Tuesday, January 26, 2010
"Slightly Sinful," by Mary Balogh
The Chick: Rachel York. After a swindler makes off with her friends' life savings thanks to her naivete, she'll do anything to pay them back - even trick a distant relative into handing over her inheritance early. She just needs a man to pretend to be her husband.
The Rub: Amnesiac "Jonathan Smith" fits the bill, plus he owes her his life - but their enforced intimacy may have deeper consequences than she realized.
Dream Casting: Romola Garai.
The Dude: Alleyne Bedwyn, a.k.a. "Sir Jonathan Smith." After taking a fall from his horse, he wakes up in a brothel with no memory of who he is - but at least he's surrounded by pretty ladies, not least of whom is the lovely Rachel York.
The Rub: He rather enjoys playing the part of her loving husband - but he still has no memory of who he is, including whether or not he's already married.
Dream Casting: James McAvoy.
Alleyne: War sucks! *falls off horse, bonks head*
Rachel's Friends: *swindled* Poverty sucks!
Rachel: Guilt sucks! *rescues Alleyne*
Alleyne: Amnesia sucks!
Rachel: Virginity sucks.
Alleyne and Rachel: *SexyTimes*
Alleyne: You're right, virginity sucks. *glowers*
Rachel: Hmph. Wanna fake a marriage to get my inheritance?
Alleyne: What about your relative?
Rachel: Oh, don't worry, negligent uncles suck!
Uncle Richard: Being all alone and never getting to see my niece sucks.
Rachel: Utterly wrong first impressions suck. *tear*
Alleyne: Not being able to marry you sucks.
Rachel: Really? 'Cause I checked and you're single.
Wulfric, Duke of Asshat: What about me?
Mary Balogh: Not until the next book!
Wulfric: Damn, that sucks.
Romance Convention Checklist
1 Amnesiac Hero
1 Guilt-Trippin' Heroine
1 Bad Childhood
1 Forgotten Childhood
1 Kindly Uncle
1 Traumatic Head Injury
1 Inconvenient Inheritance
4 Happy Hookers
2 Drunken Servants
2 Evil Con Artists
1 Unpleasant Deflowering
The Word: In this penultimate volume of the Bedwyn series, we're dropped into Alleyne's story. During Slightly Tempted (Morgan's book), he went MIA during the Battle of Waterloo while delivering a letter from the Duke of Wellington and was believed to be dead. The Bedwyns held a memorial service, Morgan got some war-angst, and Wulfric, Duke of Asshat had a nice little scene where he cries his Asshat-y eyes out in the privacy of his study.
Of course, since the Bedwyn series is penned by Mary Balogh and not, say, Carolyn Jewel, Alleyne's status as a Hot Brother hands him a Get Out of Death Free Card. While galloping towards Brussels, he's shot in the thigh, knocked off his horse, bonked by a tree root, and stripped naked by war scavengers instead.
Meanwhile, in a brothel in Brussels, our heroine Rachel York tries to apologize to four whores (Geraldina, Flossie, Phyllis and Bridget - who was Rachel's childhood nurse) who have been swindled out of their retirement fund by a con artist Rachel unwittingly introduced them to. Rachel admired the Reverend Nigel Crawley for his supposed goodness, decency and tolerance and agreed to be his betrothed - and now she blames herself for her friends' misfortune.
While the kindhearted birds of paradise consider Rachel as much a victim of Crawley's deception as they are, Rachel still feels responsible and so she, Flossie and Geraldina form a half-baked plan to see what valuables can be found on the battlefield outside the city, in the hopes they'll at least make enough cash to hunt down Crawley for the rest. However, it takes about two minutes for them to realize they haven't the stones to rob the dead, but in the process Rachel discovers an unconscious Alleyne and brings him back to the brothel to recuperate.
What follows is an admittedly trite setup, in which Alleyne wakes up and panics over not remembering anything, the four painted ladies made an exhausting number of thinly-veiled references to how much they want to bang him three ways from Sunday, and Rachel intentionally allows Alleyne to infer she's a whore for some ridiculously martyrish reason. She also jumps into bed with him after knowing him for all of two weeks, then gets all huffy when Alleyne, discovering she's a virgin mid-thrust, is understandably too appalled to perform to her satisfaction.
Okay, so the set-up is tiresome, but it doesn't last for too long and it pays off in spades later. Rachel finally figures out a way to pay back her prostitute pals: while her gambling-addict father left her with nothing when he died, she still has a sizable inheritance of her mother's jewelery held in trust for her by an estranged uncle, to be doled out when she turns twenty-five (three years from now) or when she marries someone her uncle approves of.
Rachel figures if she and Alleyne can convince her uncle they're a happily married couple, he'll have no reason not to hand over her bling, which will restore the hookers' nest egg while leaving a hefty chunk for herself. Despite her tendency to guilt-trip, Rachel feels no qualms about deceiving an uncle who participated very little in her life after disowning her mother for her elopement.
Alleyne agrees to help in her scheme, partly because he owes her big time for saving his buck-naked ass, but partly due to his own cowardice. While in theory he wants to discover who he is and if he has any family, he's also terrified at the thought that his memories might never return. He'd much rather procrastinate for a while to see if his memory returns on its own and posing as Rachel's husband gives him an excellent excuse.
However, things are not so cut-and-dry: Alleyne (now called "Jonathan Smith"), Rachel, and the ladybirds head off to the cold-hearted uncle's impressive estate for a few days only to discover - a) the uncle isn't as cold-hearted as he seems, b) the estate's no longer so impressive thanks to its owner's debilitating illness, and c) the frail Uncle Richard declares that "Jonathan" and Rachel must stay with him for a month before he'll consider relinquishing her jewels.
And here is where the novel goes from pleasant to good, and from good to very, very good. Mary Balogh plays on some familiar themes - mainly, a deep and abiding love for the countryside and intense and understandable personal drama. Alleyne, much like his older brother Aidan from Slightly Married and the Marquess of Hallmere from Slightly Scandalous, discovers an affinity for Rachel's uncle's estate and how it's managed and run. In fact, all the Slightly books so far have taken place at lovingly-described country estates, with plenty of scenes where the characters grow to admire and appreciate the proximity to nature and its beauty (which, in itself, was a popular cultural theme during the Regency). Freed from social constraints and personal limitations that a knowledge of his specific identity might have placed on him, Alleyne pursues what naturally calls to him and uncovers the true essence of his identity.
As for Rachel, well, she's a very flawed character - and I mean flawed in the human way, and not in the badly-characterized way. While I didn't always like her or agree with her, thanks to Balogh's writing I almost always understood her. In many ways, she tries to feel the way she "ought" to feel, repressing her true emotions, and this is poignantly demonstrated in her relationship with her Uncle Richard. She wants to hate him and think the worst of him for not taking part in her life but she responds to the situation of his illness and his generous treatment of his guests nonetheless, and then she ends up resenting her feelings of sympathy as weakness.
Rachel is a woman who is very bound up in the past - she cannot forget her lonely and poverty-stricken childhood spent with a father who threw every penny away at the gaming tables, or her belief that Uncle Richard could have helped if he'd only forgiven her parents for their elopement. She can't overcome her memories of being alone in the world enough to stop taking responsibility for everything and misinterpreting what other people say to her (Alleyne in particular) as slights against her. Seen in this light, it makes perfect sense that it takes a man without memories and without a past to help awaken Rachel to the joys of the present and the possibilities of the future. Some people joke about how cliched the amnesia plotline is (especially in romance), but I'm always willing to suspend my disbelief in an overfamiliar or unrealistic plot device if it expresses an insightful theme or literary idea, and at the risk of repeating myself, Mary Balogh is a champion at this.
The secondary cast, primarily comprised of the four whores, are meant to be lively and humorous but their banter quickly becomes tiresome - however, even they start to grow and develop in pleasant (if predictable) ways. They seem surprisingly healthy and cheerful and well-adjusted for 19th-century prostitutes, which made me a little curious about their pasts and backstories, but otherwise they were harmless.
All in all, another thoroughly enjoyable Mary Balogh novel. You'll have to blame the predictability of my Balogh reviews on the fact that she is one of the most consistent novelists I've ever read - she's not always heart-stoppingly fabulous, but she is always good, and I have never not enjoyed reading her novels.