It isn’t always easy to write a review of an average or sub-par book, and it’s even less so when it’s an average or sub-par book by a favourite author, so I’m sorry to say that The Earl’s Countess of Convenience, the first in Marguerite Kaye’s new four-part Penniless Brides of Convenience series is a – fortunately rare –misfire.
In it, we meet Eloise Brannagh, her twin sisters Estelle and Phoebe and their aunt-by-marriage and guardian Kate, Lady Elmswood (in whom I was immediately more interested than the heroine, which wasn’t a good sign), with whom they have lived since the deaths of their parents some five years earlier.
The book opens as Kate has received a letter from her absent husband (the girls’ uncle) in which he suggests that Eloise may wish to consider a friend of his, the Earl of Fearnoch, as a prospective husband. Fearnoch needs to marry quickly in order to secure his title and estates – and with no dowry and no social position to attract suitors, the sisters are not likely to be inundated with suitable offers of marriage, so the possibility of marriage to an earl – albeit a marriage of convenience – is not something to be sneezed at. Eloise agrees to meet the earl and to see if she thinks they will suit; she’s not prepared to sacrifice her life to misery and even though such a match would enable her to support her sisters and attain a degree of independence, she won’t go consent to it if she and the earl don’t get on.
When Alexander Sinclair arrives at the appointed time, Eloise can’t help but wonder why such a gorgeous man would need or want to marry a nobody like her – surely there must be ladies of quality queueing around the block to marry someone so eligible and handsome! Alexander quickly dispels that thought, and the conversation he and Eloise engage in here is refreshingly frank, which I liked; after all these are two complete strangers contemplating a lifetime arrangement for purely practical purposes, so I was pleased that they were both upfront with each other about their plans and motives. Alex explains that the nature of his work – he’s a Victualling Commissioner at the Admiralty – means that he spends a lot of time out of England, and he is adamant that Eloise should realise their relationship will never be anything other than a convenient arrangement for them both. He doesn’t expect or want them to develop feelings for one another, and children are categorically out of the question. Having seen her own parents’ marriage implode because of her mother’s infidelities, her father’s desperate love and their frequent rows, Eloise has absolutely no wish for love or intimacy, so doesn’t see those stipulations as in any way problematic. And because she has no experience of men and her only female role model is a woman living in a loveless, sexless marriage who hasn’t seen hide nor hair of her husband in the entire six years since they wed, she has no idea what those tummy flutterings at the sight of Alex’s smile might mean.
I’m a huge fan of marriage-of-convenience stories, but this one just didn’t work for me for a number of reasons. Firstly – and to get this out of the way – I was disappointed that Ms. Kaye, whose research is usually impeccable, chose to base the story on an erroneous premise, namely that Alex would lose his title and inheritance if he wasn’t married by his thirtieth birthday. British inheritance law doesn’t work like that. Add to that Alex’s insistence that he and Eloise should act like besotted newly-weds in case his dissolute cousin worked out the real reason for their marriage and then moved to challenge Alex’s right to the earldom… again, nope, for the same reason. But okay, taking that as a springboard for the rest of the story and moving on, I found the characters hard to warm to, especially Alex, who is too blow hot/blow cold towards Eloise and doesn’t seem able to make up his mind and then stick to his choices. Eloise is a very down-to-earth kind of heroine, but I have problems with characters – and to be fair, it’s normally heroes – who eschew relationships because their parents were miserable together, so I found it difficult to believe that an intelligent young woman would decide love and marriage weren’t for her because she didn’t want to turn out like her mother, a self-professed “slave to passion” whose selfishness wrecked her marriage.
There’s a sub-plot concerning Alex’s relationship with his mother and his suspicions about his birth which is resolved in the blink of an eye; his secret job isn’t secret at all given all the times we’re told about Alex’s ability to lie – the nature of Alexander’s real endeavours required him to be an accomplished fabricator – or that in his line of work he wasn’t even supposed to have a wife; and the past mistake which has him so dead set against falling in love is anti-climactic when finally revealed. There’s so much going on here that the story quickly loses focus. Eloise’s conviction that romance isn’t for her melts away fairly easily; and the introduction of Alex’s boss, who drags Eloise off for a private chat at their first meeting and then proceeds to drop all sorts of heavy-handed hints about Alex’s job while at the same time making it clear it’s – shhhh! – a Big Sooper-Seekrit, was just really, really odd.
The best part of the book – and the reason I’ve not gone lower with the grade – is the way in which the author allows Alex and Eloise time to talk and get to know each other, both before and after their marriage. Apart from one thing (Alex’s not-so-secret job) they’re honest with each other about their expectations and I liked the way in which they entered into their bargain with their eyes wide open – even though their belief that they would be the same people with the same wants and needs ten, twenty or thirty years down the line was perhaps a little naïve.
I’m a big fan of Marguerite Kaye and have given a number of her books DIKs and high grades, but sadly, The Earl’s Countess of Convenience isn’t among them. Even the best of us is entitled to an off-day, so I’ll chalk this one up to experience and hope that the next book in the series, A Wife Worth Investing In, sees the author returned to form.