Monday, December 01, 2008
"Slightly Married," by Mary Balogh
Alternate Title: Strange Bed(wyn) Fellows
The Chick: Eve Morris. Thanks to her brother's untimely death in battle, she stands to lose her childhood home to a loathsome cousin. The only way to keep the estate and secure the futures of her numerous outcast dependents is to marry before the anniversary of her father's death - but the only man available is the very one who brought her the tragic news of her brother's passing.
The Rub: She'll marry Colonel Lord Aidan Bedwyn if it means her adopted orphans and her loyal servants will be safe, but she still wonders what happened to the lover she secretly waited for - and wonders if Aidan has one of his own.
Dream Casting: Keira Knightley.
The Dude: Colonel Lord Aidan Bedwyn. When he encounters a dying Percy Morris on the battlefield, he promises to protect the man's sister, "no matter what." But when it becomes apparent she's going to lose her home - does "no matter what" mean marriage?
The Rub: He's the younger brother of the Duke of Bewcastle, who might not approve of his little brother marrying the daughter of a Welsh coal miner.
Dream Casting: Stephen Moyer.
Percy: Protect my sister! *dies*
Aidan: Um, okay. Sorry, your brother's dead.
Aidan: Anything, er, I can do? Cold beverage, perhaps?
Evil Cousin: Hello there, Lord Aidan! If you like this estate now, you should see it once I've cleared all the orphans and fallen women and handicapped dogs out of it! It'll be spectacular ... provided Eve doesn't miraculously marry someone within the next five days.
Aidan and Eve: *married by special license!*
Evil Cousin: SHIT.
Eve: Thanks, Aidan, you've been a real pal, saving my home and all. Now, if we'll just be on our merry way...
Bewcastle, Aidan's Ass of a Brother: I think NOT! You must be introduced to society! You have responsibilities! You have duties!
Eve: Okay, I'll come to London and have a season, but only to honourably repay Aidan's kindness. Yeah, honour, not love at all.
Aidan: And I'll be your protector, and make sweet, sweet love to you, and defend you against my asshole of a brother - but all in the name of honour, not love, no, not at all. Love is for chumps. And the Welsh.
Eve: Shit, now I love him, but he's only in it for the honour.
Aidan: Actually ... I'm in it for the love, too. I guess I'm a chump.
Eve: Really?! That works out perfectly, because I'm Welsh!
Romance Convention Checklist:
1 Interclass Romance
1 Emotionally Repressed Hero
1 Coal Miner's Daughter With a Heart of Gold
1 Evil Cousin
1 Inconvenient Will
1 Marriage of Convenience
2 Precocious Orphans
1 Relationship-Aiding Pet
3 Snooty Siblings
1 Secondary Romance (the governess and the vicar)
1 Lacklustre Romantic Rival
The Plot: When I read the first novel in Julia Quinn's Bridgerton series, and then the second, I couldn't help but compare them and their similar plot structures (see more in my review of The Viscount Who Loved Me), even though they turned out to be different stories in the end. Now that I am reading my second Mary Balogh novel, the first in her Bedwyn series, Slightly Married, I do find myself making some plot comparisons to The Secret Pearl.
In both books, a woman facing a future of destitution at the hands of a creepy cousin makes a terrible sacrifice with a rigidly honourable man, and ends up finding love anyway. In this case, though, while young Eve Morris finds herself in dire straits, at least she doesn't have to resort to prostitution like Fleur did in The Secret Pearl.
Aidan Bedwyn, fighting in the Napoleonic Wars, comes across one of his dying captains, Percy Morris. This same man saved Aidan's life on a previous occasion, so Aidan vows to follow Percy's dying wish: to personally carry the news of the captain's death to his sister, Eve Morris, and protect her - "No matter what!" (the doomed Percy places an especial emphasis on this) When he arrives at Eve's estate, Ringwood manor, and imparts the tragic news, the woman takes it hard, and while she expresses her sincerest gratitude for coming all this way, she insists she has no need of protection.
Aidan, relieved, takes his leave of her. However, the vehemence with which Percy demanded his sister's protection leaves Aidan uneasy at how uncomplicated their encounter was. Listening to some of the town gossips, he discovers the truth: Eve is on the very brink of losing her home.
Her father, angry at his son and daughter for thwarting his wishes (Percy in joining the army, Eve in rejecting his offered suitors), wrote in his will that Eve would own the property for only one year after his death - and then it would pass to Percy. If she decided to be a good little girl and marry just like daddy wanted within the year, Ringwood manor was hers to keep. However, if she didn't, it would go to Percy. Eve, being on loving terms with her brother, didn't see the problem - if Percy inherited, he would just give it to her, anyway. However, the will also said that if Eve didn't marry in time and Percy died before inheriting, the estate would be handed over to their bootlicking, social climbing cousin. With Percy six feet under French soil, and Daddy Dearest's Death Anniversary only days away, Eve stands to lose everything.
Aidan, bound by a rigid code of honour, sees no other way to fulfill Percy's wish than by offering Eve a marriage of convenience - if they marry in London by special license, Eve could keep her home. Eve, for reasons of her own, has no choice but to accept. It's not only her livelihood on the line - along with adopting an abused dog and a pair of neglected orphans, she's populated her staff with loyal, but ruined servants no one else would think of hiring (a governess with an illegitimate child, a housekeeper with a criminal record, a cook who once worked in a brothel, etc.). If she lost her house, she might be able to stay with distant friends, but her dependents would have nowhere to go.
Both agree to the marriage of convenience, and both agree never to see each other again after the vows are read. They are simply too different, they reason. Eve is soft-hearted to a fault, the daughter of a grubby coal miner lucky enough to marry into money. Aidan is cold, supposedly unfeeling, and his blood's so blue it's practically indigo.
However, they encounter a hitch in their plans when their secret marriage accidentally becomes public knowledge. Aidan's brother, the Duke of Bewcastle, insists that Eve return to London, learn to be a lady, and attend the requisite balls and parties and social events taking place in celebration of Napoleon's surrender. Heedless of Eve's feelings or Aidan's protests, Bewcastle doesn't want to risk the estimable Bedwyn family reputation by leaving Eve in the country as if they're ashamed of her. No one is more surprised than Aidan when Eve acquieses - as a way of repaying Aidan's sacrifice. She would only have to play the part for a month or two, she reasons, and then life could go back to the way it was. Life doesn't turn out to be that simple, however.
Aidan and Eve are the typical opposites-attract couple. Emotional vs. practical. Fire and ice. Elizabeth and Darcy. The majority of their conflict arises from the fact that they are essentially strangers when they marry, so their attempts at romance are hesistant, halting, and often painfully awkward as each discovers and adapts to the other's sharp corners. Misconceptions and misunderstandings abound within the first few days of their courtship, but these are the natural misunderstandings of people unaccustomed to the other's methods of communication or background.
Aidan's family certainly does not help matters, at least at first. Holy cow - I don't know if Julia Quinn and Mary Balogh ever considered writing together, but if the Bedwyns and the Bridgertons met at a social event, they'd start a blood feud of epic proportions. When Aidan's siblings eventually learn of his marriage, Eve isn't immediately welcomed with charming smiles and giggles. Oh no. While the Bedwyns share certain things in common with the Bridgertons (a happy childhood with loving parents, an affection for each other, the older brother who gained the title too soon thanks to their father's death), they are not the easy-going liberal aristocrats adored by Lady Whistledown.
They are conservative and they are snobs. There really isn't any other way to put it, and I enjoyed it as a happy change. They are generally a good family who share a good relationship with each other, but they sniff condescendingly when referring to "the vulgar masses," make several nasty comments about the Welsh, and make all sorts of indelicate assumptions about Eve's character. So they're basically realistic aristocrats raised with an understandably high opinion of their status that's consistent with the times. While Aidan's brother Alleyne and sister Frejya eventually warm to Eve's open-hearted refusal to be cowed, Bewcastle remains almost villain-like in his arrogant asshat-ery. Eve is not immediately welcomed into their ranks, but rather, she sneaks in through the back door. She accepts their advice on deportment, manners, and social customs, but retains her own mind when it comes to how she chooses to socialize and deport herself.
Ultimately, though, as Aidan and Eve secretly start to have feelings for the other, their main obstacle is guilt. Each gradually becomes aware of just what the other had to give up for the marriage of convenience, and as a result, the protagonists guiltily suppress their growing affection, fearful that the other is only going through the motions for the sake of honour and would resent the imposition of real emotions into their businesslike arrangement. Aidan learns that Eve never married during the year after her father's death because she was waiting for a lover who arrived too late. Eve, similarly, discovers Aidan had his eye on a General's daughter accustomed to army life.
This conflict is mostly why this review gets a B+ while The Secret Pearl got an A. While I found the conflict believable and understandable at first, I felt it was spread too thinly over the novel's length. In The Secret Pearl, the main obstacle between Fleur and Adam is pretty concrete (because it's, er, Adam's wife), but with Slightly Married, I felt two hundred pages of "I can't love him/her, because s/he's already planning on leaving forever, so there's no point in telling him/her" to be too much. They're already married, and for the last hundred or so pages Aidan and Eve were really only one pointed conversation away from an HEA, with only pride and an increasingly misplaced sense of honour keeping them apart.
That being said, this was still a very enjoyable read. Mary Balogh has a wonderful way of conveying atmosphere, particularly with rural settings like Ringwood. After closing the book, I was left with a powerful physical sense of the area - from the flower-scented dell filled with summer sunshine, to the river and the fish, to the comfortable old trees and the halls filled with comfortable friends and family.
The characters were all spectacularly drawn. On paper, Eve sounds like a complete Mary Sue - she's so perfect! She adopts orphans! She takes in the poor! She keeps a three-legged, one-eyed dog! However, I never got the impression she was Little Miss Perfect because Mary Balogh showed both sides of that characteristic: how it was its own virtue and flaw. Eve's soft-heartedness makes her a loving person and an excellent companion for the emotionally-restrained Aidan - however, her overheated emotions and sensitivity can land her in hot water and lend her a tendency to panic in tense situations. Similarly, Aidan seems like the typical Alpha Male at first (especially since most of his early dialogue with Eve is spoken in decisive sentences that start with "We will do this and this, and then you will do this and this," expecting obedience the first time), but a lot of his emotional reticence stems from a concern for other people and an unwillingness to burden or manipulate them with his emotions.
This is the reason I enjoyed The Secret Pearl and still really loved this book - Balogh takes even the most familiar of tropes and manages to put a little bit of a new spin to them that forces me to re-examine the tropes and why they exist in the first place. Despite the conflict that thins towards unbelievability near the end, this is still going on my Keeper shelf, and I look forward to reading the other books in her Slightly series. B+.