Sunday, October 18, 2009
"Three Little Secrets," by Liz Carlyle
Alternative Title: The Accidental Husband
The Chick: Madeleine, Lady Besset. A wealthy widow, she moves to Walham Green, a village on the outskirts of London, thinking a change of scenery might prove beneficial to her troubled twelve-year-old son.
The Rub: Turns out her new house - the entire village, even - is owned by none other than Merrick MacLachlan, the scoundrel her father bribed to annul their hasty marriage 13 years ago. So why does he insist they're still married?
Dream Casting: Reese Witherspoon.
The Dude: Merrick MacLachlan. A tough but fair real estate developer, he gets the shock of his life when his faithless, runaway wife moves into one of his new houses.
The Rub: He's spent thirteen years trying to forget the woman who abandoned him, to no avail. Even after all this time, he still pines for her - the cowardly, adulterous bitch!
Dream Casting: Patrick Dempsey.
Merrick: Howdy neighbour - wha? You're my WIFE!
Madeleine: We're not married!
Merrick: Oh, we are TOTALLY married.
Madeleine: Nu-uh times a THOUSAND.
Merrick: I have proof!
Merrick: Uh-huh times INFINITY! I have the papers right here...
Madeleine: *fingers in ears* I CAN'T HEAR YOUUUUUUU, LA LA LA....
Geoff, Madeleine's Son: Oh, don't mind me and my troublesome psychic visions of Scottish origin. I'll just take my twelve-year-old-self (feel free to count back the months, Merrick) somewhere else.
Merrick: Oh, it's ON, wifey.
Madeleine: Fine, we can stay married.
Merrick: Hooray! ... I think.
Romance Convention Checklist
1 Hard-Hearted Businessman Hero
1 Widowed Single Mum Heroine
1 Foiled Elopement
1 Regency-Era Dominatrix
Several Accidental Adulteries
Several Quite Purposeful Adulteries
1 Secret Psychic Baby
1 Noticeable But Still Sexy Facial Scar
1 Noticeable Limp
1 Very Bad Parent
1 Drunken Suicide
1 Big Misunderstanding
The Word: I was pretty excited to read this, because I read Carlyle's Never Deceive a Duke, which was quite good, but I have to say, the squabbling protagonists (the shrill, whining heroine in particular) and the contrived continuation of a Big Misunderstanding really bogged down what could have been an interesting read.
Once upon a time, when Merrick and Madeleine were Crazy In Love Youths, they eloped to Scotland but were caught after the fact by Madeleine's politically-minded father.
Thirteen years later, Madeleine is a widow with a young son who has a Vague Troubling Disorder but since he won't tell his mummy why he goes blank-eyed at odd times and starts predicting things before they happen, she can't do anything about it. She purchases a lovely little cottage in a village suburb of London thinking she might be able to find some help for his condition in a new place.
By this time, Merrick has also matured into one of those domineering, time-is-money, whore mongering, hard-hearted billionaire businessmen types who transcend time period and Harlequin SuperRomance lines. One of his buddies from a previous book in the series (Two Little Lies) wants to buy a house in his new development, so Merrick decides to show him a completed example - which turns out to be the one Madeleine's just purchased.
Their reunion isn't a chipper one. Madeleine's father told her that Merrick had annulled their marriage in return for thirty thousand pounds, so, heartbroken (among other things), she married a man her father chose for her and went off to the Continent. Merrick, however, never agreed to or received any payment beyond a royal ass-whupping by her father before the gangsta ran over him with his carriage (ouch!). By the time he'd recovered, Madeleine had already left England with another man, leaving him to curse his wife for the faithless wench she was.
Okay, so we have the Big Misunderstanding. Both protagonists believe the other is at fault for how their marriage turned out. However, this misunderstanding is cleared up by page 85 - or at least, both protagonists learn the other's story. So - this means the Big Mis is finished, right? We can go back to having the protagonists communicate like adults?
Nope. Madeleine stubbornly denies, denies, denies everything Merrick says, and continues to rail and shriek and harp at him throughout the book. Yes, the Big Mis gets dragged out all the way to the end of the novel because the heroine flat-out refuses to confront the subject because it's too painful. Yes - discovering the truth is so painful, it's much easier and less morally ambiguous to treat a man like shit and believe the worst of him without any tangible proof.
As the really, really obvious evidence that Merrick is telling the truth piles up - some of which Madeleine should already know (such as how annullments work and that her political father had political motivations to keep her from Merrick), it makes the heroine's actions look both selfish and stupid. Carlyle actually turns the results of their elopement into a bit of mystery, which is both unnecessary and boring since we already know what's happened.
Their squabbling gets old really fast, and they continue it for most of the book. It's not wry ribbing or witty banter, but vicious, intentionally hurtful bitching. Their spiteful catfighting continues for the better part of the book, and this is what ultimately hinders the romance. There isn't a real build-up or resurgence of romantic feeling - it's just Bitch, Bitch, Bitch, Bitch, Bitch - oh, we were tricked? Okay then. Luuuurv. It's recycled love - once the Big Mis finally peters out, they just revert to how they felt before, rather than any new feelings they might have developed knowing each other as adults.
But hey, take away the Big Mis (which was stretched out way past its welcome thanks to the heroine) and everything's just fine and dandy, right?
As you may have guessed by now, I hate the heroine. She's kind of a bitch. No, she's worse: a shrew. With more than one book I've discovered I tend to think bitchy heroines are awesome. But a shrew, in my mind, is a woman who is all bark and no bite. Instead of actually backing anything up or taking action, Madeleine just sits on her ass and throws insults at Merrick, or else coos helpless motherisms at her son without actually helping him. She's definitely a pupil of the "Oh, you heartless fiend!" school of dialogue, complete with the requisite "traitorous body" that melts like lustful margarine in a microwave at the merest flutter of the hero's eyelashes.
As well, the historical setting is disappointingly vague. No dates are given, no specific fashions are mentioned, gaslights are noted once in passing, and only a mention of Queen Adelaide (wife to William the 4th, he who reigned between George 4 and Victoria) gives us any real indication. With all the talk of Merrick's development company, work ethic and business discussions, it all seemed a bit too modern to me, which gave this novel the taint of a wallpaper historical.
When it all comes down to it though - a major reason why this book didn't work for me is become I'd already read a wonderful book - actually, a novella - that had the exact same plot but managed it so much better in every respect. In Mary Balogh's "Spellbound," from the It Happened One Night anthology, we also have a hero and heroine who reunite a decade after their elopement was botched by an angry father. Again, both protagonists believe the other responsible. However, in the shorter format of a novella, the misunderstanding was confronted and solved in realistic amount of time, but the characters' shared pain and longing still came through. Really, at nearly every point in Three Little Secrets I ended up comparing it to "Spellbound," usually unfavourably.
However, despite my annoyances with this novel, it wasn't strictly bad. Other than the aforementioned harping and bitching, the writing was serviceable. The secondary characters were all well-drawn, and the characters from previous series keep their Prequel Baggage to themselves and contribute to the current storyline.For all my problems with Merrick and Madeleine, there was enough character development and backstory to motivate their pain and their actions, even if I thought Madeleine was irritatingly passive. I still have Tempted All Night on my TBR, so I won't give up on Liz Carlyle yet.