Karen Robards has returned to writing historical romance after a long hiatus. After reading Scandalous, I have to question whether this is a good career move. It seems to me that subgenre has changed in the past few years, but Robards is writing as if it is still the 1980s.
It is never a good sign when I put a book down in the middle of the first love scene, but that’s what I did. My reaction was: "Oh, please. Why are these two people groping each other when he is just coming out of a fever induced by a bullet wound that she understandably gave him?" The heroine, a supposedly intelligent and determined woman of twenty-five, is so overcome by her fascination with the hero’s manly form that she permits a man she believes to be an impostor and a scoundrel to take all sorts of liberties with her person? It didn’t work for me.
Why does Lady Gabriella Banning believe the hero to be a scoundrel? Well, for starters, she knows he is falsely impersonating her brother and claiming to be the Earl of Wickham. The story begins with the new Earl of Wickham being murdered while on a tiger hunt in Ceylon. His death is witnessed by someone who vows to see that the man responsible for the crime is punished. The scene then shifts to Hawthorne Hall in
Yorkshire, where Gabby’s trusted groom Jem arrives home from Ceylon with the sad news.
This is a devastating development for Gabby and her two sisters, Claire and Elizabeth, not because they have any deep feelings for their brother Marcus. He spent his youth in Ceylon and they only met him once. Rather, their mean-spirited father had died without making any provision for his daughters and if Marcus is dead, the three will be left
penniless, at the mercy of their nasty cousin Thomas. Gabby had sent Jem to Ceylon to ask Marcus to provide a season for the lovely Claire and the night before he was killed, her brother had agreed and given Jem a letter of credit to his bankers to pay for his sisters’ trip to London. Since no one except Jem knows of Marcus’ demise, Gabby decides to pretend that Marcus is still alive and head off to town.
Imagine her surprise when she arrives at Hawthorne House to discover the “earl” already in residence. Imagine the impostor’s surprise when he discovers that Gabby knows his secret. This mutual discovery leads to Gabby’s shooting the supposed earl when he tries to force her to keep his secret. Indeed, she is convinced to go along with the masquerade
because otherwise, her own deception will be revealed and her sister will lose out on her chance to have a season and find a husband. When the “earl’s” wound becomes infected and his ramblings threaten to uncover the truth, Gabby agrees to nurse him, thus having the opportunity to become fascinated by his manly form. Thus, that first love scene that led me to put down the book in dismay.
I have never been fond of “romances” that center on “Oooh, I don’t trust you but you turn me on.” I really prefer love stories where the attraction is more than physical. Moreover, in this case, the distrust is simply unnecessary. Having discovered that Gabby knows the truth, all the hero (whose name we finally discover is Nick) has to do is tell her the truth, that he is Marcus’ cousin, that Marcus was murdered because he had uncovered some important information about a traitor, and that Nick is masquerading as the earl to smoke out the villain. There is absolutely no reason for him to keep the truth from Gabby, since it would assure her cooperation in his important mission.
There are loads and loads of other improbabilities and impossibilities in the story. For example, there is the explanation for the brother’s growing up in far off Ceylon. Apparently, his mother was the daughter of a rich tea planter who came to London and caught the earl’s eye. After marrying him, she discovered exactly how nasty her new husband was and returned to Ceylon with her young son and died shortly thereafter,
which gave the nasty earl the chance to marry three more times and produce Gabby, Claire and Elizabeth. Now, given the law at the time which gave the father absolute custody of any children, do you think this could have happened? I don’t think so.
But there is more. The tale is set sometime in the early 1810s. The new earl was thirty-one when he was killed, which means he was born in the 1780s while Ceylon was still a Dutch colony closed to all but Dutch nationals. How did an English family manage to settle there and make a fortune growing tea, especially since tea was not introduced into Ceylon until the 1880s? OK, I hear you saying, “Jean, only you would care about these kind of details, only you would know them.” Well, I didn’t really know them; I was just suspicious. But I managed to confirm my suspicions by spending a whole five minutes with the Encyclopedia Britannica. Is it too much to ask of authors who purport to be writing historical romance to make a minimal effort to get the facts right?
Oh, and then there is the issue of the sisters' poverty. If their brother apparently inherited money from his rich tea planting maternal grandfather and if he indeed died intestate (without a will), this money would have been part of his personal estate and not entailed to the new earl. And it would have gone to his sisters as his closest relatives.
Thus I must warn readers who prefer that there be a love story and not just love scenes, who expect that the plot will make sense, and who appreciate a modicum of historical accuracy to think twice about paying $7.99 for Scandalous.