The Marriage Bargain
The Marriage Bargain, by first-time novelist Michelle McMaster, is fast-paced, witty, and entertaining. It also has one of the most contrived and silly plots I have ever read.
Lovely Isobel Hampton’s guardian was murdered by the devilish Sir Harry Lennox, who wants to force her to marry him. She flees, and somehow winds up unconscious in a pile of garbage in London, where she is found by Lord Beckett Thornby. Beckett takes her home and, because he doesn’t employ any live-in female servants to do it, strips her, washes her, and puts her to bed. Then he goes to sleep on the couch. At some point during the night he wakes up, wonders what he’s doing on the couch, and gets in bed. In the morning he wakes them both by accidentally putting his hand on Isobel’s naked breast. Her shrieks draw the attention of his mother and solicitor, who are paying a morning call. Isobel is thoroughly compromised, and, if that weren’t enough, the solicitor announces that a cousin of Beckett’s has died and Beckett will inherit an earldom – if he marries within twenty-four hours.
How’s that for an unlikely string of events?
Isobel agrees to a loveless marriage to Beckett because she believes it will protect her from the fiendish Sir Harry. But soon Sir Harry surfaces, more fiendish than ever, to tell her that he intends to punish her by having her arrested for her guardian’s murder. Rather than telling her husband the whole story and begging him to help her, Isobel dashes off into the streets of London again. Beckett finds her, extracts the story from her, and – this is unexpected – the two get on a ship and go to Barbados, leaving Beckett’s friend Alfred to clear Isobel’s name while they’re gone. Of course, danger follows them across the Atlantic. The culmination of this novel will involve an amoral pirate, a vicar who has no problem marrying a bride whose wrists are tied, and a magical cat.
These characters are so unoriginal they’re almost romance archetypes. Isobel is the Blond Victim heroine – she’s constantly being rescued from things, like runaway curricles, falling stalagmites, and the persistent Sir Harry. Beckett is the Fearful Nobleman, who was rejected by a woman once and now believes that “love is nothing more than a disease that infects your heart and makes you delusional, leaving you wasted and empty when it has run its course.”
The plot to this novel had me rolling my eyes constantly, but I do have good things to say about The Marriage Bargain. It’s fast-paced and lively and sometimes quite funny. I’m happy to say that the character of Isobel gets better as time passes. Ms. McMaster has an engaging writing style, and I smiled more than once at the adventures of Isobel and Beckett.
And sometimes I winced. For instance, Beckett doesn’t consummate the marriage for months, partly because of his love=disease convictions. Infuriatingly, it’s also because he’s not convinced of Isobel’s innocence. I’m sorry, I just can’t accept a hero who falls in love with a woman while believing that she’s capable of murdering an old man for no reason.
McMaster’s style is witty, quick, and clever, and she manages to make this highly formulaic romance entertaining in spite of itself. If you don’t mind a clichéd plot you might enjoy The Marriage Bargain. It was too contrived for me, but Ms. McMaster shows promise. I hope that in her next book, she stretches her wings and tries something a little more original.