Last week I was tired, cranky, and looking for a cheer-up read. There are three things that usually work for me in these moods: an old favorite, something short and hot, or a traditional Regency romance. I went for the latter two, and I bought new books, because sometimes nothing in the giant TBR looks right, however much I wanted to read them when I bought them. Both books I chose were hits. One was the Delphine Dryden novella in my last post; the other was Laura Matthews’ A Prudent Match.
Matthews’ book, as the title suggests, is a marriage of convenience story. This post is a reflection on why that’s my favorite romance trope rather than a review of Matthews’ book (I did a quick one on Goodreads).
If you read my blog at all regularly, you probably realize that I like my romance on the realistic side. A real-life HEA requires negotiation, compromise and mutual understanding as well as attraction. And a good marriage of convenience story focuses on those things, but it makes them far more exciting than they usually are in the real life version (“if you do the dishes, I’ll scoop the litter box,” etc.) because the stakes are so high: in a historical, if the couple doesn’t manage to make the marriage work, they, and the heroine especially, are headed for a life of unhappiness.
In Matthews’ novel, the hero needs money and the heroine needs to marry because her former fiancé died and her sisters want to come out and have their own shot at marriage. (The hero’s motivations, in particular, turn out to be more complicated, and I thought there were some point of view issues in the novel. There is hero point of view, but some of what he’s thinking and feeling is hidden from us; it felt awkwardly caught between an old “mysterious hero” style and newer romances that usually include the hero POV). Prudence is scared of sex, Lord Ledbetter learns patience. He wants to be free to do whatever he likes, she expects him to think of her too. She’s smart, he learns to talk to her about his problems (and she actually solves one of them for him while he’s running around like an idiot without consulting her first). Passages like this are why I love the trope:
The baron was finding that being married was entirely different than he had supposed it would be. What he had said to his bride about his discomposure was entirely true. It was a new experience for him to be held accountable for his behavior . . . . [I]t had not actually occurred to him that he might in fact misjudge the simplest situation and then be shamed into apologizing for his actions or words.
This is, I guess, a version of “taming of the alpha hero,” because someone who’s never had to consult anyone else’s wishes suddenly finds he must–and wants to. But this story thread is balanced by the heroine’s need to consider his feelings and desires. I think a really good marriage of convenience is neither the hero’s story nor the heroine’s, but the couple’s, and that is what I love them for.
The trope emphasizes a couple finding their way to partnership, teamwork, and equality. The story of this work can be funny or angsty or both, and since the couple is stuck together and has to work things out, angst really feels earned rather than manipulative.
In contemporary romances, literal marriage of convenience/forced marriage stories seldom work for me: the premise that gets the couple into marriage strains my ability to suspend disbelief too far. But I do like updated variants of the “forced to be a team” story, which you often find in romantic suspense, for instance. Those same variants work for me in historicals, too, even when the couples are not actually married (that’s how I’d see Cecilia Grant’s books, especially A Lady Awakened).
Here are some examples of marriage of convenience/forced teamwork stories I’ve loved:
I think the reason I keep enjoying Amanda Quick/Jane Anne Krentz/Jayne Castle’s Arcane Society books (one name’s for the historicals, one for the contemporaries, one for the futuristics) even though they seem increasingly formulaic and repetitive, is that she creates smart and talented heroes and heroines who have to work together to solve a mystery, and who fall in love along the way.
I loved Rose Lerner’s In for a Penny because he marries her for her money but she does so much more to help him save his estate. Mary Balogh can be great at the awkward moments of marriage to a virtual stranger; I remember liking “A Christmas Promise” for that even though I don’t remember details (re-read time!). Miranda Neville’s Minerva and Blake in Confessions from an Arranged Marriage have conflicting dreams; once they’re stuck married to each other, can they imagine different but still fulfilling lives?
Sara Creasy’s Song of Scarabaeus is science fiction with a dash of romance. Edie is connected to her bodyguard, Finn by a mental “leash;” if they’re too far apart, he dies. Talk about having to work with a complete stranger! It’s like marriage of convenience x 10.
There are plenty of books I’ve loved and haven’t mentioned here. But I’m always up for suggestions, and would love to hear about your favorite plot tropes as well.