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JOINT REVIEW:  An Infamous Marriage by Susanna Fraser

JOINT REVIEW: An Infamous Marriage by Susanna Fraser

Dear Ms. Fraser:

Jennie: I requested your book from NetGalley more or less on a whim; the blurb described a couple who hastily engaged in a marriage of convenience finally coming together after having been separated by the hero’s military service, and the obstacles they face. I’ve recently read and enjoyed several similar stories, so I thought I’d give An Infamous Marriage a try.

Sunita: I had committed to reading this, and when I saw that Jennie was going to review it I thought a joint review would be fun.

An Infamous Marriage by Susanna FraserJennie: Jack Armstrong is on a brief leave home from service in Canada, visiting his mother, who suffers from dementia, in his home village of Selyhaugh. He stops in to see his good friend, the Reverend Giles Hamilton, and to meet the new wife Giles has been singing the praises of in letters. Jack finds Giles deathly ill with the chicken pox, and his wife understandably distraught. Giles, knowing that he is dying, extracts a promise from Jack and Elizabeth to wed after he passes; he knows Elizabeth is alone in the world and fear what will happen to her without Jack’s protection and name.

Neither is keen on the idea – Jack has no interest in marrying a woman he doesn’t even know, and further, Elizabeth does not impress him much. He finds it hard to believe that this pale, plain little woman is the beauty Giles raved about in his letters. Elizabeth, naturally, is even less enamored of the idea – she loves her husband, is full of grief for his impending death, and can’t imagine marrying again before his body is even cold (and the marriage needs to be immediate, since Jack has to return to his regiment in Canada).

Nevertheless, after Giles dies, both agree to honor their promise. Jack will get something out of it – a caretaker for his beloved mother (this didn’t make too much sense, since the family is wealthy enough to have servants and the mother already has a devoted nurse, but I guess Jack knows that Elizabeth is trustworthy and there’s something to be said for not leaving something so important to paid help). Elizabeth, who was orphaned as a teenager (her father was involved in an embezzlement scandal and committed suicide; her mother died shortly after) and had only her cold, hard uncle as kin after that, has the security that Giles wanted her to have. And honestly, though the set-up could seem high-concept, my understanding of the time and place leads me to believe that Elizabeth’s options were limited and her situation dire after her husband’s death.

So, Jack and Elizabeth marry. They spend one chaste night under the same roof, and then he returns to the wilds of Canada. Elizabeth settles into life in Selyhaugh pretty well, getting over some initial judgment from those who found her second marriage to be unseemly in its haste, and developing a good relationship with Jack’s mother and the workers on the family farm. Meanwhile, Jack and Elizabeth have fallen into a regular and lively correspondence, and developed something of a friendship.

This friendship is interrupted when a local matron with a dislike for Jack’s family takes it upon herself to pass on gossip she’s heard about Jack’s extramarital exploits in Canada. In what seems like an unlikely coincidence, the matron just happens to have a cousin in Canada who lives in the same area where Jack is stationed, and that cousin just happens to feel the need to write her about Jack’s supposedly scandalous behavior. Elizabeth, humiliated and angry, abruptly withdraws from Selyhaugh society, and her letters to Jack turn cold and terse.

Sunita: I really liked this first part of the book. The setup was believable and the way the characters related to each other (or didn’t) was well portrayed. I enjoyed the way Elizabeth grew close to Jack’s mother and established her place in local society. I agree the letter relied on coincidence, but I was so happy to see Canada used as a setting (and authentically, too) that I forgave it, and the idea of a gossipy letter letting the cat out of the bag worked for me.

Jennie: While I will admit to being drawn to infidelity stories – well done, they can be very emotional and angsty, which I love – in this case, the drama over the infidelity never made a lot of sense. Elizabeth states that she hadn’t expected Jack to be faithful during his time in Canada – after all, their union was an unconsummated marriage of convenience, one that Jack was pretty much strong-armed into. But she’s angry because she feels like he should have been more discreet. Jack, for his part, didn’t really think his screwing around would make news so far away, and I don’t think he’s entirely unreasonable there. Furthermore, it’s unclear really how scandalous his behavior actually was – there were only a few women, actually (and in the one case that was really somewhat unseemly, it turns out Jack was more or less innocent of the wrongdoing he was suspected of). Elizabeth’s reaction thus seems out of proportion and really sort of unfair.

Though I wasn’t entirely in sympathy with Jack – one of the problems I had was that he felt somewhat inconsistently characterized for the first half of the book. The younger Jack who meets and marries Elizabeth out of duty seems rather stoic and honorable – perhaps even a bit uptight. Jack’s behavior in Canada, as explained by him later to Elizabeth, seems to be mostly driven by insecurity and immaturity, neither of which we really saw in him earlier. He apparently matured late physically and even when he went into the army was undersized and acne-prone. Supposedly even years after he had filled out and become attractive to the opposite sex, he was insecure enough that he wanted to flaunt his conquests a bit in a place where he felt safe to do so.

Which is okay, I guess, but again, it would’ve worked better if the groundwork had been laid earlier, so that he didn’t seem like so much an entirely different person. He changes again when he decides that he wants a real marriage, and the ultimate effect is that Jack feels like kind of a shallow character, thinking and behaving as the plot requires at any given time.

There were elements of the book that I struggled over because though they were realistic, they made me like the characters less. With Elizabeth, it’s her determination not to “give in” to Jack too easily; essentially, she wants to make him suffer for his behavior (she is also motivated by the fear that if she folds quickly this time, it will set a pattern for their marriage that won’t be to her advantage). Again, this is realistic but somehow the way it was written did not make me sympathetic to Elizabeth; she comes off as immature herself, and calculating. Okay, maybe “calculating” is a little harsh, but I was willing to be on Elizabeth’s side here; somehow her response lessened the impact of Jack’s wrongs against her and drained some of the tension out of the conflict. I didn’t get the feeling she was *really* hurt by the infidelity, and if that was the case I thought she should have a more mature and reasonable response to the situation.

Sunita: The middle part of the book was a real letdown for me after the strength of the first part. I agree that Jack’s characterization seemed inconsistent; he was honorable, but he had no sense of how his activities as a married man could affect his wife. He was angry at being married, but then he sees Elizabeth and suddenly changes his mind.

The other problem I had was that Elizabeth’s turnaround happened so quickly. She’s been nursing her anger for years, but it only takes Jack three or four days to break down her barriers? And then suddenly they’re building a life together? That was too quick a switch, and I think ending this area of conflict between them hurt the book in the end. Halfway through, they’re quite happy with each other, but the reader knows there are many pages left to go.

Jennie: Yeah, Elizabeth seemed to mostly be holding out for form’s sake, which wasn’t very satisfying, and it was clear that some other conflict was going to have to crop up to justify the length of the book.

Jack lost me a lot (not that I was overfond of him to begin with) with his continued enthusiasm, throughout the book (almost to the end) for war and fighting. He makes it clear early on that he’s not happy to be going back to Selyhaugh, and would rather stay with the army and engage in conflict – any conflict. Lip service is given to the need of men to test themselves in battle, and this has the ring of realism (even if I don’t personally understand it), but again it’s written in such a way that Jack is less sympathetic than he ought to be (or at least could be, in my eyes). A good job is done of showing him to be someone who feels constrained by village life and not terribly interested in the workings of his modest family estate. That’s fine. But rather than conveying that Jack feels at loose ends with no wars to fight, or that he is uncertain of his place in the world, the sense that I got was that he was an overgrown child who didn’t really understand the horrors of war.

Sunita: This part worked better for me than it did for you. I saw Jack as a career soldier who was happy in his chosen profession. The itch to get back into battle is one that other authors have explored, especially during this specific period (1814-15), so I accepted it. But I had trouble with the switch from the initial conflict between them, which was internal to the relationship, to the external conflict over Jack’s rejoining the army. I understand why the switch happened from the point of view of the plot, but it didn’t feel smoothly done.

Jennie: I guess I’m more used to romances (maybe because they are written largely by women?) emphasizing the awfulness of war rather than the gung-ho attitude Jack displayed. It would have bothered me less, I think, if Jack was more strongly characterized from the start.

One other minor complaint: there’s a conflict late in the book that I could see coming a mile away. While I know of the famous dictum about a gun introduced in the first act going off in the third, still I’m not sure it’s necessary to have a character muse so many times: “Gee, I told this big lie to my beloved but luckily it can’t come back to bite me, nosiree bob.” You might as well put giant blinking neon lights around the statement.

Sunita: Yes! I thought this was so unnecessary, and it actually made me angry. On thinking back over the book, the only reason I can see for having it there was as homage to the Heyer book that is recalled in the title. They are going to undergo enough trauma in the pages to follow without this conflict. Why not just let that provide the necessary angst? I also really didn’t like the letter. It may be historically accurate that men in his position wrote letters of that length and fervor (I don’t know), but it didn’t feel organic to those scenes.

I did appreciate the depiction of Brussels and the battle (although just once, I would like to read about characters who do NOT attend the Duchess of Richmond’s ball). If you’ve read a lot of books that feature the period, the scenes and set pieces will be familiar, but Fraser manages to put her own spin on them, which is no mean feat.

Jennie:I liked the Brussels setting as well; for some reason I have an affinity for romances that include Brussels on the eve of battle, maybe because I’ve read at least a few good ones. Though you’re right about the ball; I hadn’t thought of it but that must have been a very crowded ball, with all of those fictional characters in attendance!

Okay, I know, bitch, bitch, bitch. In spite of my complaints, the characters are still relatively pleasant, the writing is competent, and the book is readable enough. It just didn’t go much beyond that for me, which is why my grade is a straight C.

Sunita: I can’t disagree with your complaints, but I really liked the first third of the book and I am so happy these days to read about relatively adult people engaging (mostly) in relatively adult behavior, that I was grateful for that. And Canada! Please, authors, more Canada. My grade is a B-.

Best regards,

Jennie and Sunita

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REVIEW:  Knaves’ Wager by Loretta Chase

REVIEW: Knaves’ Wager by Loretta Chase

Dear Ms. Chase,

I’m sure you are familiar with Choderlos de Laclos’ 18th century epistolary novel, Les Liaisons dangereuses. It has been adapted to stage and screen, and the cinematic versions include Dangerous Liaisons, Valmont, and Cruel Intentions, among others.

Knaves' Wager by Loretta ChaseIn Les Liaisons dangereuses, the corrupt Vicomte de Valmont wants to seduce the married Madame de Tourvel, widely known for her incorruptible virtue. Valmont is interested in Madame de Tourvel not only because she presents a challenge, but also because he has a wager riding on it. The beautiful Marquise de Merteuil has promised to spend a night with him if he succeeds.

For some reason, I’ve long enjoyed romances whose plots bear a similarity to Les Liaisons dangereuses, as your book Knaves’ Wager does. First published in 1990 as a traditional regency in the Avon line, Knaves’ Wager has been recommended to me by several people, including DA’s Sunita. I’ve been eager to read it for a while, but all the more so recently, thanks to a Twitter conversation. Imagine my surprise and delight when, a few days after that discussion, Knaves’ Wager was released as an ebook.

Knaves’ Wager begins with Lilith Davenant, a 28 year old widow, traveling to London with her niece, Cecily Glenwood. Lilith is described this way:

Lilith Davenant was tall, slim, and strong. Her classical features—a decided jaw, a straight, imperious nose, and high, prominent cheekbones—had been carved firmly and clearly upon cool alabaster. Her eyes were an uncompromising slate blue, their gaze direct, assured, and often, chilly.

Lilith seems as cold as a slab of marble, but she has one soft spot: her nieces. Like her elder and younger sisters, Cecily has thoughtless, unreliable parents, and thus depends on Lilith’s personal and financial assistance to enter the marriage mart.

Unfortunately, Lilith’s once-considerable fortune has dwindled. What her late and feckless husband didn’t gamble away her former man of business invested badly. To add insult to injury, Lilith has recently discovered an old debt of her late husband’s owed to the Marquess of Brandon, a man who gambled and caroused with Lilith’s husband, driving him to his death in the process.

The idea of being indebted to Brandon is loathsome to Lilith, but if she pays back the money her husband owed him, she will not have enough funds left to bring out her four young nieces unless she does the unthinkable and marries again.

Lilith loved her late husband, but he was faithless and debauched throughout their marriage, and ignored her except for brief and unpleasant nighttime visits. Now Lilith dreads physical intimacy and has no desire to ever marry. But marry she must, if she is to pay off her debt to the Marquess of Brandon and finance her nieces’ come-outs.

This conflict comes to a head when Lilith and Cecily encounter a curricle by the side of the road. The curricle’s owner lies beneath it, injured. Lilith has him transported to the nearest inn where she sends for a doctor. The injured man, Mr. Wyndhurst, is arrogant, insolent, and possibly depraved. He is described in Lilith’s POV as “the very model of a bored, dissolute scoundrel.”

Lilith and Wyndhurst exchange some words as she feeds him broth, enough for him to attempt seduction and meet with a cold rebuff. The next morning, Lilith learns that Wyndhurst’s relations came and got him, and he has paid his bill, leaving a cheeky message for her with the innkeeper, one that causes Lilith to smart – but not as much as does the innkeeper’s new information: Mr. Wyndhurst is Julian, Marquess of Brandon, the same man whom Lilith blames for the death of her husband.

Unable to bear the thought of remaining in Julian’s debt, Lilith orders her man of business to pay back the money she owes and accepts an offer of marriage which she had been weighing. Her new fiancé is Sir Thomas Bexley, a widowed, short and balding baronet with diplomatic ambitions.

Sir Thomas no more loves Lilith than she loves him, but he admires her unimpeachable character and believes that marrying her can only serve his political aspirations well. For her part, Lilith plans to be a good fiancée and wife to Sir Thomas. She is grateful that his considerable wealth will allow her to continue bringing out her nieces.

Meanwhile, Julian, Marquess of Brandon, is exhorted by his relatives to travel to London and liberate his cousin Lord Robert from an unfortunate betrothal to a French courtesan, Elise. Julian could care less what happens to Robert, but Derbyshire is boring, and London offers the presence of one Lilith Davenant. Julian wants to amuse himself by seducing Lilith because of an attraction he sensed when he met her, and because he knows she will resist him with all her strength.

In London Julian discovers that Elise is almost as wily as himself. His cousin Robert has written love letters to the French courtesan and she will not easily release them. She plans to use them to sue for breach of promise should Robert back out of his proposal.

Julian threatens to have Elise’s house broken into if she does not hand them over, but Elise, who senses Julian’s desire for Lilith, offers him an alternative: seduce Lilith within eight weeks, and Elise will hand over the letters freely. Fail, and the compromising letters are Elise’s to do with as she sees fit.

A challenge is irresistible to Julian, and a challenge accompanied by a wager is even more piquant. While his cousin Robert slowly falls for Cecily, Julian employs will, charm, and underhanded scheming in a campaign to seduce Lilith. But Lilith has considerable will, charm, and brains of her own. Will Julian’s win his knaves’ wager? Or will it cost him his heart?

I won’t call Knaves’ Wager a redemption story because that’s not exactly what it is. It’s more of a story of two people opening up to one another despite very different aims, discovering the truth of their hearts and minds, and growing in the process.

The electronic version, which I read, has a handful of OCR errors, so on occasion a word can puzzle or amuse. For example a minor character named Hobhouse has his name spelled “Hothouse” at least once.

Readers should also be aware that this book is written in a very different style from your current novels. It’s less humorous, more serious, and wordier as well. Dialogue can be longer and the pacing of the novel is slow and deliberate compared to the pacing of today’s books. Although on occasion I did wish more would happen a touch faster, for the most part I was deeply absorbed.

Julian begins the book with the goal to seduce Lilith, nothing less and nothing more. His initial reasons, at least those he acknowledges to himself, are somewhere between mischievous and villainous. He’s charming enough that it’s hard to dislike him, but it’s also hard to trust him for quite a while. He wants to prove he can bed Lilith, but beneath that, he’s also drawn to her strength, and because he has to work to breach her defenses, she breaches his own in the process.

There’s a lovely journey of self-discovery for Julian as that happens. He is so unused to being in love that he mistakes his emotions until it’s almost too late.

Lilith was an absolutely wonderful character. I have a love for protagonists with a “still waters run deep” quality, and Lilith is such a one. Beneath the cool exterior she presents to the world lies a vulnerable woman who both needs and deserves love, and just as Julian has to mature enough to realize he is capable of loving, Lilith must eventually arrive at the realization that marrying Sir Thomas would be a mistake.

In the interim, her attraction to Julian tortures her; not only does she have no illusions about his intentions toward her, she also feels guilty for betraying Sir Thomas, if only in her heart.

It would be remiss of me not to mention that there are no sex scenes, but although I wanted one, just to see how it would have gone, I never felt the book lacked sexual tension. That was something it had in spades, due to the terrific chemistry between the main characters.

Lilith also read older than her 28 years to me, but again, this didn’t lessen my enjoyment much. There was a level of maturity to the story that is rare and that I greatly welcome.

Knave’s Wager satisfied me to a degree few books do these days. It is easy to see why so many readers love it and why some consider it a genre classic. I am giving it an A- grade.

Sincerely,

Janine Ballard

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