A Notorious Vow
A Notorious Vow is the third and final book in Joanna Shupe’s Four Hundred series, but don’t worry if you haven’t yet read the first two as this one stands perfectly well on its own. The couple from A Daring Arrangement (book one), makes a brief appearance here and I enjoyed catching up with them, but starting off with this installment definitely won’t be a problem if that’s what you choose to do.
Lady Christina Barclay and her parents have recently fled London in the wake of a terrible scandal, and are now living with cousins in New York City where the elder Barclays are intent on making a great match for their daughter. Christina doesn’t want to marry a stranger, but she knows the future of her family rests on her delicate shoulders and she’s nothing if not biddable. But when her parents decide to marry her off to one of New York’s most notorious elderly widowers, Christina is desperate to come up with an alternate plan.
Oliver Hawkes has lived away from polite society for years. He lost his hearing at the age of thirteen, and in spite of the unconditional love and support given him by his immediate family, he has found it difficult to fit into the hearing world. In recent years, he’s devoted his attention to inventing a device to aid those who are hearing impaired in their communication, and he’s convinced himself that his invention is the most important part of his life. He has no time for friends, never mind romance, so he’s quite displeased to learn that a strange young woman has been availing herself of his lavish gardens for the past few weeks.
Christina is inexplicably drawn to the peace and tranquility she finds in Oliver’s gardens. She is grateful for the respite they offer from her mother’s incessant nagging, and she has taken to spending the early mornings there, soaking up the solitude. When she and Oliver meet for the first time, she’s immediately fascinated by his brooding nature. He, of course, expects Christina to be put off by his deafness, but instead, she takes it in her stride and asks him to teach her a bit of sign language. Soon, in spite of Oliver’s reserve, the two strike up a friendship of sorts, and Christina begins to wonder if a marriage of convenience to Oliver might just be the solution she’s been searching for. When she broaches the matter, Oliver is at first opposed, but he eventually capitulates so that Christina won’t be forced to marry the old man her parents have chosen for her. He is, however, quick to impose two non-negotiable rules. They will be married in name only, and the relationship will end in exactly one year. Both of these things suit Christina just fine, and the two are married in an extremely private ceremony.
Oliver and Christina are a truly wonderful couple, one of the best I’ve had the pleasure to read about in quite a while. They treat each other with kindness and respect, and I never got the feeling that either of them considered themselves to be superior to the other. Oliver can be a bit pompous at times, but Christina is quick to remind him that his opinion is not the only one that matters. I kind of expected him to react badly to this, but I’m pleased to report that he actually handles it with considerable grace. He has begun to care deeply for Christina, and he’s determined to be the kind of husband he’s sure she deserves, even if their marriage is only temporary. Christina has always been timid and fearful, but that’s not how she wants to spend the rest of her life, and I loved watching her come into her own with Oliver’s help.
I was especially pleased with the way Ms. Shupe chose to deal with Oliver’s deafness. So often, characters with disabilities are portrayed as either superhuman or practically helpless, but Oliver felt completely authentic to me. Granted, I don’t know a lot about deaf culture, especially deaf culture in 1890, but nothing about Oliver’s character felt contrived or overdone. I saw him as a person who just happened to have a disability, and I was overjoyed that the people in Oliver’s life see him that way as well. Society as a whole isn’t always quite as accepting, but Christina and Oliver navigate these difficulties together, and their obvious affection for one another shines through beautifully.
The only problematic part of the novel has to do with its villains. Christina’s mother and Oliver’s cousin Milton are both incredibly unpleasant people. This in itself wouldn’t have been a problem if the characters hadn’t been so completely over the top. I’m guessing readers are supposed to find Milton sinister, but I pictured him twirling his mustache a time or two, and it made it almost impossible for me to take him seriously. The same is true for Christina’s mother. I would have liked these two to have been presented with a bit more nuance.
A Notorious Vow is a delightful story with relatable principles and a bit of sizzling sexual tension. It’s sure to appeal to established fans of Ms. Shupe’s work as well as those who are encountering it for the first time. This is a book that will remain with me for a long time to come, and I’m eager to see what else the author has up her proverbial sleeve.