by Claudia Dain, historical (2002)
Leisure, $5.99, ISBN 0-8439-5111-7
I must admit, this latest by Claudia Dain is wearing thin on me. It's another character-driven romance, and it really isn't any different from The Holding or The Marriage Bed (both books are related to this one). While the author has cut down on the slow pace and repetitious plot points that tend to plague her previous books, the sameness of her books are starting to get to me. Maybe it's a good thing her next book is going to be a Western. A change of setting can't hurt when the monotony is already setting in.
The Willing Wife is a medieval romance that, while not exactly on Isolde Martyn levels when it comes to history, actually succeeds in capturing the way the people think and behave in those times. Religion? It's here. Arranged marriage? Yes, but watch as the heroine Nicolaa accepts her lot but at the same time she underhandedly fights for power and what little of her choices using her brainpower and even feminine wiles. She is no crazy tomboy wearing a knight's outfit and pretending to the hero's squire, she's a rather real woman trying to survive in those turbulent times.
The plot is simple. Nicolaa of Cheneteberie owns five towers, and in those times, she is indeed an heiress worth catching. Despite having wedded and lost four husbands (they annul the marriage after they learn that she is barren), she has no troubles finding men willing to marry her by order of King Henry II. The lucky man is Rowland of Aquitaine, aka Rowland the Dark. Rowland, however, eulogizes his late wife Lubias to the point that he has never noticed, much less slept with, any woman since his wife's passing. Nicolaa isn't very happy at her latest nuptials either, but she has learned that husbands come and go, and there are ways to handle these brutes and keep them out of her life as much as possible.
So that's it. This is the story of how Nicolaa and Rowland fight, yell, and love their way to a happy ever after.
For most of the early parts of this book, I am irritated though. Rowland is just plain nuts. Lubias, Lubias, Lubias, Lubias. Everything is Lubias. Look, I'm glad he loves his wife, but please, enough already. Lubias this, Lubias that, aargh! That name pops up on every page, and I think the book is in trouble when Lubias is mentioned more than the heroine's name in the book. But at the same time, Rowland is pretty considerate in that he will be nice and remain married to his wife to spare her the humiliation of being deserted again on the grounds of her infertility. After all, he will love only Lubias, so what's the harm in staying wedded to a woman he doesn't want, eh? What a magnanimous ass. Let's lubias his sorry ass all the way to Libya!
I look wistfully at the priest who is in love with Nicolaa and wonders if he will ever find the nerve to start a scandalous love affair with Nicolaa. Hey, anything's better than that crazy Lubias-obsessed nutcase Rowland.
But everything's forgiven when Rowland is finally made to fall onto his knees for being a perversely selfish asshole. One thing I love about his epiphany is that religion as well as conscience plays a role in it. It is really a nice touch that is pretty true to life in those times. Even better is that Nicolaa never forgives him until they both have really grown up and become a little wiser first.
Ah yes, Nicolaa. I really like her. Claudia Dain is one of those few authors (another author I can think of is Jane Feather) who let their heroines use their femininity as a weapon to defend themselves from their lot rather than letting it subvert them into being helpless lil' damsels. Nicolaa really doesn't accept anything less from her husband other than acceptance, respect, and love, and good for her, really. There's also a nice secondary character, fourteen-year old Beatrice who learns the meaning of heartbreak from a callous squire, and boy, watch her actually use what she has learned from her role model Nicolaa's lessons to fight back.
There are many arguments in this book, and sometimes I cringe because if only Rowland and Nicolaa have communicated better, most of the noise could have been avoided. But there's a perverse pleasure in reading about Nicolaa's fiery temper that she keeps oh-so-contained even as she rips a new anal orifice in her husband's face with thinly-veiled and well-aimed barbs. And she's right, by the way. She does not deserve to be treated like second-class goods by her husband, and she will not settle for anything less than having his respect and affection.
If there's any setback to these feminist tracts creating firebombs all across the pages of this book, it's probably the fact that these two people are so busy trying to knock each other's heads in that the chemistry suffers. This book is actually the most humorous Claudia Dain book to date, but at the same time, it is also lacks heated sexual tension. This book is more like a chess game, and it is often more involved in its characters' strategies rather than their passion.
I like this book, but I've always like this author's intelligent heroines, and I think Nicolaa is probably her most intelligent heroine to date. But at the same time, this book is pretty much a redundant retread of her previous two medievals - different plots, yes, but the conflicts dividing the hero and the heroine are somewhat similar, and the slow pace and the high noise to signal ratio can be annoying, especially when coupled to the sense of monotony emanating from The Willing Wife. This is a good book, yes, but I think it's really time for a change. I want something different, please.
PS: Oh, and yeah, this is one of those "fake infertility" stories. Really, what are the chances that our heroine can marry four men that fail to impregnate her and then here comes Rowland and his super sperm and woosh, here comes the baby? Seriously.
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