An Exquisite Marriage
Together with the heroines of the previous novellas in this Regency Makeover series, Lady Helene Fitzgerald has been labelled a wallflower. A bluestocking with a sharp mind and a keen eye for the way society works, she was severely traumatized by a broken engagement for which she took the blame. This and her subsequent breakdown left a black mark on her reputation in society’s eyes, and Helene has spent season after season sitting on the sidelines ever since.
An unexpected meeting with Marcus Endicott, Duke of Windford, changes both her marital prospects and her willingness to sit idly by. Forging a friendship with the awkward Madelene and Marcus’ unfashionable sister Adele, Helene seizes destiny by pursuing an acquaintance with fellow bluestocking (and undercover authoress of gossip columns and controversial novels alike) Debra Sewell into a bargain that will improve all three women’s reputations. This results in the girls emerging as the talk of the next season.
But even with Marcus’ attention captured and the ton eating out of her hand, Helene struggles with a problematic family and the lurking presence of her ex-fiancé. Marcus, too, has a difficult family situation and secrets of his own relating to the truth behind his long bachelorhood. Will Marcus admit to the truth lurking in the shadows? Will Helene save her younger siblings from further trauma while healing her own wounds?
An Exquisite Marriage is a quick read with a number of minor blemishes that prevent it from reaching optimal beauty, yet the hero and heroine are so winning it’s possible to see beyond its flaws. The positives first; Helene and Marcus are a wonderful pair, and watching them fall in love is a treat. Their fond jibing and conversational rhythms are snappy, yet sweet, and their relationship has an appealing depth that enthralls. There’s something Tracy and Hepburn-esque in their teasing but loving way of interacting, and the way that interaction blossoms into love – leaving the audience smiling, rooting, and applauding – is the book’s biggest success.
Both characters shine as individuals as well. Helene is beautifully sympathetic, human and tender. Marcus, meanwhile, is a lovable hero, with a nice line in sarcastic humor underlying his gravity and a strong intellectual bent. They work together like adults to figure out their problems, providing solutions that neither would have seen had the other not pointed them out, which is an enormously appealing trait for a romantic couple.
Helene, Adele, and Madelene have a friendship that works fairly well, although Madelene has a sad tendency to disappear into the background during the story. Minor characters, like Debra Sewell and Marcus’ younger brother Marius shine much more brightly than she does.
Helene’s family seems to have wandered off the set of a Warner Brothers melodrama from the 1930s and Bernadette, the late duke’s mistress, speaks solely in overheated clichés and finds it not at all uncomfortable to pursue Marcus while wasting his money, thus becoming the unsubtle secondary villain of the piece. Both she and Broadheathe are used mainly for last-minute tension, and neither character receives enough of a retribution for their evil misdeeds. Yet that doesn’t mean that Marcus and Helene’s romance is anything less than satisfactory.
Both families’ presence in the story adds an odd stroke of melodrama that doesn’t match the sweet tone of the rest of tale at all. Yet I cannot completely fault its inclusion. It adds a sense of depth and urgency to Helene’s social manipulations and provides us with the incredibly charming relationship between Marcus and his younger brother, who loves poetry and brawling with equal fervor.
Perhaps the largest downside of An Exquisite Marriage is that it feels somewhat incomplete as a stand-alone story. The two previous books in the series handle Adele and Madelene’s marriages and relationships; this book takes place mostly concurrently with the events in the others, and not having read those sometimes left me feeling as though I’d missed something. As a result, and for the benefit of new readers like myself, characters are initially forced to speak in clunky chunks of expository dialogue that feels stilted. The prose and characters are otherwise quite enjoyable.
These dents don’t damage a story that gives us some lovely relationships and characters to admire. Marcus and Helene feel like two world-weary grown-ups falling in love, and one truly roots for their union and their love to blossom. I’ve taken off some points for the info-dumps and the overly melodramatic family drama, but the novelette is still a worthy experience, and comes with my recommendation.