by Mary Balogh, historical (2004)
Dell, $6.50, ISBN 0-440-23660-6
Slightly Sinful is not sinful in any way, unless we're talking about the heroine's bizarre "virtue over common sense" behavior. By all means then yes, this book is sinfully silly. Then again, what do I expect from Mary Balogh? If she comes up with a book called Slightly Pornographic, I'd bet my last penny that the book will turn out to be a morality preachfest about the joys of chastity.
Rachel York is friends with four streetwalkers, a circumstance that is made possible by her loyalty to her old nurse Bridget Clover who became a prostitute after leaving Rachel. No, I really don't think Rachel has anything to do with the career change. Rachel ends up nearly marrying a preacher because he is kind to Bridget and her friends, only to realize that he's actually a hustler when he disappears with the ladies' money. The ladies decide that the best thing they can do now that they're out of cash is to head down to the war taking place nearby and divest some goodies from the dead soldiers in the battlefield. Of course, these ladies can't do it, eek-eek-eek, being gentle ladies who will rather starve than to actually, you know, survive, and mercy rescue comes in the form of the near-dead Alleyne Bedwin whom Rachel discovers in the battlefield.
He's rich, but Rachel will never ever do anything mean like trying to seduce him with her beauty, so instead Ms Balogh has the amnesiac Alleyne mistaking Rachel for a prostitute. You can predict what will happen next. Alleyne doesn't know who he is but he remembers inconvenient notions like honor. He decides that he can't marry Rachel - and Rachel predictably doesn't want to anyway, but she just wants to let him think she's a prostitute so that she can have some tender moments with him, yadda yadda yadda - so he'll help her in any way he can.
And then the author reveals that Rachel has some money in the form of jewels held in trust by her uncle until she turns twenty-five or when she marries a man the uncle approves, whichever comes first. He poses as her husband "Sir Jonathan Smith", the ladybirds pose as members of the genteel entourage, and the cantankerous one-eyed coot friend of the ladies pose as the usual cranky and unconventional valet of our hero. They worry whether they'll fit in. I wonder if they know how well they blend into the landscape of stereotypes taking hold of the Regency England.
With familiar tableau of honor, morals, virtue, and what not, Slightful Sinful is a tiresome story of people inconvenienced by morals to the point that they pretty much just circle each other, wringing their hands because they feel crippled by their honor and twisted codes of honesty. But that doesn't mean that the characters, especially Rachel, won't break their rules and then spend the next few chapters punishing themselves for breaking these rules by making themselves out to be super martyrs. Rachel doesn't really do anything in this book other than to get herself into a problem that challenges her morals and then whines and wrings her hands until a man comes in to offer her a way out. And even so, she takes a long time making up a million excuses as to why she shouldn't take what Alleyne offers and helps herself out of her predicament.
Alleyne is a decent hero who deserves much better than a brown cow like Rachel. There are some good scenes here too, especially when Ms Balogh allows Rachel to be out-of-character once in a while, drop the brown cow attitude, and behave like a human being for once, but these scenes are too few. The characters here don't think, much less react, like realistic people to the circumstances they are in, they behave like how very rigid Regency readers demand their characters to act. While Ms Balogh excels in describing her characters' emotional reaction to situations such as Alleyne's amnesia and Rachel's betrayal by the preacher, she always makes especially her heroines behave subsequently to these situations like infuriatingly passive martyrs whose instinctive and often sole reaction is to make pointless sacrifices.
Mary Balogh is a hit-or-miss author to me. She has written a few good books but she has written more tiresome books filled with passive heroines who are their own worst enemies. Rachel doesn't descend into extremely unhealthy self-depreciation like some of this author's heroines in the past, but she's nonetheless a tiresome brown cow that makes this book two hundred pages longer than it should be. This book is readable and will no doubt find a better reception from readers who enjoy having their lead characters to behave as rigidly and honorably as an ancient oak tree that just won't bend even a little with time, but for me, this book makes falling in love a painful punishment fit only for the most narcissistic martyrs out there.
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