The Husband Test
If The Husband Test were my first Betina Krahn romance, it would also be my last. That would be a shame, as I’ve enjoyed some of Krahn’s past work, particularly The Last Bachelor. Unfortunately, this disappointing book is not representative of its author’s potential.
Eloise of Argent is a novice in the Convent of the Brides of Virtue who yearns to become an abbess. Her ill-fated attempts to improve every task in the convent keep her in hot water. When Peril, Earl of Whitmore, arrives seeking a virtuous bride, the abbess takes steps to rid herself of a meddlesome novice. She deputizes Eloise to travel to Peril’s keep and assess his worthiness as a husband. Since she expects to return to the convent, Eloise wears a habit so that Peril and his subjects won’t know she hasn’t taken her vows.
Peril accepts the abbesses’ conditions out of desperation. Long ago his father’s spurned mistress cursed his castle, and the place will never prosper until Peril brings home a bride “of great and surpassing virtue,” just the sort for which the convent is reknowned. The cute setup seems poised to provide an amusing romp, but it’s wrecked by three major flaws: an ill-considered setting, a dimwitted hero, and a shortage of romantic chemistry.
As one of AAR’s less history-minded reviewers, I don’t mind visiting a historical “fantasyland”, as described in a recent At the Back Fence column. The setting here isn’t really the Middle Ages, but MedievaLand: perkier, less religious, more feminist than the real thing. A historical fantasyland may not tally with reality, but it can work if it’s at least internally consistent – as this author has demonstrated in her best Victorian romances. Unfortunately, MedievaLand fails on that count.
Peril’s villagers have no distinct personalities, and no social memory. At the keep, Eloise and Peril stumble upon secrets and enormous assets that have implausibly been forgotten within a single generation. The villagers have also forgotten how to cook, weave, and clean, until Sister Eloise shows them how. The mass stupidity can supposedly be attributed to the villagers’ absolute faith in the curse on the keep, but no group of any size would have such an unvarying reaction. There are no seen-it-all cynics, no weatherbeaten old soldiers, no sharp-eyed housekeepers. Just sheep:
- Unambitious sheep at that. Peril’s kitchens are a disaster because the entire staff is demoralized and lazy. Nobody works extra-hard to push the head cook out of the top job? The superior cooks that Eloise easily locates in the village never imagined they might use their skills to better their positions?
- Dispassionate sheep: in the last year, three young boys have vanished from the village. Such a significant loss should be the banner news of the entire village; instead it’s mentioned as an afterthought only when the third boy disappears, and immediately forgotten.
- Disaffected sheep: Peril’s keep can’t possibly support more than a few hundred inhabitants (from the dire descriptions it could hardly sustain twenty) yet for all the neighborly connectedness the villagers show they might as well be scattered across midtown Manhattan.
The next problem is the hero. Peril’s name, which grated on me throughout the book, is only the third or fourth least appealing thing about him. Peril seems decent enough at first, but with as little sense of personal history as the rest of the characters, he never comes into focus except to tarnish his image. He recruits his bride from a convent, then acts shocked and resentful whenever she prays. Late in the book Peril promotes a blatantly untrustworthy character to a position of power. There’s no justification; we aren’t privy to the train of thought that led to this supremely idiotic decision. In the face of disaster, Peril sticks to his guns purely to spite Eloise. Even the villain marvels that Our Hero can be such a moron.
Finally, there’s the lack of romantic chemistry. For the first 200 pages both characters are convinced that Eloise is, or will shortly become, a full-fledged nun. Because of this the bulk of their interaction is necessarily unromantic, and when they connect it’s just icky – where the heck does Peril get off feeling up a Bride of Christ? Somebody should smite him mightily, and for good measure heave down a thunderbolt on the abbess of the convent, who has allowed Eloise delusions about her future that ultimately seem pointlessly cruel. If she always planned to marry Eloise off to someone, why didn’t she say so? Eloise has some potential as a heroine, but it’s never realized. She isn’t as actively irritating as Peril, but nor is she as clever or engaging as she first appears.
It’s a real shame, because the premise of this book had such potential – potential that I had every faith that this author could deliver. It could have been fun to watch Eloise scrupulously administer the arcane Husband Test, except that it gets ruined before she can read it and so is completely irrelevant. Sort of a metaphor for the entire book. Betina Krahn has written some lively and enjoyable romances, but sadly The Husband Test just doesn’t pass muster.