Saturday, November 22, 2008

"Private Arrangements," by Sherry Thomas

Alternate Title: Absence (and Divorce!) Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

The Chick: Phillipa Gilberte "Gigi" Saybrook, nee Rowland. Born to a wealthy family sneered on by the aristocracy for their connections to trade, her mother trained her practically from the cradle to snare a peer as a husband. Determined to make a match based on prestige and social standing, she certainly wasn't prepared to fall in love - and so fortuitously with the heir to the Duke of Fairford!
The Rub: However, said heir was promised to another, and in a desperate move, Gigi resorted to forgery and deception to win his hand - and ended up destroying their newborn marriage the day after the wedding. Now, ten years later, she decides to petition her long-absent husband for a divorce, so that she may be free to marry again.
Dream Casting: Natalie Portman.

The Dude: Camden Saybrook, Marquess of Tremaine. He fell in love with Gigi almost as quickly as she with him - but when he found out about her underhanded dealings, he married her anyway, gave her a glorious wedding night, and then promptly abandoned her for the Continent in revenge.
The Rub: Ten years later, he's willing to grant Gigi her divorce - provided she allow him his husbandly rights long enough to produce an heir.
Dream Casting: Persuasion's Rupert Penry-Jones.

The Plot:
Gigi: I need a title!

Camden: I need money!

Gigi: *in lurrrv* What a delightful coincidence...

Camden: Sorry, I'm taken.

Gigi: Oh really?

Fake Letter from Camden's Sweetheart: Sorry, I'm taken, too.

Camden: Wow! What a delightful coincidence! Too delightful...*finds out truth* Oh HELL no.

Gigi and Camden: *married*

Camden: See you next Tuesday from never, bitch. *absconds*

Ten Years Later
Gigi: I need a divorce!

Camden: I need an heir!

Gigi: Well, I don't find that delightful at all...

Camden: Too bad. *shags senseless* Still want that divorce?

Gigi: Not so much.

Romance Convention Checklist:
1 Fiesty Heiress

1 Impoverished Aristocrat

1 Marriage-Minded Mama

1 Secondary Romance (aforementioned Mama and a Kinky Duke, yeah!)

1 Relationship-Aiding Pet

2 Lacklustre (but still halfway decent) Romantic Rivals

3 Uses of 19th Century Birth Control (no, apparently a Dutch Cap isn't a type of mushroom)

1 Expensive Piece of Apologetic Bling

The Word: As most reviewers know, the hardest books to review aren't the really excellent books, nor the terribly awful books. In fact, it's downright fun to write a searing diatribe against a piece of literary monkey feces. No, dear readers, the hardest books to review are the ones in the middle - the ones in which you can't find anything egregiously bad, and yet somehow, for reasons you can't really express (which is part of the difficulty), you just don't connect with the characters, or the story. You'd really much rather be reading something else.

That's how I felt with Private Arrangements. It's the 1880s, and Gigi Rowland is a lady on the make. Her mother, Victoria, who was spurned by the gentry for marrying a wealthy tradesman, reared Gigi with a heightened sense of ambition - an ambition that could only be sated by marrying a Duke. Then, of course, Victoria and Gigi could regain their status in society and crush the fops who snubbed them under the heels of their expensive leather boots.

Gigi's hopes are raised and then dashed when she becomes engaged to a Duke who promptly and inconveniently dies soon after. Luckily for her, the new Duke's heir, Camden Saybrook, is just as impoverished and debt-ridden as the last one. Gigi's upbringing has taught her to believe that marriage is more like a financial or business partnership than a sentimental one, and she offers to pay off Camden's debts in return for his hand. When he politely declines, because he is promised to another woman (an equally poor and wishy-washy aristocrat), Gigi is inexplicably hurt, and only then realises that she's fallen in love with this man.

Gigi knows that Camden has feelings for her, and she also knows that his attachment to this other woman is based on honour rather than sentiment. Naive, unused to passionate love, and trained from birth to go after what she wants, she is determined to have him, and has a letter forged and delivered to Camden announcing his intended's marriage to another man. Camden, delighted to be released from his obligation, proposes, and so passes a whirlwind three-week engagement, which Gigi can't entirely enjoy because she's terrified her shameful deceit will come to light before the wedding can be made final.

Unfortunately for her, it does. Camden is understandably outraged, but instead of calling the wedding off, in revenge for her betrayal he goes through with the wedding, gives her a torrid wedding night, and then flatly dumps her and leaves for the continent.

Ten years pass - ten years with husband and wife on separate Continents, never exchanging so much as a word. That is, until Gigi petitions Camden for a divorce. Having captured the attentions of a truly loving, gentle, and kind-hearted man (Lord Frederick), Gigi finally wants out of her farce of a marriage so that she may start a new one with Freddie. To her surprise, Camden refuses, and lists off her own adulterous lovers (the law states she can't obtain a divorce for adultery if she's also committed adultery). However, he will keep her secret affairs a secret and allow the divorce to proceed if she will give him a year to try and beget an heir upon her. Gigi is appalled by the notion, but really has no choice, so she concedes.

There were a lot of things about this book that I liked in theory, but which, for reasons I can't satisfactorily explain, didn't grab me in practice. I liked that we finally have a romance where the hero is the moral superior. I liked the cosmopolitanism of the novel (the characters weren't all English born, the story didn't only take place in England - hell, the hero's English is a second language!). I liked that Gigi's mum was an unabashed, manipulative social climber but wasn't a cold evil bitch (quite the opposite in fact). I liked having a heroine who was independent and pragmatic and aware of Society's arbitrary dictates, who was also willing to work alongside and manipulate those same limitations to get what she wanted, instead of being one of those abominable Anachronistically Feminist Nuisances who say "To Hell with Society!"

Of all the characters, Gigi was probably my favourite - she's vibrant and nuanced, vulnerable and yet very capable. I related to her choices (even her Big Giant Bad one). She's incredibly flawed, which is a refreshing change from heroines who are usually the lily-white creampuff foils to their devil's food cake heroes. Camden wasn't too bad either, but when I closed the book after the last page, I just couldn't remember anything significant about him.

And this is probably why this book was produced only a "m'eh" from me - while I enjoyed the book well enough while I read it, once I put the book down it became out of sight out of mind. Even terrible books keep me thinking about them once I'm through - usually about how much I would love to be stuck alone in a room with the protagonists long enough to beat some sense into them. With this book, all I could truly remember was the mildly annoying profusion of name-dropping in this book - while it was all historically accurate name-dropping, I found it just as distracting in a historical romance as I do fashion and celebrity name-dropping in a contemporary.

I know this review is shorter than my reviews usually are - but that's because when it comes to this book, I don't really have a lot to say about it. And, ironically, that says plenty about how I felt about it. B-.

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