Title: The Duke's Wager, To Wed a Stranger
Author: Edith Layton
Publisher: Signet (1983), Avon (2003)
Is anyone else suffering from the uncreative winter doldrums? No? It's just me whining about the cold, wanting to hibernate and wondering if the sun even exists? Huh. Well, I've never professed to being all that mature. Anyway... I bring my winter whininess up at all because I read The Duke's Wager the day after Christmas and To Wed a Stranger not that much later and have not been all that inspired to write (anything at all really, all I really want to do is wrap up in a blanket and read books) so I'm hoping flipping through the two will help me remember what it is I originally thought about them.
The short version: The Duke's Wager was so compelling - alternating between super awesome and super frustrating - that I was all geared up to gallop through Layton's back list but then To Wed a Stranger was so dull that I wonder if I should bother. What I'm thinking is that maybe I should stick with the Signets and pass on the Avons. Anyone out there know anything about romance publishing lines to help me with that? Do different lines have different requirements which might affect the type of book produced?
The long version: The Duke's Wager took what is, without a doubt, an uninspiring plot line - notorious rakes pursue gorgeous woman to any length - and made it fascinating. Whether purposely done or not, the adversarial relationship between the two men was the most compelling aspect of this would-be tired plot. And I don't mean adversarial as it relates to the woman but as it relates to the men, what they think of themselves and what they think of each other. So, the set-up: New to London, Regina Berryman made a teensy mistake in going to the opera on the night when only courtesans and their lovers attend. It is on this night that Jason Thomas and St. John Basil (both titled, rich, dissolute - natch!) see her for the first time. Thomas is like, I'll take that, thank you; Regina, shocked to her dainty little toes (they never make an appearance that I remember but I'm sure the descriptor works), runs out. The hunt begins for our Thomas (or rather for "his man" who waits outside Regina's house - with carriage - for an abduction, can we say creep?) and Basil joins later. As you have probably surmised, Thomas plans to just take what he wants but Basil goes about the courtship in what appears to be a more honorable manner.
What appears to be is significant because the book has several shifts in perspective for the reader. I've mentioned before how much I enjoy this in books. The slightly less gullible may not be so enamored with such a style, but you don't have to be the gullible reader I am to appreciate the nuanced perspectives given of the characters in this story. Things are not necessarily as they appear for almost the entire length of the book.
The main weakness of the story, and the source of all my frustration, is the heroine. She's intelligent and self-aware but given to moments of unexpected stupidity and commits the unforgivable (for me) crime of having the hots for a guy who demeans her. Yuck! So you'd think a romance where the heroine partly ruins the story would immediately get the chuck but the guys are so interesting that I couldn't put it down (plus the two female supporting characters are pretty friggin' awesome). These are not two people who are immediately described and spend the rest of the book showing you how well they match that description. These are two people that one feels one knows immediately (romance cliches are so informative) but who slowly unfold as events force their true characteristics to the surface. What's more, even if they're doing something that gives you the heebies you want to continue to get to know them because they are so dang interesting.
I also really liked the dark side of Regency life that Layton focused on. She brings some very real aspects of the culture to the table and lays them out for everyone to see. Nothing is swept under rugs and it paints a picture not often seen in romances. She also tends to spend a lot of time in the characters' heads. They think a lot and the reader gets to be there for all that thinking. I'm not so fond of that style but the book wasn't over-long so it was kept in check. Not so in To Wed a Stranger...
To Wed a Stranger is far less compelling and almost half again as long (felt twice as long, actually but I don't think it actually was in word count). In this one, a notorious flirt who never managed to catch a husband has finally settled on a complete stranger who needs her money. Can they work it out and have a happy marriage? These are not books packed with action so it's a must that the characters keep your interest. Doubly so since you spend so much time in their heads. I was so not interested. I liked how, once again, Layton took tired romance plot lines/situations and turned them upside down (a worse first time/wedding night I've never read) but that was about all the book had going for it. And speaking of the wedding night, in The Duke's Wager there was a kiss or two but that's about it and still the book managed so much better in the realm of intimacy tension. But again, in stories like these it really comes down to the characters; if you don't care about them you don't really care if they ever find emotional or physical fulfillment with each other.
Most annoying thing, though, was that the makings of an interesting plot with intriguing dramatic tension was so obvious. This is why I was wondering if Avon has requirements to their lines that would affect the book. Cut some of the useless sex scenes, development the mom's character earlier - and with some subtlety - and you would get to the end with problems I can believe in. Problems that I would want to see the characters overcome. Ugh! So disappointing.
So I need some help here, do I try another Layton and so maybe re-capture (and hopefully improve upon) the awesome to be found in The Duke's Wager or is this a one hit wonder?
Two more things before I'm done. Thing, the first: when a notorious rake has done so many awful things that if I only believed half it would mean he's the devil himself, how can I not feel cheated when a threesome seems to be one of his personal low points? [side note: the book is bereft of sex scenes but not sexual situations or language. another interesting style choice by Layton.]
Thing, the second: my favorite bit from The Duke's Wager -
Jason speaking to his childhood nanny : "But you hope that the 'person' is a female one, and a pure honest, well-bred one at that, for somewhere in that reasonable breast lurks the unreasonable belief that your nursling will be saved by the love of a good woman."
She knew the moment had passed, and so she retorted, "Nonsense, arrant nonsense, Jason. The love of a good woman would roll of your back like water off a duck's. I make no doubt you've enjoyed the love of a good many women and some of them good women at that, but that would not change you in the least." ... "But," she said succinctly as she rose to leave, "the love for a good woman...ah that, my lad, would make all the difference in the world."
The Duke's Wager - 3 of 5 stars
To Wed a Stranger - 2 of 5 stars
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