The Slightest Provocation
The Slightest Provocation is an “Anything But” book. As I waded through it, I kept wishing I was doing anything but reading it. At one point, I was so bored I decided to take a break and scrub my bathtub. The half hour I spent doing so was more interesting, satisfying and enjoyable than any moment I spent reading this glacially paced, unevenly developed, sloppily plotted slog of a book.
The back cover summary presents the story in a much more straightforward and coherent fashion than it unfolds in the book. I’ll describe it the way the author tells it to give a sense of the storytelling. The promising prologue introduces Emilia Stansell, the young Marchioness of Rowen, who informs her husband that after giving him two sons she has no intention of ever having sex with him again. She knows he’s not interested in her (though she really has no idea how true that is), so she intends to fulfill her own needs elsewhere. He is to give any children she may produce his name. Believing she knows about the inappropriate bed partners he prefers, the Marquess agrees. Emilia was an intriguing character, and each of her appearances in the book made me wish the story was about her. Unfortunately, it’s not. The prologue serves no point but to inform the reader that Kit, the hero of the book, is one of the children fathered by someone other than her husband, setting up one of the story’s not-very-interesting threads.
It’s all downhill from there. The first chapter finds Kit’s wife Mary in Normandy planning to travel back to England. She and Kit have been married for ten years and estranged for nine. They’ve been living separate lives, with Kit at war and Mary gallivanting around Europe. After a long, dull section of exposition where she thinks about how she’s in a gloomy mood, she finally arrives at an inn for the night. At dinner, she sees a man staring at her. They flirt and make their way back up to her room. The author is coy about his identity for a while, though it’s obvious from the start this is Kit. They proceed to have drawn-out, tepid sex.
The next morning they get into a fight about all their various and sundry issues. The scene is awkwardly written, as the author frequently interrupts to offer bursts of introspection. Plus, we don’t even get to see the entire conversation, as the author leaves out some chunks, making it even harder to follow. Most importantly, it’s an argument between two characters the reader hasn’t been told nearly enough about talking about things we know absolutely nothing about and certainly have no reason to care about. In the end, they decide to divorce. Mary has a new suitor who’s interested in her. Kit says he’ll hire spies to prove her adultery, then bring suit against her and her suitor. To avoid the appearance of collusion, they agree not to see each other again.
They manage to avoid each other for sixty long, boring pages where nothing happens. There’s more exposition. Rosenthal introduces Kit’s former best friend, who Mary slept with as revenge for the adultery he committed early in their marriage, which led to their estrangement. Mary goes back to Grefford, the village where she and Kit grew up, and we meet her sister Jessica and niece Elizabeth. A short time later, Kit also goes to Grefford in order to investigate rumors of sedition. The lower classes want the right to vote and there are rumors of a revolution in the making. Kit tries to find out who’s doing the rabblerousing in a subplot so tedious it’s the antithesis of suspenseful.
Eventually, Kit and Mary start to meet to have sex. The scenes are explicit enough to earn the book a Burning rating, but not all that sexy and certainly not enough to make the book worthwhile. The boring Elizabeth and her equally dull cousin have long sections dedicated to them which virtually sent me into a coma. Meanwhile, in the only subplot I actually cared about, Mary’s maid Peggy discovers she’s pregnant and contemplates her future. Of course, this subplot only takes up about two percent of the book. After all, who wants to read about a believable character dealing with a real problem when there are one-dimensional rich folk running around making much ado about nothing?
If I haven’t made it clear by now, the story meanders along without going anywhere or picking up any forward momentum. I was going to say it moves in fits and starts, but it’s pretty much all fits and no starts and certainly doesn’t do a very good job of moving. Frankly, it’s a mess, just a random collection of story points that never come together into a cohesive narrative. It doesn’t help that it’s dragged down by plenty of introspection and long narrative passages. The author’s prose ranges from lovely to clumsy, more often leaning toward the latter.
The characters are woefully underdeveloped. Calling them wooden would be overly generous. There’s too little development of the romantic relationship to make it worthwhile. Kit and Mary don’t have nearly enough meaningful conversations to justify their happy ending. The sedition “mystery” isn’t even slightly interesting, goes nowhere, and culminates in an unsurprising, thoroughly anticlimactic “revelation.” The issue of Kit’s paternity is pointless.
I suspect this has been a boring review, which is fitting since the book was dull as dirt. When I closed the last page, I sighed, not with satisfaction, but with utter relief that it was finally over. Rosenthal provides enough Regency atmosphere and details that diehard Anglophiles might derive some pleasure from that sort of thing, but readers looking for good characters, good romance, and/or a good story should look elsewhere.