by Julia Justiss, historical (2000)
Harlequin Historical, $4.99, ISBN 0-373-29132-9
The Regency subgenre of romance - and I'm talking about the hardcore Regency subgenre ruled by acknowledged accomplished authors like Carla Kelly, Mary Balogh, Elizabeth Mansfield, and company - and I have never exactly clicked. Not because of the lack of sex scenes, but because this genre seems to thrive on adhering to the formula set by Austen or Heyer too much, too often. There are exceptions, of course. But the main reason a Regency heroine and I never see eye to eye is when she insists of being chained by rules, standing there with tears running down her cheeks forlornly, as she watches the man she can never have walk past with a woman he can never love but must marry.
Me, I say if love is that strong, well, there's a reason Gretna Green exists, right?
And in the case of Julia Justiss' A Scandalous Proposal (definitely a Regency masquerading as a historical with some tacked-on love scenes), the writing somehow covers the two main characters in some glacial ice sleet in their oh-so-proper behavior. A scandalous proposal? Well, if a voluntary mistress-protector behavior is scandalous, okay. But everything else is dictated by family duty, honor, decorum, and a heavy dose of I can't, I wanted to but... I shouldn't, I wouldn't.
Emily Spenser is a shopkeeper. She is trying to keep a low profile as she is desperate (my favorite trait in a romance heroine!) to keep her son out of the clutches of her evil daddy-in-law. By the way, she's also an Accomplished Artist. Memo to heroines: don't take up art or you'll really be bleeding for art.
Evan Mansfield, the Earl of Cheverly, saves Emily from an extortionist one day, and Emily, desperate (again, my favorite word!) to keep her cover, offers herself as a mistress to an obviously attracted Evan.
Evan and Emily's dance is beautiful at first, and I must admit there are times I find my eyes moist as they move around in circles, obviously falling more and more for each other day by day. Goodbyes become painful and heartbreaking to endure. "That's so touching!" I blubbered into my tissues.
But the external conflicts keep forcing our two lovebirds apart. Evan made an obligation to a late friend to marry this friend's sister and care for her. This sister also happens to be lame and rather lacking in self-esteem. Abandoning her would seem like, well, leaving a baby on a highway. And then there are Max's family expectations, la di da.
Julia Justiss is an author who doesn't take shortcuts in her main characters. The Other Man and Other Woman in this story are realistic characters who really make me sympathize as well as root for them. Where Ms Justiss falters very badly is when she tries to add into all the emotional conflicts she has created a bang-blam-crash involving some tacked-on spy angle.
But the main problem for me is when Max and Emily behave with all the propriety and decorum that will make Miss Manners succumb into some euphoric high. These two are so controlled, poised, and when circumstances pile high and high against them, like all proper Regency martyrs they would bend backwards to sacrifice and let the other fellow be happy. For a moment, I'm okay with that behavior. But when such disgusting nobility keep going on and on, I want to shake them both.
Show some spontaneity, please! Some impulsiveness! Some defiance! Hint: Gretna Green; hint: tell Mom to get lost and stay out of sonny's life.
I mean, okay, so they both end up married. What's to stop one of them from walking out or something (for the other's own good, of course), when problems pile up again later in life?
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