Thursday, June 04, 2009

"Slightly Scandalous," by Mary Balogh

Alternate Title: A Very Long Engagement

The Chick:
Lady Freyja Bedwyn. The only man she ever loved broke her heart by marrying another. Now that their first child is about to arrive, Freyja flees to Bath to escape having to participate in the unbearably cheerful celebrations. Now she's bored out of her mind. When irrepressible scoundrel Joshua Moore asks her to fake a betrothal, she sees an excellent opportunity to take her mind off her troubles.
The Rub: She intends for it to be a brief, amusing affair - after all, Josh is fun, but far too infuriating and presumptuous. However, unforeseen events pop up all over the place that necessitate prolonging the charade, and Freyja fears she can't keep her heart guarded forever...
Dream Casting: Scarlett Johansson.

The Dude: Joshua Moore, Marquess of Hallmere. Formerly a poor relation in the house of Hallmere, he was treated cruelly by his vicious aunt and weak uncle until he was unexpectedly elevated to the title of Marquess. Now his aunt is determined to retain power by marrying him off to her daughter Constance. To evade her manipulations, he concocts a sham betrothal with the hot-headed Freyja Bedwyn.
The Rub: His aunt, used to having her own way, refuses to be driven off. If he won't give her daughter a title, she will use any means, fair or foul, to see him stripped of his own - even if it means dredging up old suspicions about the mysterious death of her son.
Dream Casting: Twilight's Cam Gigandet.

The Plot:

Freyja: Oh, Bath is going to be so boring.

Joshua: *runs into Freyja's room at the inn* HIDE ME!

Freyja: *punches Joshua in the face* Go to Hell!

Later, in Bath:

Joshua: Did you miss me, sweetheart?

Freyja: Go to HELL. The SEQUEL.

Joshua: Wanna fake a betrothal?

Freyja: Hell, why not? I'm bored.

Joshua: It'll just be a few days....

Joshua's Grandmother: Let's throw a party!

Joshua: I mean, a week...

Freyja's Duke Brother: We're making this official.

Joshua: Maybe several weeks....

Joshua's Evil Aunt: Hee hee hee, I'm going to secretly accuse you of murder!

Freyja: Oh Hell.

Joshua: Why don't we just get married for real?

Freyja: What the hell? Sure!

Joshua: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Former Poor Relation

1 Evil Aunt

1 Double-Evil Crazy Perverse Incestuous Rapist Pedophile Cousin (deceased, thank GOD)

Several Uses of the Hero as Human Punching Bag

1 False Accusation of Sexual Assault

2 True Accusations of Sexual Assault

1 Mysterious Death

2 Happenin' Betrothal Parties

1 Mentally Challenged but Definitely Not Evil Cousin

The Word: More than anything, reading this entry in Mary Balogh's consistently enjoyable Slightly series makes me want to read A Summer to Remember, a stand-alone book that apparently featured the Bedwyns before their own series came to be. Why? Because this book makes a lot of references to the events of that novel (although in a very well-written, unconfusing way that can still be easily understood even if you haven't read Summer), and they seem to have had an incredible effect on our protagonist, Freyja Bedwyn.

From what I can gather, Freyja was once in love with Kit (the hero of Summer), and kinda lost her shit when he ended up marrying Lauren (the heroine of Summer). At the beginning of Slightly Scandalous it is very clear that she still hasn't gotten over being spurned and has nothing but nasty backhanded things to say about Lauren, but is nonetheless still embarrassed at her own loss of control.

However, Kit and Lauren seem to have gotten along just fine, as Lauren is soon to give birth to their first child. As Kit and the Bedwyns are long-time neighbours, Freyja knows if she sticks around until the baby's born she'll be roped into the celebrations and she's absolutely certain she'll lose her shit all over again if she has to smile and simper and pretend to be ecstatic over Kit's boring-as-hell bride and her brand-new crying poop factory.

So she accepts a distant friend's invitation and hightails it over to Bath. While she's staying in an inn on the way to the spa town, a strange man bursts into her room and hides in her wardrobe to escape from a con artist who's attempted to trick him into marriage with his granddaughter. Freyja is a duke's daughter, she will have none of this, and when the stranger tries to charm and seduce her into complying she introduces his face to her fist and screams like a banshee until he jumps out the window.

She encounters him again in Bath, is somewhat less than pleased, but after a few misunderstandings and making a very public ass of herself, she admits that the stranger, Joshua Moore, Marquess of Hallmere, is a worthy opponent. She finds his manner infuriating and despises that he refuses to be bested (and frequently gets the best of her), but at least he's entertaining, which is more than she can say for the rest of Bath.

Joshua, however, is only in Bath to briefly visit his grandmother before he returns to his rogueish travels. While he is now the Marquess of Hallmere, as a child he was the abused orphan nephew of the previous Marquess, and has no desire to return to the ancestral estate or take up the reins beyond hiring a competent steward and answering a few letters. However, his past catches up with him when his aunt arrives in Bath with her eldest daughter in tow. Used to ruling her domain with an iron fist, the Marchionesse is determined to maintain her power by marrying Joshua to her daughter Constance. While Joshua is fond of Constance, he refuses his aunt point-blank.

His aunt is not one to be cowed, however, and he knows she'll just find some other way to enforce the desired marriage. Impulsively, he asks Freyja to join him in a sham betrothal. Freyja believes such a lark is just the thing to pluck her out of her doldrums, and accepts. They both take great delight in thwarting the manipulative, evil Marchionesse, but plan to break the betrothal as soon as the Marchionesse skips town.

Fate, however, has other plans - particularly when Joshua's grandmother and Freyja's brother Wulfric (the Duke of Asshat) find out about their betrothal and start making official plans, plans that require Joshua and Freyja to maintain the sham for just a little bit longer, a few days, a few weeks, in order to spare people's feelings and Freyja's reputation. And the longer they stay together, the harder it is for them to remember why their arrangement has to be temporary in the first place.

Now, while I enjoyed this romance as I inevitably end up enjoying all of Mary Balogh's novels, this one developed far more slowly than most and the first half of the novel was rather frustrating - the protagonists continue to bicker and banter but never really encounter or fight with any romantic feelings. While it's normal for many romance protagonists to refrain from admitting their feelings until later in the book, I'm used to protagonists at least experiencing some of the warm and fuzzies (even if they don't identify them as such) before the halfway mark. For a large chunk of the novel, Joshua and Freyja's relationship remained very shallow and flippant. While they eventually do thaw (and in very satisfying ways), this happens fairly late in the plot (as compared to other romance novels).

However, I never found this book boring or wholly unentertaining, and I attribute the bulk of this to Freyja. Her first scene with Joshua at the inn quickly bumped her up to the top of my list of favourite romance heroines - Joshua uses a mixture of seductive charm and rational thought to try and convince Freyja to keep quiet, but Freyja is the sister of a Duke! She doesn't have to be rational! And instead of simply fuming in silence like a lesser romance heroine, she shrieks like a demon and punches him in the face.

Now, on the occasions when I've compared my reviews of Mary Balogh's books with hilarious reviewer Mrs Giggles, I've often found her to lump most of Balogh's heroines into the Dreadful Martyr category. I don't think she would have any cause to label Freyja as a martyr in any way, shape, or form.

Why? Because Freyja is that rarest of romance heroines - she is a self-acknowledged, mostly unrepentant bitch. She is a blue-blooded aristocrat who expects the best of everything, and will fucking cut you if you ever insinuate she deserves less. Yes, she lost Kit to Lauren in A Summer To Remember, but she still believes (at least at the beginning of the novel), that Lauren is a prissy, dull-as-dirt and wholly uninteresting china doll who snuck under her defences and won Kit because she got lucky. When we do get to meet Lauren, she's all warmth and smiles and teddy bears but Freyja? So not falling for that sappy good-girl act. Take a long walk off a short pier, and take your perfectly-perfect womb-parasite with you, bitch!

Mostly, my adoration of Freyja comes from the fact that she's open and honest about what she feels, she doesn't cut herself down to size, and (with a few exceptions) she prefers to handle her problems by head-butting them straight on. She's not a doormat who feels sad about the bad things that happen to her because sad things will inevitably happen to her - she's a self-confident, remarkably self-aware woman who believes (rightly, for the most part), that's she awesome, and so she gets angry when sad things happen to her because awesome people deserve better, dammit! Damn right, I'm envious of Lauren's happy marriage, because I deserve a happy marriage! Damn right, I'm pissed Josh's aunt makes fun of my ugliness, because I deserve to be treated with respect! Damn right, I'm going to punch Josh in the face if he dares to pity me, because I don't deserve to be pitied! Seriously, I'm the daughter of a fucking duke, what part of that do you have trouble understanding???!!!

Joshua was a little harder to relate to. He (refreshingly) avoids the alpha-male route in dealing with the headstrong Freyja, and instead he reacts by making jokes, being flippant, and reacting to nearly everything with amusement and good humour. While there definitely is a darker, sadder aspect underneath his rakish grins, his instinctive oh-how-droll reactions to events occasionally become repetitive.

However, he is an excellent opponent for Freyja. While Freyja is open and forceful, Joshua's an artful dodger, a master of deflection and avoidance. Not just verbally. His wanderings and travels and reluctance to settle down are simply his ways of coping with his own problems and failures. He fiddles around with the idea of returning to Penhallow (the Hallmere ancestral seat) and taking up his full duties as Marquess because he's not ready to face the memories of the ill-treatment he endured, the obligations he shouldered, and the relatives he failed while he lived there. Freyja believes a problem punched hard enough in the nose will eventually go away - Joshua thinks dancing around a obstacle long enough will make it disappear.

I enjoyed watching these two slowly take lessons from each other, both of them benefiting from the process. And, yes, while I thought their relationship was slow to start, once it did really start it set a good pace. Freyja is such an extreme, headstrong, kneejerk character, but Balogh's masterful writing manages to make Freyja's acceptance of love a capitulation of sorts, without being a total surrender of her character.

As in the previous books, many of the Bedwyns show up again, and while they spent a little too much time explaining the married ones' backstories, their presence wasn't a total intrusion (like they were at the end of Slightly Wicked). There were a few pernickity things that bothered me - mainly Joshua's mentally-disabled cousin Prudence. While she demonstrates the mental capacity and attitude of a child, by the end of the novel she enters into a romantic relationship with a young man who is mentally an adult, and I wasn't sure what to feel about that. However, the secret about her past was subtly done - I truly didn't see it coming but reading back, the hints were all there.

All in all, though, I can't help but sigh over yet another lovely Mary Balogh novel. While they're not all equal (The Secret Pearl and "Spellbound" remains my favourites), I have yet to encounter a novel of hers that I didn't enjoy. She just creates such a vivid and wonderful Regency atmosphere, and characters you can believe in. With Slightly Married and Slightly Wicked we got nice-girl heroines, but in Scandalous we actually get to see into the mind of a less-than-nice girl, only to discover she's still an awesome person overall. And one as deserving of a happy ending.
B+

10 comments:

  1. Anonymous4:20 PM

    "Take a long walk off a short pier, and take your perfectly-perfect womb-parasite with you, bitch!"

    LOL

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  2. Vorkosigrrl11:46 AM

    I'm not a huge fan of Balogh; it's not that I dislike her, she just doesn't get to me where I live. I've read the "Slightly" series, its prequel (Secrets of a Summer. . . , which I liked better, actually), and a couple of others. I actually like some of her shorter, Regency-style books better, although I can't remember their names -- got 'em at the library several years ago.

    However, I'll see about giving The Secret Pearl and Spellbound a try, since they're your favorites.

    Am now reading Laura Lee Guhrke's And Then He Kissed Her, and enjoying it very much. I'm about a third of the way through. Every time I think she's about to slip into cliche-ville, she surprises me with the thoughts and comments of the characters. I love to be surprised. So thanks for steering me in her direction.

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  3. Anonymous12:11 PM

    I didn't like And Then He Kissed Her. It felt like a contemporary that was thrown against a historical backdrop. It didn't work for me at all.

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  4. Vorkosigrrl1:57 PM

    Oops! Instead of Secrets of a Summer whatever, I meant to say, A Summer to Remember, which you referred to in your review.

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  5. LOL!! I love your plot reviews, AnimeJune!! :D

    Great review! I have seen so many of Balogh's books but have yet to read one. Her covers lately are just absolutely breathtaking!

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  6. Vorkosigrrl9:36 AM

    Just finished And Then He Kissed Her. Absolutely charmed.

    Anonymous, I know what you mean about not liking books which throw a modern sensibility over a few period gowns. I call those "Gidget Goes Regency" novels. (Hmmmm. . . . are you old enough to get the reference?)

    I didn't get that feeling from this one, though. Maybe because it was Victorian, not Regency. It's all so subjective, though.

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  7. Ahh, the Bedwyns -- I love that family! I seriously need to dig up Slightly Scandalous from the deep, dark depths of my TBR and give it a whirl. I think that's the last one I've got to read. Great review!

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  8. Anonymous --> Ha, I encounter so many examples of Series Perfection Syndrome (aka characters from previous books who are perfect and get along with everyone), that it was very refreshing to encounter a character who continued to think the worst of them.

    Vorkosigrrl --> Hey, it's okay. Everyone has different tastes - sometimes the stories just don't reach you. I feel the same way about Elizabeth Hoyt! Everyone goes on and on about her great historicals and I read both "The Raven Prince" and "The Serpent" prince and found them only pleasant.

    I liked "And Then He Kissed Her" - although I've been iffy about reading her other books after "The Wicked Ways of a Duke." There are good parts, but some of the excerpts hint at flowery language that I tend not to like.

    Anonymous --> Well, perhaps that's because it was set in a far later time period than most historicals are (late-Victorian - nearly Edwardian). I know I walked into that book expecting Regency details, so maybe the unexpected modernity of the setting may have contributed to that.

    Barbara --> I know! She's so lucky, I never have to feel embarrassed picking out any of her covers. I'm sorry, but putting a giant naked male torso on a romance cover tells me NOTHING about the book, thank you very much.

    Amy --> Thank you! Well, there are three other books in the series - including Morgan's (the baby sister), Alleyne's (the baby brother) and Wulfric (the Duke of Asshat - which should be really good, he needs to unbend and take that icicle out of his rear end pronto).

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  9. Vorkosigrrl11:13 AM

    AnimeJune, I know what you mean about Elizabeth Hoyt, although there definitely were things I liked about The Serpent Prince.

    I find that I like her contemporary romances better, which she writes under the name Julia Harper. The comedic elements are funnier, and everything just seems to work together better.

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  10. Lauren6:25 PM

    Reading Wulfric's book kept making me think how much it parallel's Pride & Prejudice...and certainly Wulfric continues his stiff-upper lip asshattery at times but I really enjoyed their story because his heroine is really charming.

    Also, I feel you on the Elizabeth Hoyt thing. I liked the Raven Prince well enough, but I got through 4/5 of Serpent Prince and put it down. I really wasn't huge on it AT ALL.

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