|His Secondhand Wife by Chery St. John is a good example of a “purse” book. That is, it’s the type of book you can pick up and put down, carry with you to the office to read during lunch or in snatches of other times of inactivity and still enjoy it very much.
The setting is Colorado in the 1890’s. Upon hearing of his brother’s death, Noah Cutter sets out immediately to retrieve the body. Noah is a lonely man, having been scarred in a childhood accident and avoiding society because of his ruined looks. Noah keeps his hair and beard long, always wears a hat, and is most comfortable with his back to the light, feeling less ashamed of his face and less insecure when no one can get a good look at him. His brother Levi had been Noah’s only friend for most of Noah’s life, and Levi’s death leaves Noah stunned and grieving. He visits Levi’s widow to break the news to her, and finding her pregnant and living very poorly, Noah retrieves his brother’s widow as well.
Katherine had been married to Levi for only five months, during which Levi was missing most of the time. After spending two weeks “honeymooning” with Katherine in a boarding house, Levi left to look for work and never came back. During his absence Katherine had to move back in with her miserable excuse for a mother, and is relieved when Noah comes for her.
Noah and Katherine both have mixed feelings about her moving into the Cutter family home. Noah is worried that the beautiful Katherine will take one look at his hideous face and reject him as his family and local society had done, and Katherine is a little frightened of the big quiet man who won’t look at her directly or let her see his face in the light. But they are both hopeful as well. Katherine hated growing up as the poor and fatherless daughter of a washwoman and wants to give her child the things that the Cutter family can provide. Noah is desperate for Katherine to stay and rear Levi’s child at Noah’s home, so he won’t be lonely any more, and because he feels if the child grows up seeing Noah’s scars the child will love him anyway.
Noah attempts to keep his distance from Katherine because he fears her rejection, but Katherine’s happy chatter and continual offers of help and friendship eventually start to chip away at the walls around Noah’s heart. Noah’s horrible stepmother, Levi’s mother Estelle, convinces Noah that the only way to guarantee that Katherine will never leave is for them to marry. Seeing the wisdom in this, the dutiful Noah proposes to Katherine and they wed.
There are two small problems with His Secondhand Wife. One is that at times the dialogue is stilted. Noah and Katherine have a couple of conversations where she’s trying to get Noah to respond to her the way a true husband would, and their discussions begin to seem like the same dialogue cut and pasted over and over. They invariably devolve into the “don’t pity me,” “I don’t pity you” single sentence refrain. It’s not a huge thing, but it seemed the characters had a lot more to say than was actually written. The second problem occurs near the end of the book. The reader is short-changed because one of the most hurtful issues of Noah’s difficult life is resolved in just a couple of sentences from an unlikely source. Again, it’s not a huge thing, but more build up would have made for more satisfying reading. These problems don’t affect the bulk of the story, and perhaps the author had to economize a little to fit the Harlequin Historical format.
The love scenes in His Secondhand Wife are very sweet. Noah was a virgin before he married Katherine and a lot of what occurs in her bed is told in his point of view. His excitement and gratitude, and regret that they have to make love in the dark, are gently and charmingly portrayed.
His Secondhand Wife is definitely a character-driven book. There are no kidnappings or murder, just two damaged people trying to find their way to happiness.
At the end of this book you have to smile because Katherine has found hers in the strong arms of Noah.