The Right Wife
I haven’t encountered too many romances set in the post-Civil War South. And I can fairly say that I haven’t come across too many romances like The Right Wife either. Readers should be aware that this book has its uncomfortable moments involving race, together with some uncomfortably rapey moments and religious stereotyping. There is something about it that really stands out, though. It’s that vivid but difficult to completely categorize quality I like to call WTF-ery.
With her sharecropper father now dead, 18-year-old Maggie Campbell now must find a way to provide for herself and her two younger siblings. When her aunt and uncle volunteer to take them, Maggie agrees and as the book opens, she is leaving Tennessee for Tuscambia, Alabama. At the train station, the family is drawn into a nasty incident as someone attacks their mixed-race maid (yes, poor sharecroppers traveling with a servant – let’s suspend disbelief starting with page 1!) and Aaron Stone rides to the rescue.
Naturally, Maggie is left all atwitter about her brief encounter with the virile stranger. And naturally, Aaron and his friend Thayer are headed to Tuscambia themselves. So, what’s the conflict? Well, we’re going to have so many to pick from. First of all, Aaron has a somewhat mysterious and perhaps even shady past. Maggie, on the other hand, is going to live with an aunt who is very religious and whose son is the local minister. This isn’t an inspirational, so don’t be surprised when aunt and son turn out to be narrowminded, hypocritical prudes. Oh, and if the religious stereotyping isn’t enough, be warned that the author does use the offensive racial language typical of the book’s setting at various points in the story.
And then there are the trials and trevails of our poor rich hero. It turns out that Aaron is a self-made man with a secret in his past. He’s determined to overcome his background and so now that he’s made a fortune, he needs a genteel and well-bred wife as his ticket into society. He makes this clear to Maggie from the beginning, even telling her the name of the worthy widow he intends to wed. Then again, Aaron spends almost as much time lusting after Maggie as he does telling her about his marriage plans, so I suppose we can forgive her for getting mixed signals in all of this.
The romance, such as it is, really didn’t hold my attention. Aaron basically tells Maggie he’s attracted to her, Maggie totally falls for Aaron but then Aaron reminds her that of course he isn’t going to give up on his plan to marry rich and establish himself as a gentleman. The notion that leading Maggie on and then dashing her hopes over and over might be a tad ungentlemanly seems not to occur to Aaron. Oh, and then there’s that squicky first sex scene which seemed like something from a 1970s love at first rape tale. And if all of this isn’t enough to have readers thinking the hero is a jackass, at one point during the story, he decides that the heroine’s teenage brother is way too old to still be a virgin so he takes him out to a brothel.
While Aaron is something of an alpha-hole, Maggie just frustrated me. She spends much of the book pining after a man who ruins her reputation in town and otherwise treats her pretty shabbily. And then at times during the book, she basically creates big misunderstandings between herself and Aaron because she knowingly withholds needed information from him.
So, why isn’t this book an F? Well, there is a sweet secondary romance in the book that I actually did like. However, those few moments of sweetness are not nearly enough to make up for the unromantic main love story and the outlandishly bad storytelling running through the entire novel.