For readers weary of recycled characters and cookie-cutter plots, Claudia Dain offers The Marriage Bed. Not a sweet fantasy but rather the compelling story of two people struggling for the right to be happy in spite of considerable odds, it gets top marks for originality, characterization, story, and realistic setting.
This is a difficult story to synopsize without saying too much. Thatís because the backgrounds of the characters and the complexities of their stories are not blurted out in the first three pages but peeled back in layers as we need to know them, in a way that keeps the reader both interested and guessing from beginning to end. But here goes.
Just orphaned by the death of her father, Lady Isabel of Dornei is literally running for her freedom. A considerable heiress, she knows that her long-standing engagement to Lord Hubert of Warefeld will not protect her from the ruthless ambition of knights closer to home. When she flees, however, it is not to her intended, but to the Abbey where Hubertís youngest brother Richard is a novice. Isabel and Richard fostered together, and they were close friends until her indiscreet fascination with him became a public joke.
Having become a knight of considerable prowess, Richardís reasons for choosing a monastic life are not immediately clear, but he isnít happy when it is revealed that, following the deaths of his two older brothers, he has inherited both Warefeld and the politically-motivated alliance with Isabel. But his duty is clear and unavoidable, so the marriage takes place immediately and the couple leaves for Dornei to get Isabelís inheritance under control.
At first thrilled to be the wife of the man she has always loved, Isabel quickly discovers the huge chasm that can exist between wanting something and getting it. As a result, I should warn you that the wedding night will not please some readers. Richard regards the consummation of this marriage as an obligation rather than a pleasure and, realizing that her husband is performing a duty rather than becoming her lover, Isabel loses all enthusiasm for it as well.
It is not tender - but it is honest. Even better, since there is no bogus I-hate-you-but-I-must-have-you lust in the beginning, there is much more romance in the end. True desire between these characters comes only with love and trust, giving the reader a much stronger sense of satisfaction as passion grows hand in hand with understanding.
Ms. Dain does a wonderful job of developing both these characters. For one thing, unlike so many romances, one is not written at the expense of the other. They are not always easy to like (what truly interesting person is?), but both are complex and never stop growing. If I were to summarize it, Iíd say that Isabel learns how much more there is to love than her childish infatuation, and Richard finds both the strength and the humility he needs in order to give love and to accept it.
Isabel is not the only person who misjudges Richard in the beginning so challenges abound, particularly in their interactions with the people around them. Always energetically drawn, the secondary characters inject moments of humor and create much-needed changes of pace, never allowing the intensity of Richard and Isabelís relationship to become monotonous. They help us make sense of Richardís puzzling history and motivations, and give us a yardstick by which to gauge Isabelís evolution.
The interaction also helps to create a strong sense of life in 1155. The broad political intrigues of the period are firmly in the background but day-to-day reality is vividly rendered. Is it absolutely accurate? Iím not historian enough to know, but it was certainly clear, believable and consistent, without jarring anachronisms.
Iíve said before that, in a genre where ďhappily ever afterĒ is a given, the authorís only chance to demonstrate her skill is to keep us guessing along the path. Complex, challenging and one of the most romantic books Iíve read in a long time, this is definitely a trip worth taking.