Sourcebooks Casablanca, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-4926-0190-6
Historical Romance, 2015
John Bexley and Mary Fleming were barely married when John joined a diplomatic mission to China – a gig that would take him out of the country for the next two years. They weren’t really sure of their feelings for one another when they got married, so when the story opens, both discover that people can change considerably over the course of two years, and they are pretty much strangers who may as well be meeting for the first time when John comes home.
On John’s part, he has discovered that he wants to be in diplomacy, and all that political intrigue that comes with it only excites him. He soon realizes that his mousy and biddable wife does not factor in his plans at all, and he doesn’t know how to act when he discovers that Mary had turned into a different person. So, he does what fools do: he lashes out at her and generally takes out all his frustrations on the job on her. Nitpicking her housekeeping to the point of being very unfair, assuming that what she does is trivial and he is the only person in the household that is doing anything remotely important, not telling the wife whether he’d be coming home in time for dinner after work… in other words, these two have skipped past honeymoon and entered right into “three years later” marriage territory.
On Mary’s part, she has to take over the management of the household after her aunt shows signs of dementia, and along the way, she finds that she likes being in charge. She becomes more assertive, and when the story opens, scores a minor triumph by getting her control freak mother to actually listen to her for once. Mary also discovers that she has her own needs, ambitions, and desires that do not necessarily coincide with her having to take care of everyone and everything. and she soon wonders how she’s going to balance her own needs and what John expects her to be. And when John lashes out, she lashes back. Trying to be what everyone wants her to be only makes her feel all this anger inside, oh dear.
Will these two find a middle ground and get a happily ever after, or will they end up murdering one another?
If you think the plot sounds good, well, don’t get too excited. I thought this would be one of those romance stories rich in internal conflicts myself, especially when the author seemed to be setting up the stage for plenty of personality clashes and such. John starts out being pretty insufferable and boorish, for example, and he spends a big part of the first half avoiding the wife because he doesn’t know what to do with her. Meanwhile, Mary acts like a helicopter spouse, refusing to stop pecking away until she knows in graphic detail what the husband does when he is out of her sight. She also takes every perceived slight personally. Therefore, these two seem to heading down towards some kind of grand confrontation.
But the author abruptly switches tracks by the time to story enters its second half. Almost overnight, these two start communicating and getting along well as if they had never been separated for two years, while the sneering rival of John turns into a more villainous character to bring on the conflict. Any leftover little conflict from the first half gets smoothed over almost unbelievably easily, and by the time I reach the last page, I’m still not sure what happened to those two to bring about such remarkable harmonious rapport. I can’t even say that it’s due to the sex, as these two are not boinking by the time their domestic harmony settles in.
Still, the second half isn’t a bad read, although it’s at the same time rather predictable and not-so-exciting because the author doesn’t make this particular conflict any different from the standard “bad guy menaces all, bwahahaha!” plot padding typically found in historical romances. I can’t help wondering what could have been if the author had continued the path she seemed to be initially set on walking down, if Married to a Perfect Stranger had focused more on internal conflicts. Something tells me that it may be more interesting than what this book ends up being: a perfectly acceptable but somewhat unmemorable story.