The Counterfeit Husband
Ruth Anne Nordin’s Her Counterfeit Husband is what you’d get if you put Sommersby and While You Were Sleeping in a blender and set the dial to ‘farce’. It never for one moment rings true in terms of plausibility, nor is it in the least romantic, but it has a fairly original setup. And if that’s damning with faint praise, well, it’s the best I can do here.
Our heroine, Anna, is married to Jason Merrill, the Duke of Watkins (I can tell the names are going to be awesome). Jason is an abusive husband, and although he’s dying, this only means matters will get worse for Anna, since his younger brother Lord Mason (see what I mean?) is a lecher who can’t wait to get his hands on Anna after she’s a widow. So when Jason dies one night, Anna and her trusty butler decide they can’t let anyone find out about it.
The butler proposes the brilliant idea of hiding the Duke’s body and then claiming he’s gone away somewhere for a rest cure. They sneak out at night with the corpse and bury it under a tree. Then they start back home, only to find a man lying in the road. He’s been beaten into unconsciousness, but what’s really astonishing is that he looks just like the Duke. What are the odds? So Anna decides to pass him off as her husband. No matter who or what he is, he’s got to be more decent than his predecessor.
Then the man wakes up – and has amnesia. Like Jon Snow, he knows nothing, so after Anna convinces him that they’re married, she has to explain to this blank slate that he will be addressed as ‘Your Grace’, and teach him about etiquette e.g. don’t discuss our marriage in front of the servants. But he’s kinder and more honorable than her husband, and she soon finds herself falling in love with him.
So, where to start with this? Anna is the stereotypical abused-wife heroine in an historical romance – beautiful, kind, loving, believes she’s barren, is proven wrong (I wrote the last three words before reading the end). ‘Jason’ is equally flat and has no faults whatsoever other than occasionally squeaking his dialogue when he’s nervous.
Just in case you’re wondering about his past, though, at the halfway point in the book, he looks up his family tree and discovers that the Duke had an older twin brother who died at birth. Or did he? If you don’t want spoilers, then look away now; the baby was sickly and the evil parents didn’t want a sickly son inheriting the title, so they sold him to a circus (in this world, My Fair Lady could never have happened, because working-class people speak in the same way that dukes do). To cram even more soap into the opera, the evil Lord Mason was secretly poisoning his brother, so he doesn’t buy that ‘Jason’ has made a miraculous recovery and is now a better man into the bargain.
This book was a quick read, but all that stood out were the incredibly fortuitious coincidences, and how ineffectual Lord Mason was – the only thing he managed to do was to bump off his villainous brother, and after that he was useless. Everything is wrapped up with a neat bow, and even some minor character married to a nasty man is a happy widow in the end. The man dies off-page, but it’s entirely likely that Lord Mason killed him by accident. I like stories of characters who have to deal with deceptions, but I want them to have the depth and emotion and dilemnas of Sommersby, and this doesn’t even come close. Her Counterfeit Husband was more like a counterfeit story, with nothing believable about it.