Avon, $6.99, ISBN 0-06-051762-X
Historical Romance, 2004
I don’t know if this is the work of the infamous Avon editors who are often said to force their authors to shape their stories according to these editors’ concept of what will sell the most or if it’s just Victoria Alexander exercising judicious self-censorship to edit out any traces of objectionable deviations from the norm (as decided by Avon) from her story, but The Pursuit of Marriage suffers badly as a result. The hero and the heroine scramble to behave like silly adolescents just to adhere to the Avon regency comedy formula. In this case, this adherence to the formula is unnatural and has the characters acting like annoying gnats instead of being a part of the organic flow of the story.
Then again, a romance that is all but forced by a matchmaker probably won’t turn out well anyway. Reginald Berkley’s mother wants the rake to marry and be well so she pretends to be dying to get her way. Won’t it be great if the son marries an evil termagant and the gruesome twosome deport the idiot woman to Australia after the honeymoon? As it is, Mommy Most Meddlesome has her eye on Cassandra Effington to be her son’s bride. Cassie is a successful interior decorator and she refuses to consider Reggie because she is sure that Reggie will only lead her to ruin and beyond.
The problem here is that the author doesn’t explain what motivates Cassie to have this fear. It is understandable to be wary of rakes, but Cassie’s fear borders on obsession. She makes decisions regarding men and the way she lives around this fear to the point that I wonder whether she was abused by one of these men in some way in the past. But I guess such unsavory details will shock genteel readers into never buying another Avon romance and civilization as we know it will then collapse faster than we can say “Nero is Emperor”, so Cassie’s fears remain a vague, amorphous plot contrivance serving only to prolong the “no” before the “yes”.
The author attempts to keep a semblance of courtship by having Cassie and Reggie making wagers to prolong the inevitable, but inevitable has to happen when these two end up in bed and that’s when the story becomes tedious. There’s a secondary character designed just to stir up problems to keep the story going, along with Cassie’s increasingly irrational attempts to say no and Reggie’s increasingly control-freaky antics to get her to open up and say yes. All of these plot developments feel like padding in a romance that is already very short on credible internal conflicts.
It also doesn’t help matters that Cassie is often very vocal in beating off Reggie’s attentions but despite the author’s assertion of Cassie’s independence and what-not, Cassie often ends up in the wrong or meekly submitting to Reggie’s greater wisdom. As for Reggie, he comes off as a control freak with a communication problem when he expects Cassie to obey his every whim while holding himself back and expecting her to second-guess him and correctly read his mind.
At first, I like Cassie. She can be shallow, but she seems to have a good reason to be the way she is. Likewise, Reggie seems to be shaping up to be interesting as he’s not a real rake, just someone whose reputation is a cover. Then I realize what that cover is for and I groan at how lame that excuse is. And the story never recovers from that point as it slides down deeper and deeper into that strange and dark place at the bottom of the pit where clichés are free to come together and exist without having any good raison d’etre.
This is the second Avon historical I’ve read this month where the mode of operation seems to be that it’s okay to just dump the clichés into a story without considering whether they make sense when put together. I sincerely hope that this will not be the trend of future Avon releases.