Scandalous
by Jenna Petersen, historical (2005)
Avon, $5.99, ISBN 0-06-079859-9


Jenna Petersen's debut Scandalous comes off like an ugly duckling that somehow couldn't find a way to transform into a swan. The underlying potential is there but somehow the whole thing doesn't come together well. I like this book, I am pretty sure one day Jenna Petersen will come out with a fabulous knock-me-off character-driven romance if she keeps up with what she's doing, but Scandalous is a book too constrained by stark shades of black and white coupled with an author's overambitiousness that doesn't complete translate to paper.

At first, the characters all feel like cardboard cutout of tried-and-true "Hey, haven't we met before? On Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday? Same time next week too?" stereotypes. The heroine Katherine Flemming thinks she doesn't believe in love so she spends her time choosing a husband before settling for a man that offers security. Naturally, she being a stereotype, she'll soon be wondering why her husband doesn't say the three words to her while I'm in the background pulling my hair out and saying through gritted teeth, "But didn't you just say you don't believe in love? God, these women!" The hero Dominic Mallory is a rake, with "rake" being the shorthand way of saying "I have plenty of crazy family issues that you may have to subscribe to in order to get the full picture and therefore understand that I can't help being what I am... oh, and I'm good in bed, honest".

Katherine wants to marry Dominic's brother Coleburn but before she makes the mistake of losing her virginity to a man that doesn't give her the fuzzy-wuzzies - we can't have a non-virginal heroine running around scandalously now, after all - Cole's wife shows up. Oops, Sarah isn't dead like they said after all. Obviously Kat can't marry Cole now. Cole is a bad, bad man however (surprise) and he wants Dominic to marry Kat so that Dominic can facilitate some financial transactions at heiress Kat's expense for his comfort. In return, Dom will get the estate that he has always wanted, Lansing Square. Why does Dom want Lansing Square so badly, you ask? Dom is an illegitimate product of his mother's affair with who-knows-who, and Dom is sure that Lansing Square where his mother used as a delicious abode of cuckoldry will hold clues to his real father's identity. Maybe he's hoping for a lurid tell-all diary left by her mother for him to read.

Scandalous actually leaves me conflicted and even confused. Ms Petersen can get things so fabulously right one moment and then horribly wrong the next. For example, Kat believes that Dom marries her to save the reputations of both their families. The real reason why Dom marries her will have to come out eventually. Kat's reaction to the revelation and the circumstances of the revelation are pure soap-operatic cliché scenes. But for a beautiful glorious moment, Kat has an epiphany about how blind she is about Cole's real nature as well as Dom's. In that few paragraphs, Kat is a pretty smart woman that has just experienced an important revelation. But soon after that, Kat starts pulling on the martyr act about how Dom doesn't love her and he only married her for you-know-what so she knew it, he doesn't love her and it's time for her to play the wronged victim. I don't know. If Kat is a consistent character, maybe she should have think over her marriage and realize that a man doesn't have to dance to a scripted procedure in order to prove that he really love her.

Dom isn't too great of a catch - he is, in fact, too much of a cliché of the "Please, Please, Don't Hate Me, I Know Not What I Do Because I Have Such A Horrible Past" hero and the author's constant shoving of the hero's sad family life to my face to excuse his often silly behavior feels too much like a cop-out. Kat's ability to "understand" and forgive Dom for most of the book makes Kat's abrupt insistence that he doesn't love her and it's over therefore feels like a contrivance on the author's part. While it's nice that Kat's blinders are finally off regarding Cole, I find it contrived on the author's part that everyone seems to love Cole over Dominic when Cole isn't even subtle in his villainy. Kat was supposed to like Cole while Dominic was supposed to be attracted to Sarah, Cole's wife, but those two characters come off as unpleasant stereotypical villains. This particular contrivance actually cripples the characters of Kat and Dom because it makes those two come off as even worse judges of character than they already are.

I honestly don't know about this book. On one hand, I like it when the author occasionally wanders from the well-traveled path when it comes to her characters and make them behave in a way that surprises and delights me. But Ms Petersen also makes maddeningly unneccessary concessions to the formula that makes her story predictable and trite when she really doesn't have to. If Cole and Sarah are characters of shades of grey with good and bad traits, for example, instead of cartoonish foils to our hero and heroine, Kat and Dom will actually make more sense and feel real as characters. If the author hasn't used Kat so often as her personal soapbox about how poor Dom should be pitied, loved, and forgiven instead of being made to account for his own actions to the point that Kat comes off like a therapist on Oprah, Kat won't come off as so inconsistent at those times when the author makes Kat do predictable martyr-for-love stunts.

At the end of the day, Kat is so understanding about Dom yet so stupid about the fact that she is apparently so unloved. Kat judges Dom all the time like she's entitled to a perfect husband, moans about the fact that he marries her without wanting her, while at the same time she holds parts of herself back from her husband because she claims that she doesn't believe in love. Kat forgives Dom, using his past as an excuse, but she can't forgive him when the author needs a conflict to spice up the story. Dom badgers Kat to reveal aspects of her past and her life to him, acting as if he is entitled to all his wife's secrets, but he somehow cannot clear matters up when he should. Now, I'm not saying that these characters aren't allowed to behave in a less-than-perfect manner. What makes my head spin is how Ms Petersen swings back and forth between extremes so often when it comes to her characters that Dom and Kat come off as very inconsistent and even hypocritical. There are plenty of psychoanalyzing going on between the two characters and sometimes they come off like modern day shrinks but at the same time they are utterly clueless about each other for the sake of conflict. By sacrificing realistic character growth continuity and character consistency for silly antics solely for the sake of "exciting final drama" moments, Ms Petersen makes Scandalous come off as often too contrived for its own good.

There are so many times when I am reading this book that I feel like Ms Petersen sometimes take a step forward only to retreat two steps back and revert to trite and tired plot devices and clichés to make things easier for herself and her characters. Maybe if given time, Ms Petersen will find the confidence to allow her characters to grow outside the confines of the formula. For now, Scandalous is a pretty decent showcase of what Ms Petersen can and may do in the future, but the book by itself is a rather contrived and overly self-conscious debut with occasional glimmers of brilliance that never last long. I am interested in her next book, but I honestly don't find this book worth a reread. I'll just put this book aside and wait to see where Ms Petersen takes her career to from this point.

Rating: 76


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