June’s TBR Challenge theme is favorite trope, and mine is definitely Marriage of Convenience. I once saw someone explain its appeal as “sex with a stranger,” but for me that’s not it at all. It’s “having to find a way to live/work together.” I like the high stakes, especially in a historical, where these people are pretty much stuck together for life–if they can’t make it work, they’re going to be unhappy. Contemporary versions of this trope are typically unconvincing, at least outside of Harlequin Presents type over the top fantasies, but I find the same satisfaction in a good romantic suspense where characters are on the run and have to work together to survive.
So surely, I thought, I’d have plenty of choices in my TBR. But either I read them all right away, or I can’t remember from author-title whether a book includes the trope. Hence, Susanna Fraser’s A Marriage of Inconvenience, the only TBR book I could be sure had my favorite trope. Plus, I’ve been meaning to read her forever–this book has been languishing in my TBR for 5 years, along with other Fraser novels, even though I’m sure she’s right up my alley. Well, I was right. I enjoyed this book a lot, though as Fraser’s first, it has some flaws (it was actually the second published, but predates her debut, The Sergeant’s Lady, and I think was written first). Since this book has been out so long, my reflections will be full of spoilers.
Do I need a plot summary? A Marriage of Inconvenience is, especially in its opening section, a kind of reworking of Austen’s Mansfield Park. Lucy Jones lives as a poor relations with her aunt and cousins, one of whom, Sebastian Arrington, proposes marriage to her in the opening scene. But we’re pretty sure from the start this isn’t going to work out–and shouldn’t, since Sebastian doesn’t return her love and seems to have an ulterior motive in proposing to his penniless cousin. Sebastian’s mother demands that they keep their betrothal a secret until after the marriage of her daughter Portia.
Staying with Portia’s future husband, Sebastian and Lucy meet James (Viscount Selsley) and Anna Wright-Gordon. Sebastian and Anna fall for each other, while Lucy and James, though less starstruck, are also drawn to each other. After various complications, everyone changes partners (though only one set ends happily–the next book is about the widowed Anna’s second courtship).
I thought the first half or so of this book was pretty great. I liked Fraser’s voice and the slow build of tension is very well done. I could have seen what’s coming even if the blurb didn’t give it away, and I was just waiting to see how the rearrangement of relationships would unfold and how much pain, confusion, and happiness it would occasion. Both Lucy and James are appealing characters–Lucy is self-contained, of necessity, but not as shy or humble as her model Fanny Price. For one thing, she’s a talented artist. James is kind and thoughtful to her, a more upright Henry Crawford. Anna, too, though rushing into trouble, is a nicer and more thoughtful person than Henry’s sister Mary.
The second half didn’t work as well for me. The marriage–brought about when James and Lucy are caught in a compromising position–isn’t that inconvenient, as they like and are attracted to each other. They seemed half in love already.
In the second half, after they marry, Fraser seemed to struggle to find meaningful conflict. She parallels James and Lucy’s need for control: James, in his position of power, of those in his care, whom he wants to keep safe and happy; Lucy, of herself, because her dependent position has taught her to suppress her emotions. In Lucy, this comes out mostly as an inability to have an orgasm, a problem which didn’t especially interest me and which was solved in the clichéd romance “let me tie you up so you can surrender your control” scene (and yes, I know it can really work that way). I would have liked to see other conflicts explored more, like the initial mismatch between shy Lucy, never raised to be mistress of a great household, and ambitious James, who had imagined himself married to a political hostess. I believed Lucy could grow into that role, but she still has a long way to go at the end of the book.
But I did like the fact that Fraser made the high stakes really clear: both of the marriages here encounter early difficulties, and both couples consider separation and the lifelong consequences that would bring, especially for the women. Portia’s marriage, to a much older man she doesn’t love, also seems destined for unhappiness. James and Lucy manage to avert disaster, but it’s a near miss. There are some interesting discussions of female power, too, and the extent to which Lucy’s power depends on James’–though this, too, could have been more developed (and more subtle).
I’m very glad I finally got around to this, and I’m looking forward to reading more of Susanna Fraser.