Secrets of a Scandalous Marriage
Publishers are pretty into “high concept” these days. Secrets of a Scandalous Marriage is fairly high concept. It’s part of a series featuring heroines who write pamphlets about something scandalous and fall in love in the process. In this case, the heroine is accused of murdering her husband, and the hero is the publisher of the aforementioned pamphlets. High concept it may be, but it’s also boring and poorly written.
Kate Townsende is a duchess imprisoned in the Tower of London, helplessly awaiting her fate. She’s accused of murdering her husband, and all the evidence seems to be against her, particularly since she was overheard requesting a divorce. Fortunately for her, scandal is (sort of) James Bancroft’s stock in trade. Although he’s known about London as Lord Perfect, he secretly runs a printing press that publishes scandalous pamphlets. He has plenty of money, so mostly he does this just for kicks, because he can. When he asks Kate to write a pamphlet about her scandalous marriage, she agrees. She has some simple requests in return; since she might be put to death, she wants to live first. Or, more specifically, she wants to live, live, live as the author is wont to say.
James ensconces her in his London town home, hires a Bow Street runner and a top notch barrister, and tries to help Kate live, live, live before she’s tried, tried, tried, convicted, convicted, convicted, and put to death, death, death. He has a private ball in his home with just the two of them, and grants her wish to visit a farm. She befriends two of his former pamphlet writing ladies and their husbands, who aid their sluggish romance along.
Eventually, with seemingly as little drama as possible, the actual killer confesses and Kate is free. Free, free, free!. You know how usually in this type of book a large part of the drama and conflict involves finding the real killer? Well, that’s not this book. The discovery is announced with little fanfare, which is preceded by periodic meetings with the barrister, who basically just tells them that “it doesn’t look good.” After this announcement, the romance deteriorates into junior high-esque misunderstandings, with James and Kate taking turns being offended by each other and trying to be noble for the good of the other person. If you find this sort of thing riveting, you might also enjoy my Hello Kitty diary from seventh grade, which contains a twenty-three page blow by blow account of a church ski trip, most of which revolves around the question, “Does Jeff Hardy like me?” (Answer: Probably not. I was pretty annoying.) I had to skim the last fifty pages just to get through the book.
Obviously, the plot needs some serious work. But the chief problem I had with Secrets of a Scandalous Marriage is that it’s utterly, completely lacking in subtlety. There’s no need to read between the lines, ever, because everything is just right out there, stated in black and white. If ever an author needed the advice “Show, don’t tell,” it’s Valerie Bowman. It’s advice that is much easier to give than it is to follow, so I’ll be more specific. Instead of telling your readers that your hero is famously perfect (mostly by way of mundane dialogue), show him struggling with his perfection. Some fun side reading in this category: Danelle Harmon’s The Beloved One and Meredith Duran’s Wicked Becomes You. If you want classic examples of how to set tone and characterization and show readers everything they need to know about the coming conflict in an intriguing way, I recommend Cecelia Grant’s A Gentleman Undone or Julia Ross’s The Wicked Lover. But I digress.
Initially, this seemed to be more of a C or C- read. Yes, it was mundane, yes it was obvious, but it wasn’t actively annoying. But when I hit the revelation about the killer and the book descended into Junior high drama, it became actively annoying and definitely not worth the time. But in case you’re wondering about the + next to the D, it’s actually for the sex scene, which is surprisingly good. Go figure. But is it a reason to read this high concept, clumsily executed book? Not really.