by Julia Justiss, historical (1999)
Harlequin Historical, $4.99, ISBN 0-373-29064-0
Julia Justiss won the Golden Heart Award in the Regency category, the promotional blurb says on this book, and I'm not surprised. This is an excellently written romance. Miss Justiss has the Regency period down pat, from the nuances to the dialogs. Her style is so masterfully vivid that it's like watching a tapestry of the era unfold. I can fancy myself feeling the evening air as I ride in my phaeton, or listen to the musicians as I walk down the grand staircase to the ballroom.
Sarah Wallingford's late wastrel father has left her family deep under the hatches and her family holdings are about to parceled off among the creditors. In desperation she launches herself into Society, hoping to marry a rich man. She does this by taking the post of chaperon to her spoilt friend Clarissa. She finds herself attracted to Clarissa's fiancé Nicholas Stanhope, Marquess of Englemere. He finds her a refreshing change from the other Society women, and when he hears of her financial situation, steps in and marries her. The rest of the book deals with their adjustment to marriage life and their developing affection for each other.
This book starts with a wonderfully moving prologue that describes how Nicholas watches in horror and is too late to do anything as his beloved brother dies in a fishing accident and the subsequent aftermath. I sat comfortably in my chair and anticipated a jolly wonderful and tear-jerking read. Indeed, as I've mentioned, the writing is very good, and I will put Julia Justiss in my to buy list - she shows lots of promise.
But I must say the two lead characters are distant and so prim and proper that I have a hard time mustering any enthusiasm for them after the prologue.
In fact, I wonder why this book is called The Wedding Gamble. These two characters are ruthlessly logical and practical, and I doubt any of them would do anything spontaneous. Marriage for each of them is dissected in several paragraphs, each pro and con weighed. Their marriage isn't a gamble, it's more of a decision taken after there is no other alternative to be considered.
Miss Justiss has also stayed true to the Regency period in her characterization. Nicholas thinks nothing of keeping his mistress even after the marriage. He has an awful first wife (don't they all?), and is unwilling to concede that Sarah may be different and worthy of his affections. He is cold because he shuns affection, preferring cordiality and distant friendship in a marriage.
Indeed, both characters step into wedded bliss with no illusion of romance. This is a true historical romance Regency marriage, where the husband keeps a mistress and the wife turns the other cheek. Love is never mentioned. Only that day after day Sarah finds it difficult to contain her growing dissatisfaction with the scheme of things.
Sarah is a character in the vein of true Regency wives - submissive, proper, virtuous. I find it puzzling that as she easily disparages her worth and beauty, she expects to land a wealthy husband in the Marriage Mart. Her primness is so thick you can lay it out on a pavement to cover potholes. It isn't proper to confront dear hubby about his mistress, so she bottles every growing jealousy and anger inside her until it is a miracle that she doesn't get a coronary. Indeed, most of the problems in this book is caused by this unwillingness to discuss things. Why? It isn't proper.
I also find it rather disturbing that Sarah is always putting herself down and is always pathetically grateful that Nicholas marries her. Hence she puts Nicholas' wishes above her own. Her old flame comes to visit her, and my eyes roll upwards when she tells him she only accepts him because her husband never forbids her too. Even at the last page she is putting Nicholas' wish above hers. It's what Nicholas will want... it's what he expects... a good wife must not disappoint her husband... Nicholas will want me to... It is a good thing Nicholas is a kind (in an aloof manner) man. This woman has backed herself in a corner, and with the wrong man, will willingly make her life a living hell.
Oh, there are small glimpses of Sarah's steely persona. There's one scene that demonstrates the latent embryo of a fiery woman in her, a scene where she discovers her husband's unfinished letter to his mistress. Fury mounting in her heart, she grabs a porcelain piece on the table and flings it hard against the wall, watching in satisfaction as it shatters to pieces. Yet that is the extent of her mutiny, and the next hour she is donning her calm, placid facade before her husband. I feel totally exasperated after a while. Woman, just tell him, for goodness sake!
But a good wife shouldn't even know that her husband has a mistress, should she? Poor Sarah.
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