Even though I often find them implausible and rife with Big Misunderstandings, I am a sucker for marriage of convenience stories. Amazon knows this about me, and has a way of suggesting new titles that make them seem enticing. Time and again I fall for the sales pitch, the clever cover copy. It’s just one of my many character flaws.
So when events transpired that I needed to buy a book by Carson McCullers, I decided to see what new recommendations Amazon had for me – and was intrigued by the come on of The Stranger I Married by Sylvia Day. The beauty of one-click purchasing is there is no time for remorse or second thoughts.
The Stranger I Married is the story of “London’s most scandalous couple.” Notorious for their strings of lovers and, uh, wicked wits, Lady Isabel Pelham (aka Pel) and Gerard Faulkner, Marquess of Grayson decide that marriage will offer the social cover they need to carry on with their wild ways. What with one thing and the other, love is the last our characters desire, and this marriage will keep their hearts safe – they are good friends who would never cross the L-word line.
Then something horrible happens, Gerard runs away from home (for four years!), he returns with a newfound desire to make their marriage real, and the game is afoot.
Where to begin? Pel is the widow of a charming rogue who seduced and married her. Well, you know, she’s the daughter of a duke or something like that. More on that later. Her husband was a bit of philanderer and Pel, broken-hearted and hardened by his perfidy decides to indulge her sexual appetite while avoiding commitment. She dumps her paramours and moves on before things get too intense (or, I suppose, too boring). Other than sex, Pel does not seem to have any particular interests or hobbies. Good thing this novel largely takes place in the bedroom.
Gerard, who lost the woman he apparently loved with all his heart and soul, is your basic paint-by-numbers marquess. Rich, handsome, good with this fists, rides well, beloved by his tenants for his willingness to work side-by-side with them. Did I miss anything? At some point during his four-year vacation, he decides he wants to woo his wife, and he returns home, ready to take up the duties of a real husband. Granted, he doesn’t bother to visit his tailor prior to his return, so therefore must postpone the actual public efforts until such time he is suitably attired. Yeah, he stays at home while she deals with the scandal of his return. Great guy.
All of this puts our story into the camp of “wounded souls finding happiness with each other”. Pel, who sees Gerard as the same type of man as her deceased hubby, will refuse to believe he’s changed. Gerard, who, uh, wow, give me a sec, oh, lost his true love, will allow himself to feel for another woman. They will acknowledge the error of their prior thinking, stop with all the philandering and wickedness, and live happily ever after.
Probably it’s because I’m a stickler for things like character development, but a key flaw of this novel is that all the bad behavior attributed to Pel and Gerard happens off the page. Let me say that another way: the character flaws that are required to be present in order for me to believe that both our hero and heroine change are missing from the actual story. I am told that Gerard sleeps with anything that moves. I am assured that Pel is sexually adventurous in a monogamous sort of way. And the horrible, tragic, life-shattering event that sends Gerard into the wilderness for four years? Barely developed.
I mean, I know there are all sort of romance rules and whatnot about sleeping with other characters within the confines of a romance novel, but, c’mon, if it’s a key character flaw, show it.
This is really, really important. Gerard is apparently devastated by the death of the woman he loves, a woman married to another man, a woman who is now his lover and about to have his child. This grand passion occupies, oh, three or so pages of the novel, including a sex scene. Yet it’s the impetus for Gerard’s leaving, becoming a better man, returning, and, somehow – and this part is beyond me – falling in love with his wife. Likewise, Pel’s lovers keep falling head-over-heels for her, and marriage is the best way of keeping them at a distance. Day races through the novel’s set-up in what I believe is an attempt to focus on the romance, but the romance is flawed because the inciting event(s) are treated with cavalier disrespect.
In order for me to buy into this story, I needed to believe that Gerard is a changed man. Day tells me he’s different. My gosh, Pel takes one look at him after his four long years away – by the way, he didn’t write, he didn’t call – and immediately sees a different man. More mature, less happy-go-lucky. Personally, I didn’t see much of a difference, but, in my defense, I knew nothing about how he was before. In short, Gerard appears to have a goal without the requisite motivation. Pel, poor thing, seems to have the opposite problem.
As you correctly surmise, with weak characterization comes weak conflict. The primary conflict of this novel is Pel’s refusal to make her marriage to Gerard real. When the romance is the key conflict, things are not good. Pel’s resistance is founded upon her lousy first marriage, but, you know, it’s hard to believe that she’s so scarred. There’s a lack of specificity to her pain that makes it seem forced upon the character and reader. Remember, all the bad stuff in her life happened long before this novel began. She’s been a widow forever. Likewise, Gerard’s broken heart is missing the necessary concrete details that would make the contrived secondary conflicts believable.
Because there isn’t really any solid reason for these characters to stay apart – they are, after all, married – Day test drives a laundry list of potential earth-shattering problems. She inserts the stock “conniving other woman” conflict, the “jilted lover” conflict, the “evil mother-in-law” conflict, even a half-hearted attempt at the “older woman/younger man” thing. When none of those find traction, a trumped-up “Gerard is afraid that Pel will die in childbirth like his dead love” conflict is introduced. The last always irritates me when I read it in novels. Let’s get real. It takes a pretty myopic, clueless hero to ignore the fact that, all around him, more women are giving birth than dying. If you’re going to throw up a Hail Mary conflict, build it, make it strong, make it worthy of the effort.
There is one area of conflict that Day suggests is present, yet doesn’t explore. Pel and Gerard entered into their marriage with the agreement that they’d be free to carry on as before. You know, lovers galore. During Gerard’s absence, Pel keeps up her end of the bargain. She is, frankly, a blight on the Grayson honor. Her moral shame is such that I was stunned that she would dare show her name in public. Then again, she’s the daughter of a duke and, well, wields commensurate power.
Yet Day glides past this conflict without a second thought. She misses the opportunity to show Pel’s character by forcing her to face her critics. Almost equally egregious is the fact that she fails to use her setting to its full advantage. Regency-era ballrooms and house parties and meetings in the park are all opportunities for Day to show us the rapier-sharp wit Pel supposedly possesses…and to show the cruel gossip and pettiness that supposedly dog her every move.
Yes, dear friends, this book is a RINO. That’s right, a Regency-In-Name-Only. Unless you count the joy of tossing around Regency-style language (a valet here, a dowager there), the time period has no relevance to the story. In many ways, the same book could have been set in modern day Los Angeles or outer space without missing a beat.
Day wastes her era and setting, choosing instead to obsessively chronicle sexual activities of her characters. Gerard could, sure, exhibit his emotional growth in a variety of ways, like through conversation. He chooses to fight his battle by having sex with his wife every moment he can. Apparently, the best way to show maturity is by sporting a constant erection. Somehow, sexual satisfaction becomes a stand-in for emotional connection.
Oddly, all the sex is less-than-erotic because this couple doesn’t talk or have much interaction outside the bedroom. Given that this is one of the “hot” books you hear so much about, the low steam factor is disappointing. Rather than having Gray prove that he’s a big boy in the bedroom, I would have preferred less sex with better quality — and a whole lot more relationship development.
You know how sometimes you have a really good idea but can’t seem to execute? So you flounder and end up with something that isn’t what you wanted? That’s what this book feels like. The idea – as exemplified in the cover copy – was intriguing enough to get me to buy the book. The finished product, however, doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be when it grows up. Is it a hot, sexy read (not really)? Is it a deeply emotional, healing story (not really)? Is it a historical Regency (no!)?
A final whine: why the first person title for a third person story? Just asking because, well, if I don’t, who will?
You can find Sylvia Day here. You can buy The Stranger I Married here or
here. You can disagree (or agree, that’s fine, too) with me in the comments below.