by Jennifer Probst, contemporary (2012)
Pocket, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-4767-2532-1
Jennifer Probst's The Marriage Mistake features the vaguely obscene-sounding Carina Conte, the sister of the idiot hero from the previous book, The Marriage Trap. She's one of Michael's sisters, and if you have read the previous book, you may remember that Michael is disturbingly obsessed with ensuring that his sisters remain chaste and ignorant of the evil penises in the world, waiting to pounce and plunge into any hapless females the moment they step foot outside their house.
Given how she grows up in the Italian version of the House of the Taliban, perhaps it is understandable that Carina is ready to put out and go wild the moment she has the chance. Now, since she's a romance heroine, she can't go wild with any random bloke, as that would make her a whore according to the rigid standards of the romance genre. So she wants to go wild with Maximus Gray. Yes, his name really is Maximus, and yes, I know, it's horrible, but hey, at least it's not Lucien or anything even more dire.
Max is a beta hero in the true sense of the word. Max is a beta to Michael's alpha in the pack - he's in every way a chauvinist pig, but he defers completely to Michael in everything because he wants to be Michael's friend forever and ever (in a non-gay, non-bromance, "Look! His penis makes women moan - he likes women, okay!" way, of course) and he also wants dearly to be considered part of the Conte family. As a beta, he is the second in command of La Douche, sorry, Dolce Maggie, the American offshoot of La Douche Family, er, La Dolce Famiglia, the bakery empire of the Conte family.
Carina is in America to get a job after earning her MBA. and Michael, his head full of graphic nightmarish images of penises waiting in line to plunge into Carina, insists that Max takes Carina under his wing and ensures that those penises stay far, far away from his sister. What will he say when Max's own pee-pee stands at attention now that Carina has grown breasts and all?
The plot is a straight-up Harlequin Blaze cliché: guy doesn't want to commit to the heroine but is driven by jealousy as she ineptly tries to flirt with other men, until he is driven to have sex with her. However, there is also plenty of Harlequin Presents influence here, making this story somewhat of a hybrid of these two lines.
The clumsy misogyny and chauvinism in this story, often portrayed as virtues, are straight out of a Harlequin Presents book. Thin women, especially blondes, are tarred with the same brush: dumb, vapid, shallow, and good only for being disposable sex toys for the heroes. In fact, Ms Probst takes several opportunities to have both Max and Carina rant about the current beauty standards that emphasize thinness as beautiful in a manner that makes me roll up my eyes. For example, there's a scene where Carina wants to sign up for a gym in order to stay in shape, prompting Max to rant about how Carina should be proud of her curves and all. I don't know whether Ms Probst is channeling her own body issues here or she thinks I'm a fat romance reader who wants my junk food habit to be validated, but it's quite bizarre how even the simple act of keeping fit is portrayed this negatively. Exercise is good for the health, after all, so why the frown?
Also, the men in this story treat women as helpless creatures that will be ravaged and brutalized if they were not kept under close supervision, and this attitude is passed off as romantic protective instincts of these gentlemen.
The Harlequin Presents vibe is also strengthened by the reaffirmation of antiquated values, such as our hero and heroine having to marry after being discovered in a "compromising situation". Are we even supposed to use this phrase in a contemporary romance? Despite having everything he wants now, Max predictably enough behaves like an ass because every Harlequin Presents-wannabe requires such drama.
Both Max and Carina behave like immature brats here. In the first half, it's Carina who plays the idiot role to the hilt, acting like a typical idiot-gone-wild stereotype. In the second half, Carina to her credit does tell off Max when he's being an idiot, but she never truly stands up to him, while Max assumes the role of the idiot here. He knows he's hurting her, but he still goes ahead anyway with his nonsense. Worse, he turns into quite the whiner, constantly moping about how much of an ass he is and how empty he feels now that he may have lost both Carina and Michael. I also can't figure out whether he wants to sleep with Michael or Carina more, as his feelings for Carina are closely entwined with his desire to be loved and accepted by Michael. But I guess there is no room for bro-sex in the land of hot and sexy romance novel chauvinists.
All things considered, though, this book is a bit of an improvement over the author's previous two books in this series. Compared to her overwrought writing in those books, the narrative here is quite restrained. No exploding bursts and sparks and kings of the dawn to make me wonder whether I'm reading a scene of someone high on drugs or something else. Carina has some spine, although she still shares the single-digit IQ of the heroines in the previous two books. Max isn't outright cruel, and if I want to be kind, I may argue that he's just such an ass at times because he can't accept that he's in love with Michael.
At any rate, this book is still an example of absolute mediocrity, and I think people can actually get two Harlequin Presents books with similar story but with better writing for the price of this book. But since there is a bit of an improvement, let's just think happy thoughts and give Ms Probst the thumbs up for... well, not being as bad as before. I know, it's not much, but we all have to start somewhere.
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