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Merely Married
by Patricia Coughlin
(Bantam, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-553-57521-X
***
Before I read Patricia Coughlin's Merely Married, I was hopeful that I would find both a story line and characters who were interesting, engaging and original. But my enjoyment at finding a book that was well written and occasionally humorous was dulled by the realization that its plot resembled a romance version of Mad-Libs, with arch-typical characters who have undoubtedly appeared in countless other novels in this genre.

The hero, Adrian Devereau, the sixth Duke of Raven, is "one and thirty and blissfully unwed, a decorated war hero, a peer of the realm and rotten with wealth." Scarred by a disastrous first encounter with love, Adrian is determined to avoid marriage at all costs. This ambition, however, is in direct and unfortunate conflict with that of the matchmaking mamas of the ton, who wish to secure his title and wealth for their marriageable daughters.

After a night of drunken debauchery with his two friends, Will Grantley and Colin Thornton, Adrian arrives at the perfect solution to his problem: he will wed, but he will wed a woman who will conveniently die rather soon after the nuptials, plunging the grieving husband into a mandatory period of mourning, and thus relieving him of the attention of the society matrons.

And so begins our story.

Predictably, however, all does not go according to Adrian's plan. That very night he does indeed wed an ailing woman, Leah Stretton, who is unconscious and delirious during the ceremony, and he happily leaves his new wife in the care of his friend, the good rector, while he returns to his home in London. There he entertains the biggest gossips in Society and fills their ears with tales of the wondrous new Duchess, who is, he informs them, visiting a sick sister. Since he secretly awaits the news that his wife has died, imagine his surprise when she shows up at his dinner party, hale and hearty and none too pleased with her present situation. Still, the new Her Grace is not above reaping some benefit from her unexpected state of marital bliss.

For the duration of the Season, she and Adrian will stay married, appearing to all of Society as the perfect couple, and she will use his vast resources and connections to assist her in finding a suitable husband for her younger sister, Christiana. Once this goal is accomplished, the Duke and Duchess of Raven will secure a quiet annulment.

And so continues our story.

This synopsis brings us up-to-date on the first two chapters of the book, but there's no reason, really, to go into further detail about the plot of Merely Married. It is enough to say that, like Adrian Devereau, Leah Stretton is a typical character straight out of classic Romance 101. She's a beautiful spinster in her mid-twenties; she has a lamentable lack of talent in the womanly arts (though she boasts that she can ride and shoot quite well, thank you); and she has an Unfortunate Past. Add to that the fact that she's been shouldering the burden of rearing her younger sister for upwards of ten years, and you have a paper-doll romance character.

The conflict in this story is entirely internal, with no hint of adventure to alleviate the reader's strain, and the inevitable sexual tension between the protagonists is your basic I-want-her-because-she-says-I-can't-have-her type. Garden variety, all the way. Given these elements, any fan of the genre who has read more than twenty historical romances should be able to predict accurately the progress and outcome of the story, right down to the happily-ever-after epilogue.

I don't mean to imply that this book has no redeeming qualities, for that is not the case. The novel's saving grace is that Ms. Coughlin is a good writer, with a pleasing style that reads quickly and fluidly, and there were moments when I found myself grinning in amusement and enjoying the story a great deal. But the extreme predictability of the characters and the plot wore thin long before I reached the final, expected resolution somewhere around page 300 and as I read the epilogue I found myself thinking that the book would have been more engaging as a novella. A much shorter novella. Since that was not the case, I have to conclude that Merely Married is merely average. No more, and no less.

--Jennifer Hardin


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