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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-



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REVIEW:  The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo by Zen Cho

REVIEW: The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo by Zen Cho

Dear Zen Cho:

Back in 2012 you sent DA a blurb about your self-published novella. I remember being intrigued by the excerpt and I meant to request it, but apparently I never did. Stupid me. But it stuck in my mind, and a few months later I bought my own copy and finally read this sparkling, original story. But when I sat down to review it, I found that you had made it exclusive to Amazon and I couldn’t review it for Dear Author. Then, a few months ago, I checked again and not only was Amazon exclusivity gone, it was also available as a free read at your website if readers didn’t want to pay for it. I strongly suggest that readers try a sample, and if they like it, buy it, because we want publishers and other authors to know how eager we are to read books of this quality and type.

The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo by Zen ChoGeok-Huay Yeo, AKA Jade, is a Chinese Malaysian woman living in early 1920s London. Not only has she persuaded her loving but protective parents to let her come to England for college, she is staying on and avoiding their attempts to marry her off. She supports herself, barely, by writing fashion articles for a women’s weekly and reviewing books for the Oriental Literary Review, which is edited by Ravi, a south Indian Brahmin.

Jade reviews and eviscerates the new novel by Sebastian Hardie, a well-connected Bloomsbury-set writer. Hardie is intrigued and invites Jade to a party, where he proceeds to charm her. The fact that he’s married is a minor hiccup, not least because his wife doesn’t insist on marital fidelity (she has outside interests of her own). Jade fends off Hardie for a while, but when she runs into him in Paris she gives in to his advances, as much out of curiosity as affection, with the inevitable results. But while the outcome is conventional, the story takes an unexpected turn after that.

The novella is written in the form of a diary, and consequently we see developments entirely from Jade’s POV. Her voice is dry, self-aware, and witty. There are regular reminders that we are not reading through the eyes of a standard romance heroine:

You can’t ever tell people you think you are pretty. Even if you are pretty you have to flutter and be modest. Fortunately here nobody thinks I am pretty, so my thinking I am pretty is almost an act of defiance; it makes me feel quite noble. I have that slim bending willowy figure that looks so good in a robe, and smooth shining black hair like a lacquered helmet, and a narrow face with a pointy chin and black slashes of eyebrows.

It took me a long time to realise I was pretty, because Ma and Pa never thought so. Even the fair skin they didn’t like–I’m not the right kind of fair. The Shanghainese girls on cigarette cards are like downy white peaches. I am like a dead person. This was disturbing on a child. Now I am an adult, I am like an interesting modern painting, but my parents are keen on moon-faces and perms.

They are the nicest parents, though. They always told me I was clever.

Sebastian is presented as the quintessential romance hero, down to his appearance, so it’s no wonder Jade is attracted to him:

I’d seen his picture in Vogue and so had known he was good-looking, in the style of a Romantic poet living in the Lake District. He had a long face with dark hair curling over a white forehead, and wrinkles around his eyes that made him look melancholy when solemn and sweet when he smiled. But he wasn’t at all grand.

The most surprising thing about him in person was that he struck one as being sincere. He had a very grave, intense look that, when directed at one, made one feel one ought to say something interesting to deserve it.

As the story unfolds, it’s not Hardie’s married state that renders him ineligible for hero status so much as his personality, which hews to what most romance heroes would probably be like in real life. Jade is quite willing to let him go and move on, but circumstances make that difficult.

Jade is not completely alone (she has her social-climbing aunt), but she is somewhat isolated. When she describes herself as having three friends, you believe her, and it’s not because she’s not someone you’d want to be friends with, but because someone like her doesn’t fit easily into the prevailing social environment.

I don’t want to give away the second half of the story, because it’s so much fun to watch it unfold. So I’ll just count the ways in which this is not a genre-conforming historical romance novel:

  • The heroine barely supports herself through her literary and commercial writing,  because it doesn’t pay well, but she’s good at it.
  • There is extra-marital sex and adultery, and none of it is secret.
  • The main characters cover three different ethnic/racial groups, and no one is mixed race. The non-white characters’ reasons to be in London make sense, given that this is during the heyday of the British empire.
  • The heroine contemplates having an abortion and doesn’t angst over it.

The ending is a little bit abrupt, and we don’t really get to know the hero, although I definitely believed that the hero and heroine were in love with each other, and I cautiously believed in their HEA (it won’t be easy). And the story is short, especially given all the events that transpire. I would have loved to read a longer version that developed some of the storyline more fully.

I’ve read a number of stories set in World War I and the 1920s now. This one really captures the flavor of the era, not so much through historical touchstones as through the language, relationships, and prose style. It recalls Heyer in some ways, Woodhouse in others. It’s frothy but not at all insubstantial. Rather, it’s effervescent and sparkling like Champagne; it goes down easy, feels like something special, and tastes complex and subtle. I’ve read the story three times now, and each time it both moves me and makes me smile. The author has written a number of SFF short stories and novellas, as well as at least one other historical short story, and I’m furiously tracking down her backlist. Grade: A-

~ Sunita

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