by Heather Cullman, historical (2003)
Signet, $6.50, ISBN 0-451-20767-X
La Martyr Blues play in the air like a Straussian parody gone haywire as Heather Cullman finally hits the "big lead" status with her title Scandal. Now, I have enjoyed several of this author's books immensely (I'd heartily recommend Stronger Than Magic for an experience of pure magic) but Scandal is ho-hum. I've read better, but I've read worse.
This is basically a story of two people trying to outdo each other in being noble. Thing is, there's a fine line between being a stupid martyr and a hero and Gideon Harwood and Julia Barham too often cross the line.
Gideon Harwood returns from India after making a fortune from oppressing the natives. Sorry, I mean, er, never mind. Since our hero has an Indian bodyguard, he can't be that bad, right? He returns with lots of baggages stemming from his mother's death and his sister being neglected and all. His brother Caleb is also missing, and Caleb is the Plot Device to bring Gondoon here home.
Julia Brown Ham is your typical Regency era heroine. She's gorgeous, but she'll never believe it even if Jesus comes down and tells her in person. She loves to read, not that we actually see her read much in this story. She is welcomed to all the best parties in town, but she complains that they are all boring. Men flock to her despite her having had three Seasons already, but somehow they are either dandies, lisps, or they ply her with flattery and swear devotion and fidelity and forever after, and she doesn't want that.
See, she wants love. Although she doesn't want to be like that mean Aunt Aurelia who ran away with a scoundrel she loved, only that he turned out to be a liar and all, and now Aurelia, a poor relative, is the unpaid nanny that is making poor Brown Ham's sisters unhappy. She wants love, but she also wants a handsome, titled nobleman to love. She wants to be courted but she doesn't believe any of the men that pay her court, because lord knows, she is not beautiful - never!
Can I have a memorandum here? Any heroines who act like this should be immediately married off to pig farmers and spend the rest of their lives pregnant, barefoot, and knee-deep in pig dung. That will show them the meaning of "love", these spoiled delusional dingbats. Love? Bah, these creatures won't even know love if love comes up and shines a spotlight into their empty brain cavity.
So while shilly-shallying around, Gondoon meets Brown Ham when she crashes into him at the bookstore. Oh, how embarrassing! He's so hot, but she must never see him again because he is, like, so hot! But things really heat up when Gondoon realizes that Brown Ham's father is simultaneously married to Brown Ham's mother as well as a late woman of Gondoon's acquaintance. To pay off Gondoon's silence, Crap Daddy offers Brown Ham to wed. With Brown Ham and Crap Daddy's support, Gondoon will finally be able to give his long-neglected sisters a great life.
To Brown Ham, Crap Daddy happily tells her that Mommy has gambling debts that will swallow them all and the Big House She Must Never Lose Ever and if Brown Ham wants to see her sisters (not her, of course, it's always for the sisters) happily wed ever after, she better get her legs up on the bridal bed right away. Instead of asking her mother or even bothering to look closely at Crap Daddy's expression, Brown Ham buys his every word and throws herself into seducing Gondoon like desperation personified.
Here, Dubya, here's an idea: let's gather 500 bluestockings and tell them that they must personally kill Saddam Hussein or they will lose their house and their sisters will be left homeless. I bet Iraq will fall to an army of desperate, psychotic women in no time. Or maybe these stupid creatures will get it all wrong and end up marrying Saddam... anyway, never mind. Let's ship them all to the coal mines in Borra Borra instead.
So they marry. Bear in mind that she doesn't know the reason why he marries her and he will never tell her about Crap Daddy's bigamy. We have the usual "she doesn't want to sleep with him, so he pushes her away and she feels rejected because she loves him but why oh why doesn't he respond?" tedious kissing games, culminating in a last moment revelation from our hero. Our heroine then proceeds to thank him with tears of gratitude - he saved her by marrying her, what a noble man!
I stare at this book in slight horror. Should we be rewarding such tedious overzealous pro-martyrhood behavior? Brown Ham's need to please everybody borders on full-blown neuroses and Gondoon is insufferably high-handed and boorish at times. Since romance novels will forgive men for everything and anything while burning the women for the slightest indiscretion, Crap Daddy doesn't have to be taken to task for his sins while Meanie Aunt Aurelia gets the collective finger.
What makes this book more frustrating is that it is not all annoying. There are some scenes in this book where Brown Ham is not stupid - she stands up for herself in unexpected moments, and when she is taking Gondoon to task for his judgmental behavior, that's when this relationship shows some promise to be something more than a dysfunctional marriage built from the blood of misguided martyrs. But these moments are like flashbacks of some alternate universe one tends to get when struck by lightning: an alternate universe where Scandal isn't a hopelessly formulaic tale of earnest and dim-witted bluestockings and heavy-handed stock minorly tortured heroes playing at marriages of convenience.
This book has its moments, but it's altogether too mundane to be memorable. It's readable enough as a pleasant diversion, but that's all it can do for me, I'm afraid.
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