Signet Eclipse, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-451-41801-2
Historical Romance, 2014
The TBR Challenge this month is a book from a series that I’ve always wanted to catch up on. The Dark Affair is part of Máire Claremont’s Mad Passions series, so I guess I’m on point this month. Okay, the series is one in the loosest sense of the word – this one stands alone just fine, and appearances of characters from previous books are periphery in nature, so readers new to the series will most likely be able to follow this one easily.
Historical romances often have heroes and heroines that are inexplicably ahead of their time. Medieval-era healer heroines and doctor heroes who just know that they need to wash their hands and instruments before doing surgery, for example – those are very common. The Dark Affair may be set in the Victorian era, but it features a heroine who is truly and singularly remarkable in her visionary approach to the noble art of psychiatry: she talks about confronting one’s fears, creating safe spaces, and more – in a time when her real-time peers would rather be practicing things like “moral treatments”. Even the early 1900’s, people were still using lobotomy and shock treatments to “cure” the mentally ill. Margaret Carter, our heroine, is truly incomparable indeed.
In this story, Margaret is like many of the Irish – displaced from their old lives even as Ireland steps up its resistance against the British government as an aftermath of the great famine. Unlike her brother, who chooses to fight, Margaret would rather focus on helping her people in the best of her capacity. She soon gains some acclaim for her work among the poor and broken, which is how our hero’s father knows of her. James Stanhope, Viscount Powers, lost his wife and daughter a while back, and in his grief slipped into addiction and public displays of bad behavior. Considered mad by other people, Powers ends up in a mental asylum. Powers’s father hires Margaret to care for him, so that Powers would not have to rot in that place.
However, she is not just going to be a babysitter – the Earl of Carlyle wants Margaret to marry Powers and give that man an heir. The Earl doesn’t have much confidence that Powers would ever be able to function normally in society again, but he also wants to make sure that the line continues after Powers. Since it’s not like ladies would be lining up to marry Powers now, why not Margaret?
Margaret initially balks at the marriage part of the arrangement, but the Earl promises money and his political support in efforts to reform and rebuild Ireland. Also, her brother shows up, a wanted man after doing too many illegal things back home, and Margaret realizes that the Earl’s money and her position as the legal wife of Viscount Powers might be able to protect Matthew should crap hits the fan for that guy. So, marriage it is.
The good thing about this one is that the modern psychology can lead to some poignant scenes. For example, there is this scene in which Powers, hallucinating on his very wedding day that he would be walking into hell (he is suffering from withdrawal symptoms because his father insists that Margaret makes Powers quit morphine cold turkey), is terrified.
A breath shuddered out of him. “I’ll never see them again if I go to hell.”
Her fingers gripped harder, then went up to his face, cupping his cheeks. With a firm, cool grip, she urged his face down. “James, I will protect you from hell.”
“Them” refers to his wife and child. A simple scene, but a hard-hitting one, that.
Powers is very damaged, and his baggage is worthy of earning him a high-five from some of Laura Kinsale’s more screwed-up heroes. Margaret spends a lot of time in her Mama Oprah mode, but she sometimes cracks, revealing a vulnerable and lonely woman who is trying very hard to stay strong and sane in a world gone mad. Together, these two can produce one beautiful, haunting waltz of a love story.
However, as the story progresses, schmaltz begins to replace haunting melodrama. Margaret’s therapy sessions become more and more like a Carebear orgy: she creates a safe space for everyone to express their innermost feelings, the Earl cries, our hero cries, and then she cries too, and I start whimpering for all the wrong reasons. Once Powers realizes that he’s falling for Margaret, his issues become resolved almost unbelievably easily – after all that he has gone through, all of a sudden he starts “feeling alive” again from being surrounded by poor but happy Irish folks embodying the wisdom of the earthy or some nonsense like that. All his addiction problems, tortured feelings, and what not are simplified by the end to the fact that the dead wife turned out to be cracked-in-the-head anorexic nutcase, and once he accepts the fact that his wife is a cracked-in-the-head anorexic nutcase, he is now free to make happy whoopee with the new wife. Oh come on! It’s as if someone has stolen the original pages of the second half of this book and replaced them with something from Hallmark’s vault of rejected scripts. I am actually cringing by the time this book reaches its last page, because all that corny and cheeseball oversimplified pop psychology mumbo-jumbo is way too ridiculous for me.
Still, there are some very starkly graceful scenes here, so a part of me will always be glad that I read this book, even with its cheese and corn overload in its later parts. I suppose this book is worth a look, especially if you have a decent tolerance threshold for very sentimental and often seems-a-bit-too-modern emotional moments. Just tread carefully, and watch out for all those long speeches and tearful confessions that can bring the concept of cheese to a whole new level.