First Comes Marriage
by Mary Balogh, historical (2009)
Dell, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-440-24422-6


First Comes Marriage starts out very good, giving me hope that despite author Mary Balogh having sold her soul to a publisher that insists on her producing what seems like three hundred titles a year, this one may indeed be a great read. Alas, there is hardly any plot here and the romance is... well, I'd get to that later. First, the story.

In a village called Throckbridge in Shropshire, everyone is pleasantly surprised when they learn that a Viscount is in town, and just in time for their first ever St Valentine's Day dance festival too. Our widowed heroine Vanessa Huxtable Dew is far from impressed by Elliott Wallace, Viscount Lyngate, however. Okay, she's not invulnerable to his good looks, but she also knows that he is arrogant, has little patience for anyone but himself, and decidedly lacking in a sense of humor. Imagine her surprise when it turns out that Elliott is in town to tell her brother, Stephen, that he is now the new Earl of Merton. The previous Earl suffered from what seems like Down syndrome and died at the young age of sixteen and now Stephen is the new heir. However, if Elliott thinks that he can just whisk the lad off to London, he's in for a reality check. Stephen's three sisters, including Vanessa, will be tagging along.

Stephen finds himself in a dilemma. He can't just bring out three ladies like that and he has no female relative or even acquaintance who can do that for him. Perhaps he can marry the eldest Huxtable sister and let her do the annoying business of bringing out her sisters? After all, he needs to marry anyway and the eldest sister is pretty enough for the position.

Now, we are talking about heroines in a romance by Mary Balogh, so it is to nobody's surprise, I'm sure, that the I-AM-MARTYR gene is present in both Vanessa and her elder sister Margaret. Margaret, you see, has spent her youth caring for her siblings and despite having some suitors coming her way, insists on pining after a man who hadn't sent word to her in four years now. What a drip - I tell you, I'm definitely looking forward to her story. But marrying Elliott is a Responsibility, so Margaret is willing to martyr herself for the position. Of course, Vanessa can't have that, so she outwits her sister by proposing marriage to Elliott first.

Okay, so Vanessa is quite a bit of a drip herself. She lives to make people laugh and be happy, after all. Still, she doesn't martyr herself to a horrifying extent like some of the author's heroines have in the past. Actually, Vanessa has ample adorable traits here. I like how the author presents Vanessa's previous marriage in this story. Sure, in a way, it's a stereotypical first marriage where the heroine is not singularly enamored of her husband and he was incapable of satisfying her sexually, but I love how Ms Balogh presents Vanessa's conflicted feelings of hesitation and even guilt in allowing another man into a heart that she has kept for her late husband for a long time. This aspect of Vanessa feels very real to me. Vanessa, for all her faults, is also a strong heroine who also has a sense of humor that is as strong as her moral code. I like her. What I do not like is the author continuously reminding me of Vanessa's supposedly plain looks, as if she wants me to give her a medal for letting a plain heroine get a hunky boyfriend.

But Elliott... oh boy. Let me put it this way: he is one of the worst communicators I've come across. Not only is he boorish and humorless, he is also a wretched snob who acts as if the wife will obediently nod to everything he tells her and remains oblivious to what he doesn't feel like informing her. The second half of the story sees Vanessa playing the valiant martyr to her husband's boorish behavior as she tries to make him see sense.

Still, perhaps I would still have fun here if there is some good scene where everyone starts screaming at the other person and providing some campy catharsis in the process. However, the story ends just like that - abruptly and anticlimatically. I actually blink and recheck the page numbers when I reach the last page because I am convinced that a few hundred pages must have gone missing. One moment the heroine is fuming mad because she discovered that the hero had a mistress and then they are professing their love to each other. Love? Is Ms Balogh joking? For a long time Vanessa is trying to get her husband to treat her decently and all of a sudden they are telling each other that they are in love? Without even a grand screaming match? What is that all about?

Rating: 74


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