The Improper Wife

The Marriage Bargain
by Diane Perkins
(Warner, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-446-61438-6
The Marriage Bargain is no bargain at all unless you have a strong tolerance for shrewish heroines, immature heroes, and a plot that relies heavily on convenience to string it together. This one was a heaping helping of Thanksgiving turkey.

Spenser Keenan, the Earl of Kellworth, is shot during a duel with a callow youth who seems determined to push him into it, against all reasoning. His two friends, Blake and Wolfe (yep, smells like a trilogy) have him examined by the drunken doctor on the scene, and when the doctor pronounces Spence dead, they nail him up in a coffin and take him to the Kellworth estate. There they meet Emma, Spence’s wife, whom he married “in name only” three years before to help her escape the lecherous clutches of his uncle. Then Spense left, heading off to war.

Emma isn’t the demure seventeen-year-old who was once dazzled by a dashing soldier. For the past three years, she’s been single-handedly trying to keep the estate from ruin, while dealing with smaller and smaller amounts of money from Spence. She hasn’t seen or heard from him since the day after their wedding, and his cousin Reuben has told her Spense gambled away most of the family fortune. Now here he is, dead, on her doorstep. Emma decides she wants to see his face one more time, and when the coffin is opened, they find Spense gasping for breath.

Now, honestly. How stupid would two men have to be to put their dearest friend in the hands of a drunk and then take said drunk’s absolute word for it when he can’t find a pulse? Anyway, Spense needs care, as he’s burning up with fever. Emma puts him in her own bedroom and helps nurse him back to consciousness. When Spense revives, he doesn’t recognize Emma, as she’s changed quite a but. Offended, Emma refuses to have anything to do with Spense and won’t listen to his explanations. He’s a liar!

Spense was, indeed, away for the past three years, but he left instructions that Emma was to be treated generously – instructions his man of business failed to carry out. He wrote to Emma, but his letters were never answered. It seems that someone wanted to force Emma into penury and ruin the Kellworth estate – but who? Could it be the lecherous uncle? Could it be Spense’s smarmy cousin Reuben, the local vicar, who has his eye on Emma? In the meantime, Spense tries to make Emma see reason, and along the way, they fall in love. Supposedly.

This was one of the most unconvincing romances in recent memory. Emma spends two-thirds of the story displaying the personality of a wet cat. Spense’s explanations? He must be lying! After all, she never received any letters or money, so it’s obvious that Spense neglected her deliberately. For the first hundred pages, every time Emma and Spense get to the point where they might clear all this nonsense up with a serious conversation, the author takes the annoying path of making Spense feel lightheaded or weak at just the most inopportune moment. Emma decides he’s too ill and forbids everyone who might be able to solve some of these puzzles from talking with him.

Spense isn’t much to captivate a reader, either. He feels guilty because he was driving a carriage that overturned and killed his beloved older brother. Therefore he can’t stay at Kellworth because he’ll never be happy there. He needs the lively entertainments of London, so he’d be a poor husband for Emma. Emma wants a home and a family, and she demands that Spense give her a child before he abandons her, which provides a convenient excuse for them to hop into bed. Spense can’t face up to his demons like an adult, but hey, he’ll sleep with her while he can and make the most of it. (Be still, my heart.) But since Emma has spent most of her time acting like a shrew to Spense, they’ve built no chemistry together and their physical union is flat and mechanical, no matter how earnestly the author tries to tell us that two souls are uniting, etc.

Most readers will figure out the mystery in the first three chapters, and one has to wonder how Emma and Spense could be so dumb that the identity of villain never occurs to them. But then, none of the characters seem to be burdened with much common sense. And the story was so promising, too. The setup certainly captured my interest, and if the author had treated her characters like adults and had them hash out their problems, then band together to solve them while falling in love along the way, this would have been an outstanding romance. Instead, we get the “I’m not going to listen to anything you say” hissy fits of a heroine who is clearly in the wrong but refuses to believe it, and the “I’m no good for her so I’ll just leave” nonsense on the part of the hero that tries to pass for a conflict. The story left me exasperated and unfulfilled as a reader. Unsympathetic characters, a flimsy plot, and a romance that fails on all levels make The Marriage Bargain a book to avoid.

--Cathy Sova

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