Avon, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-06-246987-8
Historical Romance, 2018
Bear with me, the synopsis of Laura Lee Guhrke’s The Trouble with True Love can be a convoluted one.
Clara Deverill only wants what she calls a traditional life – she wants to be a wife and mother. She also considers herself plain, flat-chested, and boring compared to her more outgoing sister, and additionally, she feels awkward when it comes to talking to men for the first time. Hence, she is not exactly spoiled for choice when it comes to suitors.
Her efforts to overcome her shyness and social awkwardness are hampered, however, by the fact that her sister has extended her honeymoon, her brother is busy mining for silver in America, and daddy is a darling who is drunk by noon. Thus, she has to hold the fort at the family newspapers that her sister ran with a great deal with success, and she also has to adopt the Lady Truelove agony aunt persona to answer those letters. That agony aunt is one of the selling points of the paper, but she has no idea how to advise anyone on matters of the heart. Oh, and the editor her sister hired in her absence is a chauvinist boor.
She gets inspiration for an upcoming Lady Truelove column when she overhears a cute guy teaching his friend how to act all noble and stuff so that he can break up with his mistress, by claiming that it’s for all her own good. Ooh, this is meta, as every other day we have a romance hero using this same line on the heroine, except that when those heroes use it, we’re suppose to shed a tear and go, “Aww! So he shagged her and now he wants to dump her… but it’s so touching because he’s dumping her for her own good!” Anyway, she is outraged that a man dares to say no when a woman pushes him into marriage – again, this is meta, as we always have romance heroines who insist on having a business-like sex arrangement with the hero, only to shift goalposts when they decide that they’re in love with those men, and then act like they have been ill used when those men are like, “But honey, I thought you said it’s just sex!” – so she basically exposes such a scheme in her column.
The man who gave the advice, Rex Gilbraith, is in a pickle when his friend, the one whom he gave the advice to, reads the column after being dumped by his mistress and decides that Rex has sold that man out to Lady Truelove. He punches Rex and those two end up making a mess at a respectable party. Because Clara is foolish enough to use his exact phrases in her column, he soon puts two and two together and realizes that the woman who eavesdropped on him and the woman whom he meets at the ballroom is one and the same. He decides to use his knowledge of her being Lady Truelove to get her to apologize to and clear things up with his friend. Clara decides to employ him as Lady Truelove, which will free up some of her time so that she can devote herself to husband hunting. When the brawl causes his aunt to cut off his pocket money (his father cut off his funds a while ago), Rex realizes that he needs money, but he also insists that Clara lets him pretend to court her so that he can get back into the good graces of his aunt and father.
Is your head spinning yet? There are so many things happening here that it feels like the author is throwing everything at the wall to see which sticks and which won’t. Still, Rex and Clara have good chemistry and the author actually makes Clara’s oh-so-familiar plain Jane persona interesting. I’m not sure why the author tries to sell Clara off as socially awkward when she has no issues sassing Rex, but I suppose it isn’t a fun romance novel unless the heroine really contrives to be as plain as possible without actually being plain, if you know what I mean. Also, the idea of Rex, a cynic when it comes to love due to his Mommy and Daddy issues, being an agony aunt can be amusing…
That is, until I realize by the time The Trouble with True Love lumbers past its midway point that all its tortuous plot threads are just pretty packaging to mask the fact that this is another story of a courtship of convenience that turns out to be real, that plays out like every other story of this sort, right down to the heroine cheerfully giving away all the milk that she is supposed to be saving for her husband – for free, of course – and then refusing to marry the hero when he asks her to. I know, the author is no doubt trying to create a situation in which Rex ends up receiving the same “dumping you for your own good” treatment that he advised his friend to give in the beginning, but still, the end result remains a snooze. Clara ends up being an eye-roll inducer like all those heroines who pull this same stunt, and I end up wondering why the author went through all the effort pretending that this story is going to be something different – something interesting – if the end game is going to be just another formulaic story of a plain Jane (but not really plain, of course!) and a rake.
It is a kind of irony that the author’s effort here would have worked only if dumb noble heroines ditching romance heroes for their own good weren’t (a) so commonplace in the genre that it’s like a shorthand for the heroine’s lamentable brainpower and (b) Clara hadn’t said to me earlier that women often have more to lose in such an arrangement, especially if a child results from the shagging. And since no birth control is taken during the shagging, the author’s effort of putting Rex in his place ends up making Clara the very kind of idiot that Clara herself mocks early on in the story. The author ends up contradicting her first half of the story with the second half, and I can only wonder whether it’s because she herself wants the story to appeal to the lowest denominator, or this contradiction is a mandate from her editor to make the story as marketable as possible.