It's Marriage or Ruin
In Liz Tyner’s It’s Marriage or Ruin, Emilie Catesby dreams of being a painter, but her mother wants to see her married instead. Finally, her mother threatens to take away her art supplies, so Emilie decides she must either marry a man who’ll leave her alone, or ruin herself. If no one ever wants to marry her, her mother will have no choice but to let Emilie do as she pleases.
So Emilie sends a letter to a rake asking for a private meeting, but the letter is intercepted by Marcus, Lord Grayson, who happens to be the rake’s older brother. Marcus was a rake too, but he slept with all those women because he was aimless and unfulfilled, rather than because he enjoyed the lifestyle. He meets Emilie, they go through an orchestrated seduction scene, they are discovered as planned, and even the people who discover them don’t seem surprised or disconcerted. Emilie and Marcus are married and they go to live on a tumbledown estate where Marcus can restore the house and Emilie can have her freedom.
The strength of a romance is in its characters, but I’m afraid these two don’t quite cut it. Emilie’s plan to ruin herself is just… not well thought out. For one thing, she has younger sisters, yet she never stops to wonder if their lives will be affected by the scandal. For another, ruin doesn’t just mean your mother stops pestering you to get married. It’s revealed later that Emilie hoped the rake would stop short of actual sex so she wouldn’t get pregnant, but anyone counting on a rake for that sort of birth control is, shall we say, highly optimistic.
As for the art. Emilie is obsessed with thinking about painting. She thinks about it all the time. But the closest she gets to it is to keep a sketchbook, something I imagine a lot of ladies did at the time. There’s an occasional mention of paint-water or turpentine, but the story doesn’t show any time spent before a canvas, much less get into her technique or style or vision for her art. She just thinks about it. A lot. Though she also reflects on how she’d like to have “several children”, perhaps because a historical heroine who doesn’t want half a dozen babies would be unnatural.
As for Marcus, he has some issues jeopardizing his relationship with Emilie, and here they are :
- Emilie wanted his brother to ruin her
- Thinking about painting comes first with Emilie, and she only wants him as a subject in that endeavor
- Marcus is colorblind so he can’t appreciate art
- Marcus is bored and doesn’t know what he wants out of life
- His father didn’t love his mother, so he doesn’t know what love is
- His valet Robert doesn’t get along with Emilie
A couple of these could have made for interesting problems if they’d been well-developed and executed, but for one person to have all of them – and to be amorphous and bland into the bargain – didn’t work for me. In most of the first half of the book, Marcus dwells on how Emilie wanted his brother, but after they move to his estate, his focus shifts to his other issues. The weirdest of those is Robert, the valet. He’s actually Marcus’s mother’s illegitimate half-brother and he saved Marcus’s life once, so Marcus keeps him around although Robert constantly carps at him. Marcus spends his wedding night playing cards with Robert, and when Emilie slips out at night to look at the stars, she takes Robert with her rather than Marcus.
I couldn’t figure out why Robert is in the story. He’s not funny enough to be comic relief, or compelling enough to be the hero of the next book. Maybe he’s just there because nothing much was happening otherwise. Marcus and Emilie have no chemistry together, and they don’t even consummate their tepid marriage until well towards the end of the book.
A strong romance has characters who feel like real people, sometimes larger than life but always capturing my emotions. But unfortunately It’s Marriage or Ruin is not such a romance. If you’d like to read about a historical heroine who’s a painter, I recommend Unsolicited Duke Pic, which was recently well reviewed at AAR. I can’t, however, recommend this book.