Dear Ms. Clare,
I had missed reading your debut novel The Surrender of a Lady, though I heard intriguing things about it. So when the opportunity came around to read this book, I snatched it up. I wish I could say that it was an unmitigated success, but that’s not quite the case.
Richard Mansfield, Earl of Asbury, encounters his wife Emma for the first time in 12 year in a brothel. Emma is there for a meeting with a blackmailer. Richard is there recovering from wounds he received in an attack, though he’s also canoodling with a prostitute when he comes face to face with Emma. Neither this fact, nor the fact that he left his wife abruptedly after their wedding night and stayed away for over a decade keeps Richard from being high-handedly outraged over finding his wife in such an establishment. This got Richard and me off on the wrong foot, and we never quite got back on the right one.
Emma has made a life for herself in her husband’s absence – she has her two sisters and her close friend, the Duke of Vane, to keep her company. She also has her art – Emma secretly paints and sells (through Vane) nude portraits of women, including herself. Now Waverly, another supposed friend of hers, has acquired several of the paintings and is threatening Emma with exposure. (I’ve seen similar plots before in other historical romances and never quite gotten how a portrait could be as damning as, say, a pre-Photoshop-era photograph. There’s no proof that Emma posed for the self-portraits or that she even painted the other pictures. Sure, I suppose someone could cause a scandal by alleging so, but would they even need the paintings themselves to do that? It doesn’t quite make sense to me.)
Anyway, Emma is anxious to retrieve the portraits; she doesn’t care about her own reputation (of course not!), but her youngest sister Grace is of marriageable age, and she wouldn’t want a scandal to ruin her chances of finding a good husband. Unfortunately, the brothel-visit turns out to be a bit of a wild-goose chase, at least in terms of encountering her blackmailer.
Richard and Emma feel the requisite tingling in naughty places upon their unexpected reunion, but the course of true love doesn’t run smooth; neither is too happy to see the other, overall. Still, Richard pursues Emma the next day in their London home, and when she flees with her sisters to the country, he follows her there, accompanied by his hulking and mysterious Italian business partner, Dante.
Emma’s sisters prove surprisingly easy to win over – if someone married my sister and then abandoned her for a dozen years, I don’t think I’d turn so quickly complicit in bringing about a reunion. For it’s a reunion Richard has decided that he does want, though for how long, he doesn’t seem to be clear. Maybe he just wants to get an heir on Emma, and then he’ll leave again. Emma is, not surpisingly, underwhelmed by the romanticism of this offer, though she would like a child of her own. Still, she avoids a quick return to the marriage bed, and thus we are presented with a fairly familiar scenario of hero-pursues-heroine-demurs. The sisters assist in the seduction by presenting Emma with some rather silly challenges – climb a tree, roll down a hill – that seem intended to get Richard and Emma together when Emma is in a more vulnerable state. The reward for Emma if she completes the challenges is the opportunity to paint her sisters nude, which I found…odd. (It doesn’t help that Emma’s interest in painting the nude female form is never really explored in-depth. I guess it was intended to make Emma seem sexy and unconventional.)
Anyway, there’s nothing really wrong with the plot of The Seduction of His Wife, in theory. The execution fails on a couple of (related) fronts: 1) lack of depth of characterization and 1a) Richard’s undeniable status as an asshole.
I can accept asshole heroes, provided there is some motivation for their being assholes (and some reform towards the end, too, of course). Richard had a poorly defined bad relationship with his controlling father, who forced him to marry Emma when she was but 15 (a detail that seemed anachronistic given the era – early Victorian period). After he left Emma, he apparently traveled the world and got rich as a businessman, as romance heroes tend to do (I wonder if it would be interesting to read about a romance hero that absolutely sucks at business and has to just go back to being a duke with all of his pots of inherited wealth?). Part of his business seemed to involve dealing opium. Richard expresses occasional regret and shame over his involvement with the opium trade, but it wasn’t enough for me. His reasons for becoming a drug dealer (of sorts) and his reasons for stopping remain a mystery.
And that’s really the problem with so much in the novel. It’s not really clear why Richard resented his father so much. It’s not clear what happened on Richard and Emma’s wedding night (it’s implied several times that it went badly, though). It’s not clear what drew Emma to painting, specifically painting nude females. It’s not clear how Richard became involved in something as shady as opium dealing, nor why he decided to stop. It’s not clear how the villain, an apparently slavering, crazy opium addict, was able to befriend the heroine and hide his true nature from her for a year. Sometimes the characterization feels like an outline without the details filled in. It made it impossible for me to feel any attachment to the characters.
There is a secondary romance between Emma’s middle sister Abby and Richard’s friend Dante; it wasn’t hugely compelling but at least they didn’t have all the baggage that made Richard and Emma’s romance frustrating to me. Another plus is that the sex scenes were well-done and hot (and rather frequent, especially in the second half of the book).
Ultimately, I can’t really recommend The Seduction of His Wife. My grade for it is a C.