On a whim I entered all of Joan Wolf's backlist into my wishlist at PaperbackSwap, although I'm really only interested in White Horses which involves a circus. (My interest in romance + circus will have to wait for a later post.) Friday I received The Deception. "Flawed" would be a generous term for this book.
Joan Wolf's Regencies tend to be told in first person by the heroine. After the first chapter, that construct doesn't alarm me anymore, but it does (duh) obliterate any chance of understanding the hero's conflict. Kate is the daughter of a renowned horse trainer who while dying of a gunshot wound whispers a clue to the identity of the villain. (On the first page! Wow, wonder what the plot is going to be?) Dying father tells loyal family groom to search out Kate's uncle, who shows up seething over his sister's elopement many years earlier with now tragically dead father of Kate. By page 5 we learn that Kate and her father were unexpectedly in this region of England to sell two horses to...OK, I have to stop this sentence right here to point out that I cannot read this name on the page properly. Please see if it causes you fits too...The Marquis of Stade.
What did you read it as? Perhaps, like me, The Marquis de Sade? Hmmmm. Maybe he's not a nice guy.
Also on page five we learn that Kate's uncle lives in an empty, huge, cold estate. An alarm sounds in Kate's brain. Yeah, mine too. I'm already flipping through the book to figure out when the hero shows up. Because at page five I'm already having misgivings. Stade indeed. Huge cold empty house. Humph.
So Kate's nasty uncle introduces her to the Earl of Greystone, the fair-haired Adrian, and quickly arranges that they be found together in a bedroom. A-Ha!! You must marry the chit. And so he does. (Eh....Why? Oh right, plot advancement. Right. Let's get on trying to figure out who killed Kate's dad. Yep.) He kisses Kate and then leaves for a few months.
After a bit (nine months!) he suddenly shows up again. They seem to have nothing to say to each other, so they go down to the stable to look at the Adrian's retired mare who Kate's been training. They stand outside her stall and he calls to the mare:
She knew him. She lifted her head and pricked her ears and then she slowly turned around and came toward him, her muzzle outstretched, her eyes soft. She nickered, then rubbed her nose against his shoulder. He reached up to caress the white star on her forehead.
I think that was the moment when I fell in love with him.
What the fuck??? Boy, do you have some low standards, woman! Kate's been around horses all her life. She's NEVER seen a man raise his arm to scritch a horse's forehead? Or maybe she's never seen an affectionate horse? Or maybe the source of her love is that the horse recognized its owner. Ooooo! If he had a dog and it recognized him too, would she be so overcome that she had sex with him right there in the barn? I don't get it. And Kate doesn't explain her comment any further.
Adrian's younger brother Harry hangs around a lot. Kate and Harry get along--they have entire conversations which tends to generate camaraderie. But Adrian and Kate cannot be afforded that luxury, because soon we will soon stumble into The Big Misunderstanding. And it's Big. So Big, that even I, a college-educated reader, cannot understand the misunderstanding.
'Kay, at some point, Adrian decides to consummate the marriage. As the reader may have expected by this point, the pain is intense, but she "endures" it. (Oh Please!) The next night, after some more pleasant nookie, she lies in his arms and begins to become afraid. Her thoughts are described as bleak, anguished, and painful. Good Lord! What can be causing such terror? Do tell. Your dear reader is all aquiver.
Kate's horrifying discovery is that she loves Adrian.
(Wait. I thought that happened out in the barn a few days ago. Oh! Right! That's the future Kate looking back on the story, pinpointing the exact moment when she first loves Adrian. Now we are deeply into the present moment, wherein she realizes that she loves him. Ok. Got it. Carry on.)
Kate's love is so "strong, [so] all-encompassing, [so] powerful" that she is sure that it will destroy them both. OK, that's odd. But please, tell us more:
I love him, but I must not make the mistake of expecting him to love me. This was the anguishing thought that was tearing at my insides and keeping me awake this storm-tossed night....I was safe with him. The question was: was he safe with me?
This feeling that I had for him was not tepid. It was passionate and possessive. If I ever gave it free rein it would smother him, and destroy me....When the rain ceased just before dawn, I had accepted what it was that I must do.
I could not burden him with a love he had not asked for...I must hide my feelings from him; I must leave him free.
She's terrified of nonreciprocal love? No, wait. I'm sorry. She's anguished to think that her powerful love will burden or smother Adrian. Wait, if she expresses her love she'll be destroyed by it? Is that it? How does that work, exactly? (Or even inexactly, I'm not picky just now) I can retype the sentences, but I swear I cannot figure this thought pattern out. All I can figure out here is that Kate, who may very well be in danger of being killed by her father's murderer if she pursues her wishes to punish the villain, decides that it is dangerous to love her husband but not dangerous to track down a murderer.
For the rest of this tortuous read, Adrian is kind to Kate but she spends a lot of energy being reserved and distant from him. Maybe he loves her, maybe he's intrigued by her, or maybe she pisses him off, but since Kate's telling the story, we will never know.
Adrian flits in and out of the book--he keeps being called away on various political missions, and whenever he doesn't like the way the conversation is going, he simply leaves the room on an "appointment." But Harry gets himself into scrapes, chats up Kate, and sympathizes with her while she mourns. Adrian exhibits signs of jealousy which Countess-turned-sleuth-hot-on-the-trail-of-father's-murderer doesn't notice.
Speaking of which, the mystery surrounding Kate's father's death is, eh, not very layered. Marquis de Sade, oops, Marquis of Stade, may have been involved, can you imagine? And by the way, what happened to gossip amongst horsepeople? I've worked in barns--the entire day is filled with gossip. The farrier visits, bringing new gossip, the feed is delivered, along with fresh gossip. That's all we do; muck stalls, groom horses, ride horses, and gossip. But in Joan Wolf's world Mr. Marquis can burn a barn down and switch studs and no one notices?
After a bizarre diversion into a subplot involving a gambling debt, Kate bravely sits at home and asks her father's former groom to go find and bring back evidence of the identity of the switched studs. I mean, we wouldn't want to distract from the intensely romantic story of the Earl and his wife ignoring each other by following the drama of the detective on the hunt. When Paddy returns, Kate bravely sits quietly in a room full of men while Harry outlines the evidence against the Marquis de Sade, no, Stade. Sorry. Gosh, this determination and bravery is just so appealing!
Of course, not only is Kate determined and brave, she is also too stupid to live. Kate, sigh, is kidnapped. Twice. Rescued once by Harry (who is wounded), and once by Adrian (who is wounded). When Adrian rides to her rescue (with dueling swords; because guns are so, you know, gauche), the resolution to the Big Misunderstanding is quick and sudden. The truth is blurted out and lovers fall together without a look back. And the hero doesn't have to kill the evil Sade, oops, Stade. The Marquis very handily dispatches himself.
This book may be the most annoying thing I have read. (And I have read Old Man and the Sea five times in five separate classes. I know all about annoying reads.)
To recap: We have first person narration, which if not handled just so can be a tad precious. We have OBVIOUS PLOT DEVICES thrown in with grand thunderclaps announcing their arrival. We have Pain of the Virgin. We have Big Misunderstanding. We have Kidnapping. We have Punishment of the Evildoer Without Dirtying Hands of Hero. The Deception is saved only by the fact that there isn't a Secret Baby.
Off to PaperbackSwap you go!