Playing Favorites: Marriage of Convenience

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.

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21 Responses to Playing Favorites: Marriage of Convenience

  1. Keishon says:

    I am a big fan of this trope as well, Liz. I haven’t read Lerner’s In for a Penny but I do have it. Next to MOC trope, I also love marriage in trouble stories especially when the couple are able to rekindle that spark that brought them together in the first place. When Love Isn’t Enough by Kathleen Gilles Seidel is one title that comes to mind about two workaholics who have become strangers to each other. I also like my stories a bit on the realistic side, too, because no matter what genre you can’t change basic human behavior.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, I have enjoyed some marriage in trouble stories too. I think a big part of it is I don’t like it when I feel angst is just there for the sake of angst, to create an emotional reading experience. It feels manipulative or exploitative. In these marriage stories, the feelings often seem more real (though of course I have read other stories where the emotion is earned, too).

  2. Couldn’t agree more about the MoC! Yesterday morning I *devoured* Sherry Thomas’s newest (I’ve just joined Dan in Hawai’i and jet-lag is owning my ass – as I type this, it’s 4:10 a.m. here – so there’s lots of early-morning e-book time), which is a totally heartbreaking (at first) MoC story. Absolutely one of my favorites of hers.

    Remind me: have you read the awfully covered, brilliantly conceived Moira J. Moore HEROES series? It’s fantasy about a pair with special mental abilities that force them (both for the good of society, and to preserve their own health) to work together. More on the first novel (RESENTING THE HERO) here: http://sycoraxpine.blogspot.com/2011/10/pain-and-its-lack-resenting-hero.html . It picks up on several facets of the MoC trope.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I am afraid of that Sherry Thomas because people say it is sooo angsty, but I expect I will get there eventually! I had mixed feelings about the Moira Moore books (I read 2 or 3) but I did really love the forced teamwork aspect. When being a fated pair is the START of figuring out a relationship, rather than an easy solution, I love it.

      • That’s so well said: I agree that the fated mates trope enrages me, but the forced marriage trope intrigues me. This is because one figures love as almost a sort of spirit possession that’s utterly uninterested in the details of character or action or thought, while the latter figures love as both a slow process of coming to know and love the ordinary in another person, and as a practical happiness than anyone can achieve, despite its difficulty and delicacy. The MoC isn’t miraculous, it’s meticulous.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          Well, that’s way more eloquent than I was, but yes! I like what Patricia Briggs does with her werewolves, because the wolf’s “mate” may or may not be someone the person loves, and her characters have to deal with that in some interesting ways.

      • Oh! Also, I agree that the Moira Moore series became less compelling for me as they went along – or, rather, I became more anxious about their relationship (which was dealt with more and more fleetingly), so I began reading more sketchily and skimmingly. I think I need to go back and give the series a more serious reread.

  3. I love MOC too, for all the reasons you noted and also because the whole concept, and attendant mindsets and behaviors, are just so darn exotic to my 20th/21st-century notions of romance. The idea of a marriage proposal (as in In for a Penny) that basically consists of, “Hi; I know we’ve only met once but I really need to marry a rich woman ASAP, and I think we could make a go of it” – the idea of that being seriously entertained, and accepted, boggles my mind in a really agreeable way.

    I have a recommendation for you, part MOC and part Forced Marriage: Susanna Fraser’s A Marriage of Inconvenience. (Fraser and Rose Lerner are critique partners, and there’s a similar feel of authenticity in the historical attitudes.) Hero meets heroine when she’s visiting on a neighboring estate; idly flirts with her, steals a few kisses, but you never get the sense he’ll think much about her when she’s gone. Then they get caught kissing, and he announces on the spot that they’re engaged, because that’s just what you did if you were a gentleman.

    (Granted, I suppose it was easy to do that kind of thing when it was customary to keep mistresses while married – luckily for my modern sensibilities, Fraser’s hero thinks it’s poor form to flout one’s marriage vows, so that doesn’t happen.)

    • willaful says:

      I’ve been going back and forth over whether to buy this one forever — a recommendation from you has sent me over to the dark side!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      It is “exotic.” I have read a few contemporary arranged marriage stories–I think those are really interesting when you have people who are quite “modern,” Western-educated, etc. but are still part of older traditions.

      • Yes! There’s an arranged-marriage story in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies that I loved. Can’t remember the name now. It’s not a romance, but nevertheless a nice tale of how they move from awkwardness to affection & ease with one another.

        I wonder if someone could convince me of an HEA in a story with a Western hero and, say, a Russian mail-order bride…

      • LaVyrle Spencer has an interesting mail order bride romance with a virgin hero — The Endearment. It’s not among my favorites of hers, but still interesting reading.

    • I thought A Marriage of Inconvenience had some strengths, especially in the second half, but I didn’t fall in love with it. The first half (leading up to their marriage) felt slow to me. Sunita and I reviewed it together and she liked it a bit better than I did.

  4. kaetrin says:

    I love MOC stories too. Stories where the h/h spend a lot of time together are usually a winning formula for me and (mostly) I get that in a MOC story. Mary Balogh’s has a number of them. I love.

    I like your concept of the forced to work together thing which is the modern version. I agree that MOC doesn’t really work in a contemporary but I hadn’t really thought about what its modern replacement is. I think you’re spot on though.

  5. I love them too. It’s probably my favorite romance trope. One of my favorite MOC books is Mary Balogh’s A Christmas Promise. Balogh’s trads are full of good MOC books though — The Temporary Wife, The Ideal Wife, The Obedient Bride, etc. And her Thief of Dreams (possibly her most complex book) is really interesting because it starts out with the heroine thinking it’s a love match, while for the hero it’s a marriage of convenience.

    There have been so many authors of MOC stories (other good ones that come to mind include Kinsale’s The Shadow and the Star, McCaffrey’s Dragonflight and Sharon Shinn’s Archangel, but for some reason for me Balogh is the first to pop into my mind — maybe because she’s written so many of them.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think it may have been a mention by you that made me read Christmas Promise. Balogh is so good at awkward, difficult and painful moments that she seems like a natural for MoC.

  6. I understand. The heroine’s grief for her father kept it from getting too sappy for me.

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