Friday, May 28, 2010

"The Marriage Bed," by Laura Lee Guhrke

The Chick: Viola, Lady Hammond. As a young woman, she fell headlong in love with her new husband, but once she discovered he'd only married her for her money, she cast him out of her life and her bed.
The Rub: Nine years later, her husband desires a reconciliation in order to get an heir - but Viola knows a reconciliation is impossible if she wants to keep her heart intact.
Dream Casting: Katherine Heigl.

The Dude: John Hammond, Viscount Hammond. John needs an heir, but Viola refuses to bargain, negotiate, or adjust her complete loathing of him in any way. Since he's not the forcing type, he sets out to seduce her into compliance.
The Rub: As his seduction continues, John discovers he hasn't only missed an heir, but the wife who used to adore him, whom he is coming to adore in turn.
Dream Casting: Colin Firth.

The Plot:

John: I need an heir.

Viola: No.

John: Please? Smoochies?

Viola: NO.

John: Um, you're legally my wife so --

Viola: NO NO NO NO NO NO...

John: What am I supposed to do? Go back in time?

Viola: That would be a start!

John: Have you READ The Time Traveller's Wife?

Viola: Touche. Fine, I'll give it a go.

Crazy Mistress Babymama: Surprise! I have a baby! And I'm in love with you! And also in love with making scandalous scenes!

John: Oh no! You're not leaving me because of this Viola! NO! NO NO NO NO NO --

Viola: Who said I was leaving?

John: ...never mind. HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

Several Naughty Mistresses

Several Previous Guhrke Characters

Several Stolen Kisses

1 Big Nasty Lie

1 Impromptu Swimming Lesson

1 Consolation BJ

1 Overprotective Brother

1 Secret Baby

The Word: Laura Lee Guhrke has become a hit-or-miss author with me. It's mostly hit, and when she hits, she hits hard with classics like And Then He Kissed Her and His Every Kiss. However, on those occasions when she misses, she completely and utterly misses with novels like Secret Desires of a Gentleman. With The Marriage Bed, the controversial storyline could have easily been a miss of epic proportions, but thanks to some fantastic characterization, we get a hit instead.

The controversy? Adultery. Cheating protagonists, and whether or not they can have a believable Happily Ever After, are pretty hot-button issues in Romancelandia and have been for some time. Some readers adamantly refuse to read novels with adulterous protagonists because they just don't believe that sort of trust can ever be regained. For others, like myself, it depends on how the situation is written.

John and Viola, Lord and Lady Hammond, have lived apart for going on nine years at the start of the book. Both appeared briefly in the company of their mutual friends in His Every Kiss and presumably Guilty Pleasures as well, but never together.

At one point, Viola was once the sheltered and heavily-dowered sister of the Duke of Tremore. Then John, the new Viscount Hammond, came into her life. Despite the warnings of her brother that he was only a feckless fortune hunter, she fell madly in love with John, who professed the same feelings towards her. However, after only a few months of sex-filled married bliss, she discovered the truth: John had kept a mistress throughout the period of their courtship and right up to the day of their marriage. He'd even bought his mistress a going-away present with her money, the rest of which  went to repair his debt-ridden estates. Viola subsequently barred him from her bedchamber - and after waiting thirty business days for her to get over herself, John decided "aw, fuck it," and left her to drown his frustrations in a long line of mistresses.

After nine years of debauched living, John receives news that the heirs to his estate (his friend Percy and his young son) have died of scarlet fever. John had resigned himself to the idea of no children between him and Viola (who have lived in separate houses all this time), but now that the remaining heir to his estate is a spoiled, spendthrift layabout every bit as irresponsible as John's father, drastic decisions must be made. Namely - John has to shag his wife.

John approaches Viola with his need for a son and heir, and she responds by telling him, in no uncertain terms, to go fuck himself with a sharp instrument. However, she realizes her options are limited: as her legal wedded husband, John has the law on his side and is technically free to do just about anything he pleases with her. She decides to stall - thinking if she holds him at bay long enough, he'll eventually give up and leave her alone, just like last time. However, John has the similar idea of moving slowly. While he doesn't doubt her hatred of him, he remembers from their few brief months of wedded bliss that they could still fuck like bunnies when fighting like cats and dogs, so he hopes to slowly reacquaint her with the physical benefits of marriage to him.

So John sounds like a Grade-A Ass, doesn't he? Well, while Laura Lee Guhrke doesn't sugar-coat his actions, he's not unnecessarily demonized either. John and Viola entered into marriage with very different ideas of what marriage is. John's is very much in keeping with his time period: marriage was for money and property and alliance. His father's starving tenants are now his starving tenants, and if getting a wealthy heiress to marry him will save his estates, than he's not above a little emotional manipulation to get one. Conversely, Viola's idea of marriage is the modern idea of Love or Nothing: when John reminds her of her noble wifely duty to give him heirs, she is motivated by her feelings first and foremost when she refuses him. She doesn't give a rat's ass about the possibility of failed crops and the starving tenants she's supposedly responsible for.

This, ultimately, is how Guhrke maintains the drama in The Marriage Bed, by maintaining the delicate balance between historical and modern influences in the narrative. Both John and Viola are right and both John and Viola are wrong. It's wholly frustrating and completely gripping to read because both characters are selfish and difficult and flawed and yet you come to care for both of them.

John, who as misguided as he often is, usually wants to do the right thing, is now motivated by duty to fight for the wife he'd abandoned, and his evolving strategies to get close to her force him to, well, get close to her, and discover firsthand the wonderful woman she is, the woman he'd never bothered getting to know during their courtship. His attempts to wiggle into her good graces involve reminding her of the happy times in their relationship, and in turn he learns what he's been missing.

Meanwhile, Viola reacts to John's seduction techniques with increasing panic. She fell for him so quickly and so completely the first time that she knows it's only too easy to do so again. This is a romance novel, so we know how this ends, but in the process she learns to reconcile her love with her own emotional independence, so that she's no longer a girl falling love, but a woman falling in love.

That being said, despite layered characters, there are a few flaws. The writing is a bit lacklustre this time around - nothing too drastic, but frequent repetitions of the same flashbacks and over-used metaphors abound. As well, the pacing and characterization in the last quarter of the book seems a bit rushed - Viola's in particular. It seemed too quick, even though John has spent the last two hundred pages wearing her down.

That being said, The Marriage Bed is a fierce and emotional romantic drama that doesn't pull punches, but forces us to look closer at flawed characters we'd prefer to give up on.


  1. Oh good! I enjoy estranged spouse romances, if they are done well, and it sounds like this is right up my alley. And the tension between the two views of marriage is one of my favorite things about the Victorian period, although not all authors exploit that potential. (I'm assuming this is Victorian based solely on the other book by her that I liked, And Then He Kissed Her.)

    Thanks for the recommendation!

  2. Anonymous5:57 PM

    Excellent review! I will no longer attempt to explain to people why I think this is a really good book, I'll just refer them over here. ;-) -- willaful

  3. I haven't read this one though I have it in the TBR pile. I'm curious - have you read any of Guhrke's older books? Maybe it's me, but I noticed a shift with her when she moved the setting to England and Dukes and Viscounts and Earls (oh my) If you can track them down, I HIGHLY recommend Conor's Way or Breathless or To Dream Again

  4. Anonymous10:13 PM

    Just when I think I have a chance at conquering my TBR pile, I read one of your reviews... so now I totally have to read this book. I don't mind the cheating thing too much if it's done well, but it always annoys me that while hubby dear is off sleeping with other women, the sweet and innocent wife never cheats back. *sighs*