Avon, $5.99, ISBN 0-06-077473-8
Historical Romance, 2005
Readers, what do you look for in a romance? That is a question that plays heavily on my mind as I turn the pages of Laura Lee Guhrke’s latest, The Marriage Bed – what am I looking for when I read this book? When I read romance, I demand one fundamental requirement from the author: I need to believe that the romance will work. I don’t care if the hero is, at his best, ambiguous when it comes to his love for the heroine, and at his worst, a complete cad when it comes to women. I don’t care if his behavior can be justified by him being a man of his time, by him “being a man” (whatever that means), whatever. I just need to know that he is worth the headache of fighting for.
In the case of this book, I don’t think I will stick around for the hero if I were the heroine. This is one book where the hero and the heroine end up together because she is as much forced by her being a woman of her time (and hence doesn’t really have the power to leave him even if she wants to) as much as she has this sadistic trait inherent in romance heroines that make them love the kind of men that sane women in real life will run away screaming from.
Simply put, this story is about an arranged marriage between an idealistic heroine and a thoughtless philandering man. Viola eventually separates from her husband John – not in divorce, but with her denying him the rights to the marriage bed after hearing about his adulterous ways and driving him off to his mistresses. Eight years later, he’s back because he wants an heir.
To give Ms Guhrke plenty of well-deserved credit, this book is beautifully written. “Beautiful” is a trite word, I know, but I only use it to describe books where the author manages to bring to life her characters so that their multifaceted emotions are so vivid that I actually can understand and emphatize with the characters (which does not mean that I agree with their actions and ways of thinking, of course) while at the same time managing to remain being complex characters. Unfortunately, this book, in my opinion, isn’t a tapestry of a marriage working despite the odds. It’s more like a marriage that has to work because the author decides that it must.
For example, Viola’s main justification to loving and eventually forgiving John – who never grovels even a little – is because he never meant to be cruel. But he has been cruel, and that’s the point I wish the heroine will consider even a little sometimes. It isn’t all about “understanding” the man, if you ask me, because John has to be made accountable for his actions if he wants me to believe that he has changed. Ten-or-so pages of turnaround behavior may have worked if the author, at the same time, doesn’t have John and his mistress having a confrontation that makes me weep for the mistress and wish her a happy ending in her own story, while John can take a hike off a cliff for all I care. At the end of the day, John remains too ambiguous, his fidelity uncertain. No, forget fidelity – the more important fundamental behaviors from him that I need to see to believe that his relationship with Viola will work, such as a basic respect for the woman he is sleeping with, much less love, are not there. He’s just John, a charmer who hurts women, apparently because he doesn’t know any other way not to.
But this book is well-written enough that some of the scenes linger in my mind long after the book has finished. Simple scenes like the heroine asking the hero whether he can be faithful to her and he saying that he doesn’t know give me the chills. The painful confrontation with his mistress breaks my heart. But the chills are chills of foreboding and dread and my heart breaks for the women John has wronged. It’s not that John is unfaithful to the women that share his bed that disquiets me, it’s the fact that he doesn’t even care what happens to these women or how his action will make them feel that gets to me.
After a while, I actually stop wondering what I am looking for in this book and wonder why the author is writing this book instead. Is she trying to create a difficult-to-swallow tale of a turbulent marriage? Because if this is the case, she has succeeded very well in drawing me into the story, because this is one case where an absolute, certain, and definite happy ending rings false. It is a testament to the author’s talent that she never causes me to hate any of these characters. I just end up feeling confused sometimes as to why Viola will want John back, just as I am confused by the feelings John harbors towards Viola.
So, back to my original question. What am I looking for in a romance novel? A romance that feels real in the sense that the characters genuinely like and love each other? I won’t find that here. A story with complex characters and a story that has me reading all through the night because I am fully absorbed by the turbulent emotions that the characters and their stories evoke in me? I can find that in The Marriage Bed.
All I can say is that I recognize a polarizing book when I read one, and this book is definitely one. I have no regrets reading it but I don’t get the satisfaction I would normally get from reading a good romance novel because this book challenges me intellectually (hence I can’t in good conscience give this book a low grade) but leaves me cold emotionally (so I can’t in good conscience give it a high grade either). The only thing this book proves is that Laura Lee Guhrke is a darned good writer who knows how to reel me in hook, line, and sinker and my hat is off to her for her doing so.