The Worthington Wife
This sequel to An American Duchess focuses on Julia Hazelton, sister to the hero of that book. Julia reacts to the lively atmosphere of the 1920s by trying to help others, seeking to use her dowry to enrich the lives of women widowed by the first war.
Older brother Nigel, still the stuffy sort, thinks it’s a scandalous idea and refuses to let her do such a thing, still hoping that Julia will make a desirable match. But Julia feels a true need to help these women with whom she feels a kinship, for World War I was not kind to her either. In a few short years, she lost her intended, Anthony, and then scandalously broke a loveless engagement to a rich doctor. Julia would rather do something useful than sit around and wait for Prince Charming to pop up, and refuses to make a titled marriage just to please her family.
Julia’s friend Diana marshals her to her side, interrupting her plans; Diana needs Julia’s help charming a distant cousin, Cal Carstairs, into marriage. Unfortunately, the newly-minted Earl is so adverse to the British aristocracy that he’d been living the life of a wastrel artist in Paris under his mother’s maiden name when he received the news that he had inherited an earldom. He proves an unsuitable match for Diana but Julia is heartily attracted to him.
Cal has a chip on his shoulder that could block out the sun. The result of a scandalous marriage between a maid and an aristocrat, he holds a grudge against Diana’s family for refusing a long-ago plea for help on behalf of his dying mother. His heart has turned toward vengeance, and through his Worthington Park inheritance he will execute his master plan to thumb his nose at his father’s people for once and all by dismantling the estate.
Soon Diana’s mother is pushing Julia to encourage Cal’s interest in her in order to save the house. Will Julia figure out a path toward independence and romance that will both enrich the lives of those around her and save her beloved Worthington Park?
One good thing Downton Abbey has done for the romance novel world is that it’s allowed the 1920s, once a subject considered too ‘modern’ an era to make a good historical, to become a viable market. The Worthington Wife treads the same social boards that Downton once walked – its characters, members of the British aristocracy living in leisure around London in the period between the wars – will feel familiar to anyone who watched the show. Too familiar, tragically, and there are echoes of better stories at the core of the book.
That the novel’s biggest problems come parceled in its characters, who quite simply don’t feel like real people. Worst among them is Cal, who enters the story by making his upper-crust distant relatives faint by (GASP!) showing up to his visit wearing workman’s clothing, unshaven and with a casual attitude! He proceeds to transmogrify himself into a chunk of cardboard rebellion with some occasional rounding touches that almost make him human. Almost. Surly to everyone he meets because of past personal tragedies, he’s also a tortured artist who acts out his rage with childish and ill-considered tantrums of frustration. He’s one of those heroes who would rather keep the heroine as his mistress than marry her because of his own issues. He says things like “I want nothing but raw emotions on my canvas.” That’s the kind of guy Cal is; a melodramatic child stunted by a bad childhood and adolescence whom the author mistakenly believes to be noble. She tries to counteract his behavior by surrounding him with children and giving him a paraplegic brother. It doesn’t work.
Julia is interesting in ways Cal never manages to be; yearning to be useful and independent, wanting to love but only if it’s right, she gives a damn about people who are more vulnerable than her but fails to understand the complexities of the class system. She comes off as a genuinely good person most of the time, which just makes me want better for her.
The crux of their deepest argument shows them to both be naive and self-motivated. Julia (and thus the novel’s narrative) believes her tenants to be happy simply because they could have it worse in the city on a factory farm, and therefore don’t want better for themselves while Cal believes the underclass to be hopelessly downtrodden and in need of an unyoking by his firm hand. Neither of them bother to ask these people how they feel, though the tenants are paraded out in a show of misery porn to make the upper class lead characters feel super sad about their tragic lives.
Their romance is rather difficult to warm up to, complicated by the creepy fact that Cal resembles Julia’s lost love, Anthony. The author then equates their bickering with sexual excitement and thus true love. They have sex in a crashed car. It’s emblematic of the relationship. The 251 pages in, Cal rhapsodically talks about the nurse with whom he fell in love during wartime – and you’re left wondering if we’re really supposed to be rooting for Cal and the nurse!
The plot has a tendency to tread water for pages at a time, throwing in dozen of distracting and unnecessary plot points. A murder mystery composes the entire middle to late stretch, and there’s some subplot for Diana and Cal’s brother that’s ill-developed. While it’s supposed to capture that upstairs/downstairs feeling, it feels like nothing more than a distraction from the main plot. The whole novel could benefit from losing a good hundred pages in its lower stretch. There’s also a cringe worthy jaunt to Paris, where Zelda Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway are trotted out to spout their stock lines and the heroine is propositioned by a woman (which disgustingly proves to be the tipping point in her education that she is Not a Wild Woman).
The Worthington Wife provides melodramatic, soapy fun for the reader, but that soapy goodness sadly proves to be a pale imitation of better books.