Someone to Wed, by Mary Balogh

20 Jun
A dark haired white woman dressed in early 1800s white gown, her back about three-quarters towards the viewer. The backgrounds is a path through some fairly spaced-out trees, with sunlight coming through the branches, and almost 'haloing' her head.

Back in 2018, I glommed the first three novels in this series. Now that I seem cursed to re-reading more than reading new stuff (often because the writing voice is comforting, or because, even with the HEA promise of genre romance, I don’t have the emotional spoons to brave the relationship journey with an author I don’t yet know), I re-read them, and, I hope, finally learned my lesson: I cannot enjoy Ms Balogh’s newer work.

Content note: Wren’s backstory includes a very abusive narcissistic mother and complicit father and older siblings, with the attendant life-long trauma (i.e., repressed memories, inability to process grief, etc.). Ms Balogh’s treatment of the trauma isn’t too terrible, until the last, oh, thirty percent of the book? And then it gets offensive, if not outright harmful.

This review is very long. There is a lot of sweary ranting, and I’m spoiling the hell out of this book. Ye’ve been warned.

Someone to Wed, by Mary Balogh

I was intrigued by the premise of this novel because it’s a twist in the Beauty and Beast conceit: Alexander Wescott, new Earl of Riverdale, is beautiful. Wren has a strawberry birthmark that covers half her face.

I have always been a sucker for these stories when they’re well told, because we live in a society (pretty much worldwide), where conventional physical beauty is considered as an essential requirement for happiness (see footnote 1), so having substance of character be rewarded gives me the warm fuzzies.

The way this is handled here, however, is deeply problematic, because real trauma is carelessly trivialized.

Here’s the back cover blurb (nota bene: what’s with the ellipses?)

When Alexander Westcott becomes the new Earl of Riverdale, he inherits a title he never wanted and a failing country estate he can’t afford. But he fully intends to do everything in his power to undo years of neglect and give the people who depend on him a better life…

A recluse for more than twenty years, Wren Heyden wants one thing out of life: marriage. With her vast fortune, she sets her sights on buying a husband. But when she makes the desperate—and oh-so-dashing—earl a startlingly unexpected proposal, Alex will only agree to a proper courtship, hoping for at least friendship and respect to develop between them. He is totally unprepared for the desire that overwhelms him when Wren finally lifts the veils that hide the secrets of her past…

We have been told, repeatedly over the first two novels, and repeatedly throughout this book, how Alexander embodies the (genre romance) ideal of noble manhood: physically, because he’s tall, ‘well built’, athletic, strong, handsome, and so on; character-wise, because he “puts duty before personal happiness”–by which it’s meant that he’ll sit at the Lords while it’s in session, even though he prefers the country, and that he’s willing to forgo marrying for love if he can find an agreeable (and acceptable) heiress, so that he can afford to improve the conditions of his new title’s entailed property, which was left to rot for over two decades by the previous earl.

However, as much as he needs the money, Alexander is unwilling to make that his only reason to marry; he hopes to find someone he can respect and like, and eventually “come to care for”.

We, the reader, know all this. We are privy to Alexander’s internal dialogue on the matter (which, it must be said, is quite repetitive).

Wren, the heroine, does not.

When we meet Wren (and repeatedly thereafter), we are told that she’s very accomplished in running the thriving business she inherited from her late uncle. Mind you, she didn’t just passively inherit, she effectively helped him run Heyden Glassworks for years before his death, and has run it alone, quite competently, in the year since.

As an independent woman of 29, it makes sense that Wren approach the business of getting married with a cool head, more so because of how the trauma of her early childhood informs her entire life, even though she has mostly repressed her memories of those years. She does know that her maternal aunt rescued her from grave, imminent danger.

Knowing all this, it makes very little sense that Wren would be willing to offer marriage to someone after interviewing him for all of half an hour over fucking *tea*, even if she says that there would have to be a contract (basically a prenuptial agreement) to protect her interests.

Because, even if Wren could get a prospective husband to sign a detailed agreement, there’s nothing that could stop said husband from forbidding her from managing her company, or from institutionalizing her and trying to break the trust on those grounds. With that much to lose, would anyone go about it the way we are told Wren did? How is that in character?

The story is set in 1813, ffs.

This was a time where women lost ALL legal rights upon marriage. Everything a woman owned, from money to physical property, unless set in very tight, unbreakable trusts beforehand, became her husband’s property. Any interest earned by a trust in her name, became their husband’s money. Any decisions about any property she owned would have to be made either by the trustees or by her husband, as, once married, women could not sign contracts or any other legal document until their husbands died.

But okay, Wren lucks out. First because, shortly after meeting his mother and widowed sister, and understanding at last that an earl’s wife cannot decently bury herself in the country, socializing with no one, she’s given the chance to “withdraw her offer”, no harm done. And second, because Alexander is actually a decent person.

Which of course, this being genre romance, means that they eventually meet again, spend more time together, and when he proposes to her, she’s fairly sure she can trust him, so the prenup is unnecessary. (See footnote 2)

And, okay, that’s fair enough–we readers know Wren’s trust is well placed, and that eventually they’ll not just feel attraction and affection, but full-on love, and that they’ll declare it to each other.

Except for that other thing; the, “you are marrying an Earl, you can’t bury yourself in the country never receiving anyone”, bit.

Upon their engagement, Alexander contrives to “expand” Wren’s world by introducing her to more people–namely, his extended family; easily two dozen people.

(Whereupon there’s a lot of repetition of the stories told in the first two books–as in, more than one person, when thinking about character A, also ~remembers~, on page, that character’s entire backstory; then, when someone else thinks about character B, who is part of character A’s backstory, that second person~remembers~ *that* backstory, already told, because character A, in minute detail. And then someone else mentions character A, and here we go again. It got tiresome in a hurry.)

There is a lot of ink devoted to explaining how it’s necessary for Wren to socialize, for her own good, natch, and how she gains confidence with every new introduction that goes well. She doesn’t lose it or faint, or run, therefore she’s fine, let us move the goalposts. Until, within a couple of weeks, there’s a whole fucking ball to be held in her honor.

Let us forget that Wren doesn’t know how to dance, shall we, or that even well-socialized wealthy people often needed remedial training on how to move among the ton, let alone a recluse with Wren’s background. She married for love, even if it’s so far undeclared, so all will be well. Omnia vincit amor and all that jazz.

But here’s the thing.

Wren’s trauma over her birthmark runs deep. She has worn a thick veil in the presence of everyone including some of her own servants, for fucks’ sake!, for almost twenty years. Her only contact with the outside world over that time were her visits to the glassworks, where she wore the veil every second, unless she was behind a closed door.

Wren has never socialized. No calling on neighbors in Staffordshire or Withington House, her country home. Whenever her aunt and uncle entertained, she literally locked herself in her room, to avoid being seen, even by accident.

Because, up until she was ten, her mother basically kept Wren like an animal in the family house, and her father, and all the servants, from the governess on down, just followed along–with her three older siblings participating willingly in the abuse. The cause of that abuse? The large strawberry birthmark covering most of the left side of Wren’s face. (See footnote 3)

I repeat: Wren spent literal years mostly locked in a room, often without food, always without company; Wren wasn’t taught to read or write, or literally socialized in any way. Her only non-traumatic contact with any person for the first decade of her life was her youngest brother, four years her junior, after he learned to unlock her bedroom door on his own, and would come in to spend time with her of his own volition.

Wren came to live with her aunt, who eventually married Mr Heyden (who eventually worked things to adopt her legally and to change her name, also legally), when said aunt learned that Wren’s mother had decided to send Wren to an insane asylum.

Because of Wren’s birthmark.

Please, read that again.

This trauma is not addressed until, the day after the wedding (near the three quarters mark into the story-pg 261 in my print copy), Alexander and Wren go with other family members to the theater; Wren’s heretofore-unseen mother happens to attend the performance, and suddenly Wren’s repressed memories all come back, and she has a crisis. She regresses to that abused, terrified, helpless child, and it takes some doing for Alexander to reach her.

Before she tells him the whole story in all terrible and sordid detail, Wren asks Alexander to “make love to her” (see footnote 4), so they do. After which, instead of having Alexander help Wren undress and clean up and get ready for bed, he calls in her maid while he goes to his own dressing room to do likewise.

Which.

What in the everlasting fuck.

I don’t much care how long Maude the maid has been with Wren, or how much she cares for Wren. You are her husband, and you ~care~, but you can’t just do these things for her and with her until she’s ready to talk to you? How does Ms Balogh think that this heroic behavior, I ask you. (See footnote 5)

Then, after she finally spills all her backstory (up to this point, she had not told him even what little she did remember–so much for trust, eh? Enough to risk her fortune but not enough to let him to truly get to know her as a person), Alexander takes it upon himself to contact her brother, Baron Whatsis. He doesn’t even know which of Wren’s brothers holds the title, he just has decided to confront him with the fact Wren is alive–without even mentioning it to her, never mind asking her opinion or learning of her feelings on the matter.

Consent? Who needs consent?

Of course all is well, because it turns out the new Baron is her youngest brother, the one person who ever showed her kindness before her aunt took her away, both her father and her other brother having died because ::handwave:: Wren’s mother.

We are now on page 300 of a 361 page novel.

I’ll spare you the details of what little story is left; suffice it to say that there’s a ridiculous “let’s confront Wren’s mother” scene, followed by the damned ball, and that Alexander does not tell Wren that he loves her until about six paragraphs before the last period [page 360 in my print copy].

But hey, at least he did tell her, no?

After all, [heavy sarcasm] he’s told her a few times that he “cares”, and his family “has been kind”, and therefore prolonged emotional and psychological abuse just ::more handwaving:: so that Wren is now not just willing but nigh eager to perform all the duties of the Countess of Riverdale, including living a very public life everywhere, especially in London during the Season [end sarcasm].

I will say that “but she’s now fine; trauma, what trauma” bullshit is bad no matter when a book was written, but this novel was written in 2017, not 1987; have we learned nothing in the last three decades?

If Balogh was going to “cure” Wren of her trauma over the fucking birthmark over the course of three weeks, then she should have made that trauma a hell of a lot less severe. As it is, this narrative, especially Wren’s internal dialogue after she remembers, reduces horrific emotional abuse to something trivial in a way that’s harmful to survivors.

I am so incandescently angry over this.

So we have that trainwreck; add in the tedious repetition (we could probably toss a good thirty pages of text on repetition of the Wescotts backstory alone), and the rest of the bullshit, and I’m done with anything Balogh has written in the last, say, 20 years.

Someone to Wed gets a 3.00 out of 10

* * * *

1 We are constantly bombarded with the stories of “beautiful people” whose only accomplishment is…being beautiful. They’re made ‘celebrities’ and ‘stars’, and by the time we learn whether they’re white supremacists/TERFs/all around assholes, or decent and caring individuals, they already have huge platforms and outsized influence.

2 I’m pretty sure that most divorce lawyers would say that a prenup is best signed when both parties are happy with each other–once the shit hits the fan, the party with least power is invariably fucked, with zero recourse, both legal and social.

3 In most cases, infantile hemangiomas fade significantly as children age; even extensive ones can almost disappear. Most of those that remain, tend to be basically colored skin rather than mole-like in texture, requiring no more notice or medical intervention than any other bit of skin. It’s rather gross that some literature still calls them, in 20-fucking-22 “birth defects” and warns parent about how they “can affect children’s self esteem” (plastic surgeons, natch), rather than urging said parents to support their children, at home and in public–call out assholes staring at your child, if any are ill-mannered enough to do so, dammit. If parents didn’t make so much of physical perfection in their offspring, and if children weren’t so often considered extensions-cum-property of their parents, children would suffer a lot less in every fucking way.

4 For centuries, “making love” did not mean sex or even physical contact, but courtship and flirtation. The current usage was not adopted until the twentieth century, not appearing in writing until the 1920s. Using the phrase this way a good hundred years before it’s even first recorded is pretty enraging; there are plenty of other ways to lead the characters to sexy times. “Please hold me” or “please touch me”, then Wren kissing him, or even just him holding her and it naturally evolving into passion after a period of quiet and comfort. It would still fall into the pretty problematic “magic wang cures all ills” trope but at least it would not be a fucking anachronism.

5 I have come to hate, with the heat of a hundred novas, the trope of the old, devoted servant, whose entire existence, on and off page, is to adore the protagonist. Maude is allowed to tell Wren a couple of pointed truths a few times, but they are both clear that Maude is a servant, not a relative or a social equal. It’s a fucked up relic of the British imperial class (effectively, caste) system, and I hate seeing it glorified in genre romance.

2 Responses to “Someone to Wed, by Mary Balogh”

  1. willaful 26/06/2022 at 3:26 PM #

    The last modern Balogh I read was the first in this series, published in 2016, and I’d been growing extremely tired of her repetitive style for some time before. I hate when authors reach a level of comfortable popularity when they don’t have to be actually good anymore.

    • azteclady 26/06/2022 at 8:46 PM #

      And publishers let them because they get to spend less money on editing “sure bets”.

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