The time is ripe for a reminder about how subjective the reading experience can be. It is probable that many Balogh fans will greatly enjoy Slightly Wicked. As for me, despite being a long-time fan of Balogh, I found the generally well-loved A Summer to Remember surprisingly mediocre and clichéd, and I liked Slightly Wicked even less.
Lord Rannulf Bedwyn is journeying to Leicestershire in answer to a summons from his grandmother, who had previously named him heir to her properties and fortune. He loves his grandmother, but knows that he will spend much of his visit deflecting her usual attempts to nudge him into responsibility via marriage and family. During his travel by horseback, he comes upon the passengers of an overturned stagecoach and makes the acquaintance of one Claire Campbell, an actress traveling to York. Through a series of convenient events, she agrees to accompany him on to the next village, and there agrees to share a room with him at a secluded inn where they enjoy two days and nights of passionate bed games.
Claire is actually Judith Law, the second of four daughters of a vicar. She has offered herself up as the family’s sacrificial lamb and is now en route to the home of her wealthy aunt and uncle, where she will take up her cross of indentured servitude. In return, her parents and sisters will regain some financial security and her brother can continue the freewheeling lifestyle of a gentleman- about-town until he gets around to deciding how to translate his costly university education into a living. Of course, as luck would have it, Judith’s aunt and uncle live only five miles from Rannulf’s grandmother, and it is Judith’s vain, empty-headed cousin, Julianne, whom Rannulf is being set up to court and, hopefully, wed. To further the “everything but the kitchen sink” plot line, Rannulf is now willing to seriously consider a lifetime commitment to a self-absorbed pinhead because….[dramatic pause]….his grandmother is dying and she would really like to hold his heir in her arms before she goes.
In case, unlike me, you are unable to predict what follows once Rannulf sees through the baggy clothes and over-sized caps Judith is forced by her aunt to wear, let me enlighten you. There is an obligatory insulting marriage proposal, followed by an obligatory pride-salvaging refusal (and, of course, later refusals of sincere proposals because [insert obligatory lame reason here]) . Then there’s Judith’s front-row seat for Rannulf’s courtship of her selfish and brainless cousin, as well as Judith’s aunt and cousin verbally and emotionally abusing her both privately and publicly. There’s also Judith’s high-flying brother arriving as a houseguest and hitting her up for money and Judith’s slimy step-cousin, Horace, groping her at every opportunity. Judith getting blamed for everything that goes wrong, from disappearing valuables to Horace’s ploy to achieve a wet-bodice effect by dumping scalding hot tea on her. Judith endures all in stoic silence, even when a little subtle maneuvering might save her some duress, and continually wanders off alone, which provides ample opportunity for Horace to hone his skills as a sexual predator. I kept waiting for someone to kill her dog and steal her family Bible.
Judith is a rare, magical creature of the sort one can find only in Romance Land. She’s a titian-haired Aphrodite who thinks everyone considers her ugly. She’s not characterized as rebellious, but she does have a little fantasy about a handsome, Robin-Hood-type highwayman waylaying the stagecoach on which she travels to Leicestershire and whisking her away on his trusty black steed. Which might explain why she was so ready to ride off alone with Rannulf, pretend to be the actress she’d always dreamed of being, and give up her virginity for a “stolen dream” to cherish during the coming decades of bleak spinsterhood and servitude. She has great instincts, as well. She dazzles Rannulf by performing a few soliloquies (but, not, heaven forbid, that of the “silly Ophelia,….who should have snapped her fingers in Hamlet’s face and told him to go and boil his head in oil”) and, without doing a lot, manages to convince the sexually experienced Rannulf that she’s the greatest lover he’s ever had. It’s a kind of “Being There” effect: her plodding uncertainty and passivity become transformed, via the haze of Rannulf’s mindless lust, into a courtesan’s skill in sexual game-playing. And, naturally, it isn’t until “Claire” has decamped without warning that he learns from the innkeeper’s wife about the virginal blood on the sheets (nary a whimper or gasp when he plowed through her maidenhead, neither sore muscles nor the overly tender flesh one usually associates with unaccustomed marathon sex).
I got no real sense of who Rannulf was (other than his being surprisingly naive for someone who is supposedly so sexually experienced). He was a nice enough character, but generic, completely indistinguishable from the plethora of rakes peopling all the other historical romances on the book racks. The remaining inhabitants of this story are all standard cut-out characters lacking any substance or nuance (not to suggest these qualities exist abundantly in either of the protagonists), and each could be easily classified according to whether they are “absentmindedly benevolent” or “deliberately malevolent” toward Judith. A couple of intelligent conversations between Judith and Rannulf are all that save this from being a totally irredeemable F read in my book.
A romance without conflict and obstacles holds no more interest for me than for any other reader. But when the Ophelia Method of Problem Resolution begins to look like an intelligent alternative to the surfeit of Horaces and Juliannes in a heroine’s life, when tequila shots start looking like a justifiable prerequisite to my plunging into the next chapter of relentless misery that is her lot, I have to conclude that I am not enjoying my reading experience. For me, Slightly Wicked was less a romance than the stringing together of an endless array of depressing, and trite, plot contrivances. If that notion doesn’t discourage you, by all means, read this book. Otherwise, consider some of the earlier Baloghs, like Heartless or Truly, for a more enjoyable read. Slightly Wicked is more than slightly unsatisfactory.