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REVIEW:  A Counterfeit Betrothal by Mary Balogh

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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REVIEW:  Red Dirt Duchess by Louise Reynolds

REVIEW: Red Dirt Duchess by Louise Reynolds

Red Dirt Duchess cover - Calbre

Dear Ms. Reynolds:

I decided to read Red Dirt Duchess because it was set in part in outback Australia and because the heroine sounded interesting. The Australian setting was nice and Charlie was indeed an enjoyable heroine, but it wasn’t enough to overcome some weaknesses in the plot and characterization. Before I move on, I’d also like to note that there are no duchesses in the book and that Charlie has dark hair, so I’m at a loss as to how the title and cover were chosen.

Jonathan Hartley-Huntley is a travel writer – exclusive resorts and other expensive attractions – for Aristo magazine. He’s educated, polished and successful. His editor Caro sends him to middle-of-nowhere Bindundilly, an assignment that he believes to be her idea of a punishment when their supposedly no-strings affair does not lead to something more serious. If this were a historical romance, Jon would be the rakish aristocratic hero with a severe case of ennui who doesn’t get along with this family and doesn’t know what to do with his life. In a contemporary, he’s mainly lacking in direction and initiative: he’s mainly focused on holding off his mother, who wants him to marry and produce heirs (he’s the second son of an earl), and avoiding Caro, who is the sort of woman his mother would choose. That said, he’s more appealing than the description suggests.

At Bindundilly, Jonathan meets Charlie Hughes, who runs the local hotel/pub. Charlie is the daughter of an artist father and a mother who struggled on and off with drug addiction; she had an unconventional childhood, and she misses her parents, both now gone. She moved to Bindundilly with her father a few years before his death, and likes living there. Charlie and Jonathan hit off pretty quickly. She finds it entertaining to oversell the dangers of the Australian outback to Jon, and he enjoys playing along to see how far she’ll go with it. They end up kissing and consider doing more, but both know that there’s no real possibility of a relationship given their very different lives and they decide to leave it at that.

Charlie’s father painted a mural on one of the pub’s walls that reminds Jon of a painting at his family’s home, Hartley Hall; this painting is personally meaningful to him and is tied to a childhood trauma that remains unspecified for much of the book. Charlie knows very little about her father’s background, other than that he was British-born, and before Jon leaves, he suggests that she should travel to England to see the painting and try learn more about her father.

It’s not clear why they think that this is the best way for Charlie to look into her father’s past, but a few weeks later, she impulsively takes Jon up on his offer. Maybe Google wasn’t working that day. Once the action shifts to England, the book loses much of its charm. I was again reminded of historical romances, because anyone who’s read certain classics should be able to predict the rest of the plot: Jon’s family, especially his mother, doesn’t approve of Charlie; she makes friends with the sassy and ultra-competent butler; the older Lady Rushton, a friend of the family, immediately takes to her; Charlie saves the day when there’s an emergency at a glitzy wedding being hosted at Hartley Hall (the family rents it out for events as a source of income); surprise relatives pop up, and so on. Jon’s family is the most stereotypical cold upper-class family imaginable and Caro is a standard-issue bitchy ex (though not an outright evil one, at least). It was all just too cookie cutter to really be engaging.

The thing is, this could have been a really nice romance. Charlie and Jon have chemistry, especially in the early parts, and they clearly enjoy each other’s company and like one another. Charlie is confident in herself and mostly happy with her life, and while she feels out of place in England, she doesn’t view herself as unworthy or less than the people she meets. When she steps up to help at the wedding – of a reality TV star known mostly for taking her clothes off – she’s happy to help make the couple’s day special and is the one person who never condescends to them. She recognizes her parents’ faults but loves them nonetheless, and wants to be with Jon, but not if he can’t stand up for himself and make his own choices rather than his mother’s. Charlie, and to a lesser extent Jon, deserved a better and less generic story. C-/C

Best regards,
Rose

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