Dear Ms. Kramer:
Before Loving Lady Marcia, I had not read any of your books. However, when news of the book’s title hit online, it raised a lot of eyebrows, including mine, especially when your publisher disavowed any substantive relationship between the book and the “Brady Bunch” series. I fully admit that curiosity drew me to the book: would it be satire, homage, fan fiction, parody? The idea of a Regency spoof was quite appealing to me, especially if it used the wallpaper historical/mistorical in a clever, satirical way. Alas, despite the numerous references to the Brady Bunch, Loving Lady Marcia did not read clearly to me as anything more than a disappointingly shallow and distracting gimmick, and a not-very-interesting Romance.
We meet Lady Marcia Sherwood in the weeks before her sixteenth birthday, on her way from England to her family’s summer estate in Ireland, Ballybrook, where her mother, Caroline, and stepfather, Michael, wait for her, along with the rest of her siblings, Gregory, Peter, Robert, Janice, and Cynthia. Longtime housekeeper, Alice, and the family sheepdog dog, Tiger, are permanent Ballybrook residents. Accompanying her on the trip are the Lattimore brothers: the stodgy Duncan (Lord Chadwick), who has just inherited the earldom, and the flirtatious Finnian, who endears himself to Marcia with his quick smile and his insistence that she call him Finn. It was love at first sight, at least for Marcia:
“I’m Finn,” he said. “Pleased to meet you.” He gave a half-grin, his eyes gleaming with something.
He must guess. He must know she found him attractive. Or perhaps he found her attractive.
Oh, dear. Could that be so?
That would make life so much more interesting.
Marcia smiled, being careful to keep her expression demure, but inside, her heart was pounding. “I’m Lady Marcia Sherwood,” she said, feeling like an idiot. “But please – call me Marcia.”
Her maid nudged her in the side, “Lady Marcia will do, young man.”
His clothes were of the finest tailoring, setting off his good looks so well that Marcia had to wonder how he lived with himself. Had he gotten used to being so handsome?
“Right,” he said lightly, “of course,” and smiled at her as if to say, When we’re alone, I’ll call you Marcia.
She already adored him.
By the time they get to Dublin, Finn is talking marriage via elopement to Gretna Green, and on the evening of Marcia’s sixteenth birthday, she and Finn anticipate their wedding night. What surprises Marcia even more than the abruptness of the act itself is the note Finn writes to her the next day, insisting that Duncan was sending him to America immediately, hoping to break them up.
Five years later, Finn is still in Virginia, but life has changed drastically for Duncan and Marcia. The still-young earl has taken on one of Finn’s illegitimate children as his own, claiming him as a son and dedicating himself to raising a happy, loved child (unlike his own experience). Marcia, completely humiliated that she lost her virginity to a man who was not her husband, dedicates herself to the school where she was educated, serving as headmistress, despite being the eldest “daughter of the Marquess and Marchioness of Brady,” and therefore a very wealthy and marriageable young woman. Although still earnest and serious about his duties, Duncan runs a very unconventional household, one in which the staff is like family and the rules of polite society are relaxed for young Joe’s benefit. By contrast, the once flighty and self-centered Marcia has become a serious and devoted teacher, insistent that she will never marry and engaged in a number of political and social issues. When Duncan sees her in London, he cannot believe how beautiful she has become, and he is compelled to approach her and renew their acquaintance.
Marcia, still believing that Duncan is responsible for separating her and Finn, has no interest in renewing anything with him, despite the almost painful feelings of physical attraction he catalyzes in her. No, no, none of that for Marcia. She wants to lead “an authentic life.” She is “[a] leader or girls [and a] protector of an institution, guardian of a legacy.” Until, that is, the widow of the man who owned the school — and a fellow classmate of Marcia’s – shows up at Marcia’s family home in Grosvenor Square to dismiss Marcia immediately from her position, on the ridiculous pretence of breaking a trivial rule. Marcia’s parents are thrilled, convinced that she can finally take her proper position in society and find a husband, but Marcia is determined to find a way back to the school she loves, confused about Lady Ennis’s motivations in dismissing her. And then she sees Finn, who has decided to return to England after running into trouble (yet again) for his caddish ways.
Duncan is just as surprised to see Finn, although far less happy to have him back. Not only is he worried what Finn might say to Joe about his real parentage, he is concerned about what kind of trouble Finn will make with any number of women. And when Finn reveals to Duncan his desire to pursue Marcia, Duncan is appalled, even more so when Finn tells him about the night before he fled to America, a confession that pushes the honorable Duncan – now determined to make his brother’s horrid behavior up to Marcia — even more directly into her path.
The remaining three-quarters of the book relies on the push-pull between Duncan’s honorable intentions toward Marcia and her resistance to any romantic commitment. Marcia wants her job as headmistress back; Duncan wants her. Oh, and there’s a lot of kissing, making out, and sexual exploration between the two, because their mutual attraction is so mutually irresistible. However, my lack of enthusiasm in talking about the majority of the book reflects my lack of engagement in the story. For the first couple of chapters, I was torn between amusement at the characterization of Marcia as the self-absorbed little diva, a direct translation of her television alter-ego, and aggravation at the disconcerting collision of Regency Romance and 70s sitcom. And I have to admit that I chuckled at some the Brady Bunch references – like when Marcia was hit in the nose with a ball thrown by her brothers, right before a big date with Finn, or naming the Sherwood’s butler “Burbank.” Once I adjusted to the sense of temporal disconnect caused by those references, I kept wanting and expecting them to go somewhere – to do something, to be relevant in some way, to have a reason for existence in the book beyond mere shtick. And I was consistently disappointed.
My disappointment was compounded by issues I had with characterization and plot development. For example, the clever introduction of Marcia as a typical 20th century teenager (and in line with her character in the TV series), was set on having a fun, adventurous life, replete with passion and “perfect love” (early on in the book she promises to prove to the stodgy Duncan that such a thing exists, one of the first clues to their eventual pairing), and the dramatic and virtually instantaneous switch to a serious, educationally devoted young woman seemed illogical. I don’t even want to talk about her behavior in a historical context, because this book is so obviously not a Regency Romance in any serious way (and as much as I disagree with the perception of early 19th C women as necessary virgins, I found Marcia’s focus on an “authentic life” historically anachronistic, not to mention inconsistent with her original characterization). And while I could certainly see the emotional devastation that would accompany a disappointment like the one Marcia suffered when Finn left, she seemed awfully willing to renew her interest in him upon his return from America.
Even worse, these flips in her personality, besides being inexplicably extreme, further diminished my interest in her. Assuming I am willing to accept the idea that Marcia believes so strongly that she is “ruined,” even though her loss of virginity is a secret, her behavior toward Duncan and Finn does not quite fit her self-characterization. She considers herself a role model, and yet she does not seem to have any problem kissing and making out with Duncan, even as she keeps telling him she will never fall in love and get married, because she’s a headmistress and a “leader of girls.” Beyond what might be perceived as hypocrisy, her resistance soon feels artificial (a means to generate conflict), especially given Duncan’s obvious sense of honor, his respect for her, and his kindness and attractiveness.
As for Duncan, since his POV is limited to comments related via Marcia’s perspective in the early chapters of the book, it is less jarring to see his less conventional side. And I appreciated the seriousness with which he takes his role as parent to an illegitimate child he wants to shield from the ugly social realities Joe will eventually have to face. Unfortunately, his character is just not that interesting. In fact, I was far more engaged with him during the scenes he shared with his brother than I was during the scenes he and Marcia shared.
As I think about how to articulate my dissatisfaction with Loving Lady Marcia, I think it all boils down to the gimmicky use of the Brady Bunch references. If you take those out, what’s left is a somewhat mundane wallpaper historical with inconsistent, uninteresting, and/or clichéd characters involved in a plot that too often feels aimless, like an animated story that’s filling itself out as the reader moves through the book. The final resolution was anti-climactic, because it could have been exacted many chapters earlier. Moreover, the tone of the book is conflicted, the gimmicky Brady Bunch aspects evoking a much lighter tone, while the issues with Finn, Joe, and Marcia’s ambitions striking a more serious note. Rather than feeling comfortable investing in either, I found myself disengaging early on, never settling back into the text with much interest. The whole book seemed a purposeless mish-mash, which was even more disappointing to me because the prose was well crafted, and at the beginning of the book, the voice was strong, clever, and nicely irreverent. In fact, one of my most consistent points of curiosity throughout the book was ‘why this?,’ when it was clear to me that the actual writing was decent enough to warrant a more interesting and engaging book. Unfortunately, I’m not anxious to try another without reliable reader recommendations. As for the rest of the House of Brady, I’m likely going to pass, based on my experience not Loving Lady Marcia. C-