by Courtney Milan, historical (2011)
HQN, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-373-77603-0
The hero in Unclaimed, Sir Mark Turner, is easily one of the most memorable good guys I've come across in my years of reading romance. There is no one like him, I feel. We usually have saintly good guys or tortured noble people who suffer at the cross for penance, but Mark is different in that, yes, he has his private demons, and yes, he is a 28-year old virgin by choice, and oh my, he is a moral man. Yet Ms Milan manages to show me how there is a vulnerable man who laugh and cry like everyone else underneath those principles of his. This is a good guy who may be larger than life like most heroes are, but he is also shows recognizable human emotions. His vulnerabilities tear at my heart, and his strengths only make him seem human. Or, to put it simply, he feels real.
In fact, Mark's frustrations arise from the fact that people, even Queen Victoria herself, view him as a saint. He believes in his principles, and he chooses to be celibate, but when he wrote a guide to maintain one's chastity, he became a fashionable celebrity overnight. He has poured his heart and soul into that book, only to find that most of his adoring fans have never read a single word of the book - they are his fans because he happens to be a good-looking fellow who is in favor. Suddenly, celibacy is in, which only makes Mark feel ill because he knows that they are just going along because it's fashionable. None of his fans, it seems, knows what he is trying to say, and he has plenty to say, about the injustices of life faced by women, by the poor, and more.
When he flees to his hometown of Shepton Mallet, a place where he feels at home and at peace with himself despite the demons of his past, he meets an enchanting woman, Mrs Jessica Farleigh. She is beautiful, and yet, she is treated like a pariah due to her carriage and daring clothes that brand her as "not one of them". Mark is a good guy, but he's human and he can lust, even love, as he deliberately seeks her out to learn more about her. The thing is, Jessica wants to seduce him. A courtesan who wants out from the business, she concocts a desperate scheme - she will accept her former protector's wager to seduce Mark and publicly announce his downfall, and in return, she will get the money she needs to start a new life, somewhere. Predictably, Jessica falls for Mark, and melodramatic bosom-heaving angst ensues.
Oh, Mark. He makes this story. Jessica is, on the other hand, a familiar archetype. Sure, she's an unpopular archetype in a genre that is enamored of female virtue, but she's a familiar one - the tortured reluctant tart with the heart of gold. Be warned - by the last quarter of the story, it's all about Jessica melodramatically trying one way after another to abandon Mark and become a martyr to her love for him. I understand where she is coming from, and let's face it, it is highly unlikely that they will be happy together, given the vast disparity of their social status, but goodness me, Jessica could have at least tried not to be repetitive and melodramatic in the process. She could have broken the monotony by... I don't know, maybe she could have attempted suicide now and then instead of just whining and wailing all the time. Even Mark is exasperated by her tedious and increasingly predictable histrionic showcase by the late parts of the book, mind you. Seriously, in this case, Jessica has the right to star in all that drama, I feel, but she's just boring in that role.
Then again, she is written as one of the lost, the Mary Magdalene to Mark's Jesus Christ Superstar, although Ms Milan is too skilled an author to turn this romance into a one-sided hero worship. Jessica is in a position of weakness, starting from the fact that she's desperate with a capital D. Apparently she has no choice but to seduce Mark for money, even if she can't bear the touch of another man after an unfortunate incident involving her previous protector, so she has to do it, ugh, even as she wails tearfully that she doesn't know how to love him. He's just a man, he's just a man... although, of course, the lyrics deviate from that point in that she's not really had many men, and especially not in many ways, because... well, this is a romance novel, and we all know what happens to heroines who spread the love too much at the hands of enraged romance readers. The fact that Ms Milan actually makes me understand and even sympathize with Jessica when I have a natural allergy to sad little Mary Magdalene types is a testament to how she can create exquisite characters that feel so real if she puts her mind to it.
For a relationship that is pretty much a rescue romance at the end of the day, this one manages to feel - or at least maintain an illusion that the two principle players are on equal ground of sorts. Yes, loving Mark offers Jessica a way out of her problems, but at the same time, Mark does come off as genuinely in love with Jessica. He doesn't come off like a shrink or a father figure here, just a man who loves Jessica. I like that. Also, these two address all the important and relevant issues standing between them and the happily ever after, so at the end of the day, I can believe that they will be fine, one day. They are good for each other, I feel, and I think they'll be fine. I want them to be fine.
This brings me to the last chapter. Talk about a dramatic misfire. After Mark spends an entire book trying to get the world to see that he is just a human being, with flaws and strengths like every mortal that walks this world, the author has him and Jessica turning into exactly the types of saint that he doesn't want to be. They forgive people who don't deserve to be forgiven, even rewarding them with money, and everything culminates in a bizarrely discordant and overly sentimental happy ending that sweeps every possible obstacle in our two characters' happily ever after under the rug. I like happy endings, but not one that contradicts the messages and sentiments that were present in the chapters leading up to it!
Unclaimed is not a perfect story, but the romance is devastatingly heartfelt and moving, especially due to a hero that is just beautifully put together. It took awhile, but Courtney Milan has finally bowled me over.
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