SPOILER WARNING: I always spoil a lot in my reviews, but this is one of the few romances I've read where there are some real surprises - so you've been warned.
The Chick: Sophie Evans. She eloped with the love of her life, only to discover he cared only about her fortune and the scandalous friends his new wealth would bring him. After he died, she swore she would never let a man control her heart.
The Rub: However, one of her late husband's aforementioned scandalous friends, the Earl of Banallt, has now declared his love for her. Loving him would only repeat her worst mistakes - wouldn't it?
Dream Casting: Sally Hawkins.
The Dude: Gwilym, Earl of Banallt. Years ago, he started a friendship with his friend's wife and just as quickly destroyed it. Now a changed man, he's determined to win back Sophie's affections.
The Rub: Sophie knows full well the sort of callous rake he was before, as well as the pain that marriage to a rake can inflict. How can he hope to convince her of his sincerity?
Dream Casting: Johnny Depp.
Banallt: I love you!
Sophie: No you don't.
Banallt: You're beautiful!
Sophie: No I'm not. You're sleeping with Mrs Peters!
Banallt: No I'm not.
Sophie: You're just going to leave me!
Banallt: No I won't.
John, Sophie's Hot Brother: I'm going to have a totally awesome secondary romance with Banallt's sexy cousin!
Evil Rake: No you're not. *shoots dead*
AnimeJune: *reading* Well ... shit.
Sophie: Don't leave me alone.
Banallt: I won't.
Sophie: Don't ever treat me like my husband did.
Banallt: I won't. ... Marry me?
Sophie: I will.
Banallt: HOORAY! Wait - you're just saying that! You don't love me yet!
Sophie: Yes. Yes I do.
Banallt: HOORAY FOR REALSIES!
Romance Convention Checklist
1 Reformed Rake
1 Wary Widow
1 Very Bad Husband (Deceased)
1 "Holy Crap, That Just Happened" Death
1 "Huh, Not Surprised" Death
1 Evil Rake
1 Big Fat Ho
2 Romantically Lacklustre Rivals
1 Inappropriate Advance
Several Romance Novels
The Word: There's a certain part of the average historical romance that I hate. You know, it's the part of the novel near the end where the debauched rake finally comes to his senses and realizes that the heroine is the One For Him, but oh it's too late, the heroine is convinced He'll Never Love Her, despite all the cuddling and sexual tension and smouldering looks of the last 200 pages. So the hero has to spend the last two dozen pages convincing her of the truth. Okay, so I don't always hate those parts of the Regency romance, but they're never my favourite part - mostly since the heroines spend so much time trying to win the hero only to give up at the last minute, despite the fact that it's so very obvious that the heroes adore them. Come to think of it, Karma Girl had an ending just like that.
Now imagine a novel where that part is the entire story. It's bound to suck, right? Right?
Scandal actually begins as the Earl of Banallt returns to Duke's Head, ostensibly to visit his ancestral seat of Darmead Castle, but really to ask Sophie Evans to marry him now that their respective spouses are both dead. He loves her, he loves only her, and he'll love her forever, and if she just says yes he'll shower her with money and affection and Alpha Male babies for the rest of her days.
He confronts her, divulges his feelings and asks for her hand. She refuses point-blank.
Sophie Evans has been severely scarred by love, and by her earlier experiences with Banallt. She caused a scandal and alienated herself from her family when she eloped with Tommy Evans, only to discover he was a heartless fortune hunter. While her husband burned through her inheritance with his mistresses in town, Sophie was abandoned to rusticate in the countryside and survive the mounting debts as best she could - by writing novels under a pen name. Occasionally, however, Tommy would return to the country estate, often with a drunken friend in tow - in several cases, the rakish Earl of Banallt. Even under such unorthodox circumstances, Banallt and Sophie came close to forming a tentative friendship, until the night Banallt ruined everything.
Now that her husband is dead and she's reconciled with her politically-minded brother, John, Sophie has no desire to marry anyone. Moreover, she's witnessed Banallt at his jaded, degenerate worst. He wasn't only a reprobate - he was the rake that her husband Tommy aspired to emulate. For Sophie Evans, it's not enough to be told that Banallt loves her. The beauty of Scandal comes from the strength of the characterization and plotting as the events that throw Sophie and Banallt together slowly, gradually show her the truth.
Sophie's a very frustrating character - her main role in the narrative is to say "NO." Banallt's after an HEA from the very first page, so keeping the novel, well, novel-length, requires constant rejection on Sophie's part. What's frustrating about her was that Carolyn Jewel paints her in such lush, multi-faceted, and sympathetic tones that you completely understand why she continues to dig in her heels, despite the fact that Banallt is a fat-and-calorie-free chocolate cake sprinkled with angel dust offered to her on a silver platter, at no charge.
Most of Sophie's objections aren't that she believes love is a delusion, or that it doesn't exist, or that she and Banallt are incapable of it. She tried the whole "marry for love" deal, and it nearly destroyed her. The most painful fact of Sophie's marriage was that she still loved Tommy, even though he essentially married her for beer money and abandoned her. Early on in the book, she reveals to Banallt that in the last excrutiating days of her marriage, Tommy came back, promising to reform, and she accepted him with her whole heart only to discover it was just another ploy to wrangle funds from her relatives.
Ultimately, this is why she refuses Banallt's advances while not exactly refusing the attentions of two boring, sensible rivals who show an interest in her: there's no risk that she might fall in love with them. However, even from the beginning of the novel, she knows she could fall for Banallt, if she let herself, and she fears that marrying him would trap her in the same situation she had with Tommy. However, throughout the novel she continually tests her own boundaries, dipping her big toe in, seeing what she can get away with - can she manage a conversation? Can she risk a dance with him? Can they just be lovers?
By necessity, Banallt must be the subtler character, because he doesn't have to travel the same emotional distance that Sophie does. He's already changed (as we can see through the narrative's graceful use of flashbacks), and he wants to prove it to Sophie, but at the same time he doesn't want to force anything on her or damage her reputation. He helps her test her boundaries and face her fears, and he refuses to give in to self-pity. There is a despairing edge to him though - there's no way to take back what Tommy's treatment did to Sophie, and no way to take back his own mistakes, so the only thing he can do is soldier on.
Carolyn Jewel crafts a subtle, quiet narrative on the nature of love and loss, using unique symbolism and not pulling punches that most other romance authors would have. Spoilers ahoy - the best example of this is with Sophie's brother John. He's a contributing character - he's young, hot, decent, and has actual lines. He makes goo-goo eyes at Banallt's cousin Fidelia, and she makes goo-goo eyes in return. The story gives every indication that John will pursue a secondary romance with Fidelia. So it comes as the greatest possible surprise when he ends up shot and killed more than halfway through the novel (in a darkly funny bit of metahumour, Sophie says, "He couldn't be dead. He was in love.").
It's a shock and a tragedy - but it serves the narrative, heightening Sophie's fear of loss and abandonment, giving Banallt the chance to demonstrate his heroism and his steadfastness, and serving as a potent reminder of the fragility of life and love. Fidelia and John failed to act on their attraction because of class differences and the awkward history between Sophie and Banallt, and when Sophie sees Fidelia, she discovers that Fidelia is the poorer for having lost love before she could truly experience it, which in turn influences how Sophie eventually stops running from love herself. I don't know how many other authors would have made an unconventional choice like that to serve the story. Hot brothers in Romance tend to live until they get sequels.
That was Scandal is - an unconventional, yet low-key romance between two very heartsick people. There's the repeated theme that Sophie's isn't Banallt's "type" (short, delicate, brunette), yet even from their first meeting it's apparent that nearly every aspect of her self fits perfectly, in one way or another, with some aspect of Banallt's (my fave example? Sophie catches Banallt reading her work and discovers he's a huge fan of her novels - before he'd even met her). It just takes the length of the novel for Sophie to discover this. That being said, this book just misses getting a perfect A grade because the narrative is slow, to the point where it sags a bit in the middle.