you tried to reread any of those? Some still hold up for me, while others don’t.

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  16. Elizabeth Cole
    Aug 28, 2014 @ 12:35:16

    I’ll always give MB a try, because she’s so good at writing distinct characters with flaws (as others have mentioned). She’s also not afraid to add some really DARK elements to her stories, even the frothy, seemingly-standard regencies.

    Granted, I don’t tolerate double standards of sexual behavior well, even if it’s historically accurate. But still…

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  17. Ducky
    Aug 28, 2014 @ 16:27:12

    @Janine:
    Well, he confessed to her and begged for forgiveness and she had had him on such a pedestal that she categorically wouldn’t or couldn’t forgive him. And that meant the end of their young marriage. I think this may have been one of those instances where he should have kept his mouth shut and lived with the burden of his infidelity. The truth is not always better or kinder.

    Anyways, Balogh romances often make me think far more than the average historical romance. Don’t get me started on “A Precious Jewel” for example.

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  18. Janine
    Aug 28, 2014 @ 17:34:43

    @Elizabeth Cole & @Ducky:

    I’ll always give MB a try, because she’s so good at writing distinct characters with flaws (as others have mentioned). She’s also not afraid to add some really DARK elements to her stories, even the frothy, seemingly-standard regencies.

    And

    Balogh romances often make me think far more than the average historical romance.

    By my count I have read thirty-eight of her books, and these are definitely among the reasons why.

    @Ducky:

    I think this may have been one of those instances where he should have kept his mouth shut and lived with the burden of his infidelity. The truth is not always better or kinder.

    Yes. I couldn’t agree more. Had this been a long-term affair or a case of chronic unfaithfulness I would feel differently, but we’re talking about a one time infidelity that he desperately wished had never happened. I can’t think of any reason for confessing it other than to unburden his conscience at the expense of his wife’s feelings. This is also part of why I see Marcus as being far more at fault in the dissolution of their marriage than Olivia.

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  19. Keishon
    Aug 28, 2014 @ 21:08:02

    @Janine: Actually no, I’m afraid to do that. Reread favorites.

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  20. Janine
    Aug 28, 2014 @ 21:24:38

    @Keishon: I totally get that. Some of them have aged better than others. Although I reread The Temporary Wife recently and actually liked it better than I did the first time.

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