Jennifer Probst’s The Marriage Bargain, a category-length romance from Entangled Press, has been on best-seller lists for weeks; the book and its two planned sequels in the “Marriage to a Billionaire” series have been picked up in a seven-figure deal by Pocket, a division of Simon & Schuster, which will re-issue it as a mass-market paperback (and thus at a price point $5 higher than Entangled’s $2.99 e-book; the price I’m being offered in Canada now is a good deal higher than that). Curious about this breakout success, I grabbed it while it was still cheap.
I . . . haven’t felt this much like writing a snarky review in a long time, probably because normally I’d just abandon a book that was working so poorly for me. But I’m going to try to express my issues with this book and its publishing history in a more productive way. I confess I was not the most open-minded reader. Like a lot of other people who enjoy some category romances, I gave the side-eye to Entangled’s “this is not your mother’s category romance” promo line, especially once some reviewers I respect found the Entangled books they tried (including Probst’s) to be familiar Harlequin Presents-style fare, and not great examples of it either. I wondered how much of the book’s success was due to the low price point and other experiments with marketing (if so, it seems to have worked; Entangled has since placed other books on best-seller lists). Despite that context, and despite knowing that many, many best-sellers are books I consider, um, not very good, I expected more engaging storytelling than I found here. This book was a disappointment and made me more reluctant to try others from Entangled.
Reading Category Romance
Category or series romances are short (most lines range from 50,000-75,000 words) and books in a line meet specific guidelines, such as these for Harlequin Presents, with which Probst’s book has a lot in common. Their brevity and other formal constraints mean that they take narrative short-cuts. They rely on certain tropes and types of characters, and their plots tend to feature a handful of dramatic set-piece scenes, skimming over the time between these climactic moments. I had to learn to read category romances–almost the way I had to learn to read sonnets, another kind of formally-constrained literature–particularly Presents (which aren’t my personal favorite). They are often over the top, and are best not taken too literally. They’re almost archetypal or symbolic, or maybe gestural like Kabuki theater. Understanding them that way, I can enjoy their emotional punch, though I tend to prefer my stories more realistic.
When Your Mother Meets “Not Your Mother”
I think the main reason this book didn’t work for me was the way it tried to be “not your mother’s category romance.” The blend of Presents tropes with more contemporary and realistic elements left it caught between two categories, and it didn’t succeed in either.
The characters and set-up are straight out of the Presents playbook: wounded alpha billionaire who can never love because of his sad, sad childhood needs wife to fulfill conditions of a will and gain control of his company, finds warm, loving creative woman who rescues stray dogs, writes poetry, and runs a bookstore. Has instant hots for her, but oh no, he can never love and sex leads to those messy, messy emotions, so better not do it. But ultimately he can’t help it. The plot is also resolved in a very familiar way. I didn’t feel these characters ever transcended their types. We are told over and over again that Nick is calm and rational, even though he has an emo melt-down and a hard-on in every interaction with Alexa.
Nick is standard-issue misogynist douche: she’s not allowed to have sex with anyone during their one-year phony marriage, but he plans to keep sleeping with his super-model girlfriend because “a man is different.” There is standard Presents language too–a punishing kiss, for instance, and then this: “Some buried, caveman instinct flared to life and pushed him to make his claim. By law, she already belonged to him.” Ahem, Mr. Billionaire, the law says different about wives these days! This attitude is never really challenged.
Sometimes I give this nonsense a pass for some crazy over-the-top emo fun. But that requires a fantasy world that allows me to suspend disbelief. A good Presents says, “hey, don’t ask too many questions about this billionaire shizz, just hop in the helicopter and come along to the
Red Room of Pain remote Greek island for some sexy-emotional hijinks.” In The Marriage Bargain, though, we are in Upstate New York. There are brand names (there’s a whole page of trademark acknowledgements at the front of the book). This . . . doesn’t always work out. A billionaire who looks hip in Dockers? Even my forty-something-middle-class-dad husband is too hip for Dockers. The heroine is the only woman at fancy parties who wears color. The other ladies reek of Shalimar and Obsession. The hero cooks like an Italian granny (or like the Olive Garden, garlic bread slathered in melted cheese). He’s an architect who lives in a faux-Tuscan villa he designed himself. I am solidly middle-class and even I know that stuff is not right for the really rich. The illusion was shattered.
Then there’s the business stuff. Nick wants to work on revitalizing the town’s riverfront, which will involve designing some restaurants and a spa. Now, he got full control of his uncle’s company by marrying Alexa. But he still has a board to deal with. Does a privately-held company with a single owner have a board? Doesn’t a board come with shareholders? And if he’s a billionaire, why does he need to win the approval of the Japanese and Italian dudes to get a chance at the redevelopment? I’ve been a public-college employee all my life, so I am ignorant about business, but none of this seemed plausible. Keep the billionaire shizz behind the curtain! (I had the same problem with a Maya Banks category, where I kept going, “hang on, even in Texas wouldn’t you need permits to develop waterfront island property? would the town really be surprised by the arrival of bulldozers?” Fake European principalities make this stuff so much easier to believe).
And then there’s the Italian, who is apparently the hero of the next book. He’s a count. Named Michael Conte. So . . . he’s the Italian Count von Count? And why isn’t his name Michele? Plus, what is he doing upstate? I know the Euro-stocracy sometimes like a pied-a-terre in Manhattan, but further up the Hudson? Sorry, strayed into snark territory. The point is, this didn’t work as either fantasy or reality for me.
Finally, I found the writing pretty sloppy. There are a lot of awkward sentences and weird images. Like “A canvas of Sinatra’s umbrella skies stretched so far and wide a man couldn’t find the beginning or end.” That’s the heroine’s eyes, yo. There are misused words, like “honed” for “homed,” and confusion between lay and lie. I felt as if I was paying more attention to the meaning and effect of the language than the author or the editor had. And I don’t like that feeling.
What’s a Book Worth?
I am sure many readers enjoyed this book more than I did. And it’s impossible to judge the “worth” of a book. You can get Shakespeare for free, but that doesn’t mean we don’t value it. Still, I feel offended that readers will be asked to pay full-length mass market price for a category-length book (the listed page-length varies; my Kindle version said 160) that isn’t even a great example of its kind. Especially when Harlequin (not to mention the revived Loveswept line and many e-publishers) puts out several books with similar plots and characters every month for under $5–you need more than two hands to count the number of Harlequin Presents with some version of “Marriage Bargain” in the title. Some of these books are worse than Probst’s. Some are about as good. Plenty are better.
Why aren’t those books hitting best-seller lists? As a great Dear Author discussion pointed out, it’s partly because many readers wouldn’t touch “Harlequin” with a ten-foot pole. They may not realize that the types of stories they’re enjoying from digitally-published or self-published authors are also available there. Moreover, unlike the cover of The Marriage Bargain, Presents-branded covers often look cheesy and old-fashioned. Harlequin branding sells to existing readers, but may well put off new ones. I don’t think they need a new digital-first line; I think they need stealth digital covers without Harlequin branding for their existing books, to allow new readers to discover them online. If Entangled can move Probst’s book up the best-seller charts, why shouldn’t writers like Sarah Morgan, Mira Lyn Kelly, or Lynne Graham, to name just a few, find the same success?
I hope Harlequin is giving the success of Harlequin-style books from other publishers some thought. And I hope readers who did like Probst’s book will give Harlequin a try. I once thought I was too good for Harlequins. I was wrong.