by Elizabeth Boyle, historical (2000)
Avon, $5.99, ISBN 0-380-81534-6
Major spoilers are present in this review
The other day my buddy Grace, who is undergoing some hard times, commented ironically how it would be nice to see a romance where the bottom line is such that, forget love and candies, money is the root to all happiness. I was about to recommend another book, but hey-ho, Elizabeth Boyle's No Marriage Of Convenience comes across my way, and darn if this book doesn't fit Grace's requirements to a T.
I'm sure the materialistic angle isn't intentional. But No Marriage Of Convenience tries to move in too many directions at once, shortchanging all the aspects it ambitiously and inadequately deals with, with a final conclusion that just reeks of cop out. The bottom line in No Marriage Of Convenience is simple: love is nice, but hard cash rules.
Riley Fontaine, playwright and actress of infamy, tries to bamboozle Mason St Clair, virginal scholar and the new Earl of Ashlin, into forgoing the debt she owes the previous Earl, but instead, she gets roped into teaching the bankrupt Earl's three wards lady manners. That's the crux of the story. This alone raises some interesting emotional issues, such as the question of class differences and the emotional/intellect conflict.
But the author tosses in too the question of someone trying to murder Riley, Riley being the lost heiress to some grand title (a title that conveniently gets passed down to daughters only), the three wards finding love, and Mason's Cousin Felicity finding love. These and the shades of Pygmalion and To Sir With Love elements of the teach-the-wards scenario mentioned above fight for space, valiantly.
What results in the end is like a rollercoaster ride. The start of it is shaky and contrived. Riley paying back a loan just to make sure Mason wouldn't know that her loan is much more than she is paying him? Can anyone entangle the (il)logic in that? And no matter how bankrupt an Earl is, hiring the actress known to all as "Aphrodite's Envy" and whose reputation is nonexistent to teach his wards is madness. Especially when he wants to see the girls married. This part of the book is like waiting for the rollercoaster to reach the apex of the ride. Boring. When is the fun going to start?
Then comes the humor and the character development in the middle. Now, the rollercoaster plunges down top speed. Eeeeek! It's fun! Riley, despite being one of those unrealistically pure actress (hah!), turns out to be a woman of strong will and character. She also exhibits a wry wit as befits her playwright talents. Alas, her attraction to Mason rings hollow. Mason only thaws late in the story, before that being nothing more than a stereotypical, unemotional fusspot scholar. If she falls for him when he finally smiles - at page 130 (or around there!) - yes, I'd believe that. But she is attracted when he is still scowling and whining about how his brother and male ancestors have sullied the Ashlin legacy. Bah humbug.
But best of all, the three wards, caricatures of Cinderella's stepsister times three, develop what akin to two-dimensionality. Most romantic is Louisa, the snobby one, who falls for an actor. The scene at a masquerade where the actor steals in to dance with her, and she finally thinking, "'twas a feeling, she knew, that was worth altering one's dreams" - now that's romantic.
Then the ride approaches its end. The story, already staggering on its shaky feet while trying to juggle so many elements, finally collapses like a bleached whale on a beach. Her reputation-obsessed granny accepts Riley back after a two-page conversation. Mason's dilemma - wed the proper Ms Pindar or risk sullying the Ashlin reputation further by marrying an actress - gets swept away by the inane rescue-the-kidnapped-heroine plot that crops up after a long hiatus from the story. Then three letters explain that - ta-da! - the three wards have eloped and presumably found true love, and one more for Cousin Felicity and her happy ending.
Mason and Riley then kiss and the curtains hastily fall before the audience starts questioning what the heck was the story all about in the first place.
If I'm the editor of this book, I'd have recommended cutting out the mad-killer dramatics and definitely the heiress nonsense has to go. It's a cop-out, the latter. Imagine the interesting possibilities if Riley is the ex-concubine of some Eastern harem and a distant descendant of Cleopatra like she is rumored to be. The question of love vs practicality is never addressed point blank because, heck, she realizes she's an heiress, and then Mason proposes.
One day, I'm afraid Mason would forget why he married her and take her to task for her "unsavory" (read: in a romance-novel sanitized context) past. People tend to forget when marriages hit bad times after all. If only Mason had addressed this issue of love vs practicality, if only Riley had brought it up, if only all those annoying and unnecessary sideplot baggages cluttering this story are excised. Like a really obese slob, No Marriage Of Convenience is way too bloated for its own good.
With the ineffective handling of the plot, I'm afraid the message the book gives me at the end of the day is: Money rules.
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