Avon, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-06-238861-2
Historical Romance, 2015
It really is supposed to The Match of the Century. Gavin Whitridge, the Duke of Baynton, will marry Miss Elin Morris. He’s very handsome, very respectable, and, of course, very much a duke. She is a wealthy heiress, beautiful to boot. There is rarely a couple so well-matched, and it is just right that their parents practically paired them up from the time Elin was born. Well, all is splendid… except for the fact that Elin is in love with Benedict, Gavin’s younger brother.
Ben and Elin grew up together, they were infatuated with one another, and Elin gave him her virginity when she was sixteen, only to have him vamoose the day after to become a soldier. She believes her mother when that woman told Elin that Ben was jealous of Gavin, so he slept with Elin to get back at Gavin. Of course, he was pressed into joining the military after being beaten by his father when the man realized that he and Elin were sweet on one another, and he nursed a chip on his shoulder ever since.
The fun begins on the day when Gavin, just as he is about to marry Elin, has Ben’s bosses relieve Ben of his military duties and summons that man to come home. Gavin’s other brother Jack is AWOL, you see, and until he has an heir with Elin, he wants Ben out of harm’s way. In case there is a need for the spare, you see. Ben is not happy at all, and coming back only sees him bumping into Elin again. Just as she is about to be his sister-in-law. Oh boy.
I have not read Cathy Maxwell’s books in a long time – I missed two trilogies as a result – but after reading The Match of the Century, I remember why I am always intrigued by the author’s efforts. You see, the author doesn’t shy away from formulaic tropes, but when she puts them into her stories, more often than not she just spins and twirls them around until they are hers and only hers. In the first few chapters of this book, the story is a familiar one, but at the same time, nothing feels overused or tired.
Elin and her mother are very close, and despite the mother pushing her into this advantageous marriage, Elin doesn’t harbor the usual black-and-white “I am not marrying for love, so I will die now!” hysteria in her heart. In fact, she has given much thought to what could have happened between herself and Ben, and she reasonably concluded that, given that Ben never wrote or tried to see her in the eight years since, maybe people were right and he was just using her. That hurt, but she is determined to move on. The only doubt she feels when the story opens is whether she should tell Gavin that she had slept with Ben, to be fair to that man. And her mother’s advice to her on that matter is refreshingly pragmatic and sensible. There are no clear-cut stereotypes and labels in this story – everyone, even Gavin, feels like well-rounded characters.
And when Ben shows up, Elin doesn’t crumple or acts delirious with the need for shagging. To my delight, she holds her ground when he acts like everything is her fault, and I love how she tells him reasonably that, if he really did care like he claimed to be, he could have tried harder to get in touch with her in the last few years. She doesn’t allow the hero to be unfair to her or treat her like dirt, and I like her even more than ever.
Then, out of the blue, people start trying to kill Elin and the story then switches gears from what was starting out to be an intense internal conflict-driven tale into a standard historical romance with cartoon villains that are on the incompetent side playing Wile E Coyote to our couple.
One of my issues with this development is how abrupt this bullets-and-buffoons drama shows up. If I was given any clues earlier as to such a development taking place earlier, I’d be less taken aback. As it is, the whole thing feels like the author starting out on one track only to abruptly say “Screw it!” and just switch track without any ado right after. More importantly, the switch to a more action-oriented story forces any emotional drama to the sidelines. Hence, the story becomes another rather standard story of the hero coming to the heroine’s rescue, and I will always wonder whether the rekindled romance is just a result of adrenaline rush rather than a genuine reawakening of finer feelings.
Hence, The Match of the Century will always remain a “Oh, what could have been!” kind of story. The potential for it to be a grand love story is there, but the author for some reason chooses instead of turn the whole thing into a more generic kind of story. I am very disappointed, and by right, this book is the epitome of a three-oogie read.
But I’m giving it an extra oogie anyway, because of the cheerfully subversive properties of this story. One thing I always respect about the author is that she is not only aware of her characters’ weaknesses and failings, she is also not afraid to skewer them if they are being silly. For example, Ben fits the definition of a sullen hero with a chip on his shoulder, but he doesn’t get any break here. His own mother points out right to his face that Elin deserves more than someone who is only good at brooding, and she’s not the only one to do that. The author does this in a playful manner that never makes me feel like she is mocking her own characters or inviting me to ridicule them – she just knows how to wink at me, so to speak, and let me know that, yes, her characters at being silly, but they would grow up soon, you bet on that.
At the end of the day, I want to love this book for what it could have been, but I suppose some things just aren’t meant to be. Still, I can’t deny that this one entertains me all the same, so I’m alright with it.