Mills & Boon, £5.99, ISBN 978-0-263-26894-2
Historical Romance, 2019
Julia Justiss is an interesting author. I felt that her early books tried too hard to emulate Mary Balogh’s formula of cooking up historical romances that feature heroines with a PhD in self-immolation, but over the years, she has become a subversive kind of author. While she still follows the formula in a recognizable way to appease fans who like their historical romances cozy like that, she also has a few familiar-at-first elements slowly deviate into something else more interesting as the story progresses. The Earl’s Inconvenient Wife is one such story. It’s familiar, but it’s not that familiar, with the cherry on top being a heroine whose shortened version of her name is Temper, and Temper is strong and feisty in all the good ways.
Temperance Lattimar never has a chance of having a respectable go at fitting in with the rest of Polite Society. Her father Lord Vraux is a well-known “eccentric” scholar, to put it nicely, and her mother gives no effs about discretion when it comes to her parade of lovers. In fact, it is much whispered that only the eldest son is Vraux’s biological son, and Temper is pretty sure that the gossip-mongers are right, heh. By the time Temper and her twin sister are of marriageable age, the moniker “Scandal Sisters” has stuck, and it’s downhill from there. Our heroine refuses to run away from her detractors, however, and when the story opens, she’s staying put in London for the coming Season. Fortunately, her brother’s BFF Gifford Newell is around to escort her around and keep an eye out for trouble on her behalf, and it’s pretty obvious that they feel this attraction for the other person, my how the girl from his youth has big breasts now, and ooh, how her brother’s BFF is now hot and has a big… ahem.
The whole thing sounds dreadfully familiar on paper, but the actual story is a nice example of how a story can be familiar but being painfully formulaic and by the numbers. Sure, Temper is another feisty “I wanna run free and have adventures instead of getting married!” heroine, but interestingly, unlike many heroines cut from the same cloth, she doesn’t have a complex about her mother’s promiscuity. In fact, Temper believes that there is good to her mother, and will stare down anyone who dares to call that woman a ho. Indeed, Lady Vraux has a pretty tragic story, and a part of me wonders whether she’d make a more interesting romance heroine than her daughter.
Still, Temper is a solid heroine after my own heart. Early on, it’s revealed that she is a survivor of sexual assault, but this doesn’t turn her into some kind of victim. I love that she refuses to let anyone cow her, and she also gets passionately defensive about those she cares for. However, this doesn’t mean that she is reckless and stupid – while she is not perfectly wise, she is able to think and make decisions on her own, thank you very much, and she doesn’t play the role of a damsel that constantly needs rescuing. This doesn’t mean that she is some super-strong Mary Sue, however. She is still a woman of her time in believable ways – she believes that she is damaged goods even if it’s no fault of her own, and hence she also feels that Giff can do better with a more conventional lady to wed as he’s an MP with a bright future.
Ah yes, Giff. He is the youngest son of an earl when this story opens, so I take one look at the title and wish that I can have a few choice words with the person who came up with the title of this story. Not only is it a major spoiler, it also has me wondering when the old man and the heir will croak so that Giff gets the title for real. That is really the rear end orifice of an ass kind of thing to do, to give this book that title.
Anyway, for the most part, Giff is a more recognizable character, as the reliable, steady brother’s protective BFF thing has been done far more frequently in romance novels. Still, there are some nice touches here and there to make him stand out, such as Giff being far from some smooth operator when it comes to pushing a woman’s happy buttons.
Temper and Giff has a romance that is the closest to the author ever come to channeling old school Amanda Quick, and I mean that in a nice way: a romance that has strong elements of friendship and empathy between the hero and the heroine in addition to lust and passion, with a supporting cast of memorable and well-drawn characters to help flesh out the main characters better through their interactions with these characters. Okay, the romance is forced to go ahead via a plot development that old-school Amanda Quick was also fond of overusing, but still, the rest of the romance has enough emotional poignancy as well as chemistry that I am not complaining much.
My only issue with The Earl’s Inconvenient Wife is the author’s tendency to dump in a most ungracious manner all kinds of exposition. The first six pages make me cringe as Temper and her sister narrate for the reader’s sake their entire family history – details that they already know and shouldn’t be rehashing in a robotic manner in that particular scene. Temper’s godmother is especially obvious as a exposition plot device, as often she will tell the heroine things that, judging from how Temper nods her head, are already known by the younger lady. All this clunky information dumping is plopped in with the grace of an elephant with diarrhea; surely the author could have filled me in on the details in a better way.
Still, this is a very enjoyable read from start to finish, and hence, I’m more than happy to hand it a well-deserved score of four oogies.