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Marriage on the rocks/reunited lovers

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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GUEST REVIEW:  Back to You by Jessica Scott

GUEST REVIEW: Back to You by Jessica Scott

Dear Ms. Scott,

In the acknowledgments, you wrote that you have been working on this book since 2008. I can certainly see how this would be a challenging story to get right and while it’s not perfect, I am glad that you persevered. Before I go further, I have to admit that the US military is an organization and culture that is completely unfamiliar to me. When I read military romances, I sometimes wonder about the authenticity and accuracy, but because you are a career officer, I know I can trust you to get it right. That is definitely a plus.

Back to You by Jessica ScottLaura and Trent Davila have been married for more than a decade and have two children, but Trent has been absent for much of the marriage: as an army captain, he has been deployed several times, and although he told Laura that there was no choice about it, she eventually found out that this was not true, and that Trent had actually volunteered to go several times. Feeling that Trent has bailed out on their marriage and unable to trust him, Laura files for divorce.

Around the same time that Laura filed for divorce, an investigation revealed that an officer under Trent’s command had been stealing and selling sensitive items, and the officer implicates Trent in these activities. As a result, Trent is fired from his command and returns to the US to await the conclusion of the investigation and a possible court martial. On top of that, a female soldier has accused Trent of improper advances, which is both damaging to his case and very hurtful for Laura.

Back to You is set about a year after these events, in 2008. Trent has not signed the divorce papers, and realizes that his choices have wrecked his marriage. He returns to Fort Hood, where a hearing is scheduled to take place soon and decide whether his case will go to a court martial. Laura, who works on base as a family readiness liaison for the brigade, still loves Trent, but feels that their marriage is over and wants to move on. Nonetheless, when his lawyer suggests that the two pretend that their marriage is going well as a way to undermine some of the charges, Laura agrees to go along with it, although she makes it clear that she does not believe that they can salvage their marriage. I didn’t really think that the pretend-marriage was needed for the story to work (or a particularly effective legal strategy), but I went along with it.

Laura had been willing to make a lot of sacrifices as an army wife, but finding out about the voluntary deployments and the allegations against Trent crushed her, and she’s afraid of letting him back into her life. Trent is scared because he doesn’t know how to cope with civilian life, including his family, and his way of dealing with it has been to stay away – physically while on deployment and emotionally while home. But this time, he knows that if he wants to fix his relationship with Laura and be a father to his children, he will have to face his problems and somehow find a new normal.

In many romance novels, when heroes carry the sort of emotional baggage that Trent has, it’s resolved with a quick conversation or a cathartic confession. I liked that you chose otherwise and showed Trent’s incremental progress in this regard: learning to ask for help, to share his experiences with others and to rely on them doesn’t come naturally for him and there is no miraculous fix – it’s something he has to work on with Laura, with his psychiatrist and with himself. He has to learn how to be a father and how to really be there in his relationship with Laura.

What didn’t work as well for me was the way Laura and Trent’s reconciliation was portrayed. They both spend a lot of time thinking about their past, what had gone wrong, and their worries about the future – but not a lot happens between them in the present. It was past the 10% point when they saw each other again for the first time, and even after that, there would be long stretches in which there wasn’t much interaction between them. When they did get together, there would often be some major development in terms of their relationship or Trent’s relationship with the kids. Sometimes it just seemed like it was too much and too fast. I wish there had been more Laura and Trent together, rather than Laura or Trent thinking about being together, and I think that might have helped with the pacing and the emotional impact of the story.

The case against Trent isn’t very strong, but the lieutenant who implicated him has a high-ranking and well-connected father so it isn’t something that can just be dismissed. It’s probably for the best that the lieutenant doesn’t make too many appearances, since he’s pretty much a one-note villain with no redeeming characteristics. But the outcome of the investigation and Trent’s consequent choices about his life were believable, and I felt that by the end, Laura and Trent were headed in the right direction. B-.

Best regards,
Rose

Rose lives in a country where romance readers are few and far between, so discovering romance websites was a welcome development. When not busy with reading and graduate school, she can often be found online discussing romance novels or sports –occasionally both at the same time. She has no TBR pile and is forever looking to change this unfortunate fact; recommendations for historicals, romantic suspense and contemporaries (preferably of the non-small town variety) are welcome.

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