2.5 out of 5 stars
Cut to the Chase:
This was a roller coaster of a read for me. For every good thing (nice writing, interesting characters, sympathetic situations), there’s at least one bad/dealbreaker (misogynist hero who doesn’t really change, cringe-worthy examples of said chauvinism in the form of spanking and near-rape). McNaught’s writing is good enough, and I was invested enough that I finished the novel, but… not happily. There are so many *cue drama* Stupid Misunderstandings, that you find yourself wondering if they’ll ever truly be happy, and while the female protagonist does seem to gradually mature, it feels like the only journey our hero’s gone through is the realization that all women (now, excepting his mother and wife) are awful.
We meet Whitney first. She’s a headstrong girl whose father has no idea how to manage or discipline her. She wears breeches and rides astride, she loves getting into scandals and mischief, anything to try and capture the attention of Paul, a neighbor who’s ten years her elder and who, at the age of 15, she decides she will grow up and marry.
It’s a common conceit, and a nice set-up. we know she’s not going to end up with Paul as we’re shown how unworthy he is (that he is embarrassed by her affection for him, yet gives her a cameo necklace as a parting gift to encourage her continued devotion).
Next, she’s sent to France, to live with her aunt and uncle in the hopes that they will somehow civilize her. While there, she meets Nicki, the French version of the very eligible bachelor, who takes her under his wing, initially in a completely unromantic fashion, and later in more serious pursuit. At the height of her popularity, she finally meets our main hero, Clayton/Duke of Claymore (though he’s seen/half met her a couple times in the past, we later learn), and he immediately decides that she’s the woman he wants to marry (despite the fact that he’s been an reprobate rake up until now). He has Whitney’s family investigated, finds out that her father is deeply in debt, agrees to pay off all the debts and arranges a marriage between the two (all without ever consulting Whitney, of course).
Look, I have no problems with the set-up, all of the tropes here are familiar and even a little comforting. It’s the reason I read romance, sometimes this is all I want, to turn my mind off and lose myself in a familiar-yet-not-completely-the-same story.
The problem I have is that our main protagonist, though there are nice moments of tenderness (which are really well written and tender and sweet), is one of those alpha males who thinks he’s always right and wants to control everything. When he starts to lose control in the slightest bit, he reacts violently (he spanks her with a riding crop at one point for an admittedly stupid act on her part… for some reason, she lefts him punish her, and then proceeds to apologize, and he forgives her). Now, I kept reading, because I like to finish books, but the problem is that our alpha male protagonist NEVER progresses. He never learns from his mistakes and continues to fall victim to massively Stupid Misunderstandings. … later, he more or less rapes her thinking she’s not a virgin, discovers he’s wrong, and tries to “make it up to her” by breaking off their engagement. After they’ve finally conquered that way-too-drawn-out Stupid Misunderstanding, they marry, proclaim love, live blissfully in peace for five months and then, he suddenly believes that she’s cuckolded him, and goes back into his punish-shout-vengeance phase.
It’s… massively tiring and you end up feeling like this is a couple that will always struggle. In the end, he seems to believe that women aren’t just inferior, they’re kind of naturally scheming and manipulative… as such, there will always potentially be one more reason for him to suspect her, blow up, and later… forgive her. (The fact that the heroine seems to continue to blame herself, or want to “soothe” his hurt feelings, and take responsibility for the fact that he’s dumb and over reactive, also begins to make her feel less sympathetic.)
It’s super disappointing because parts of this novel are really well written (thus a 2.5 instead of a 1). There are some great scenes between the two of them (chess matches where they banter and scheme, etc), but what could have been a great romantic progression gets constantly hung up with Stupid Misunderstandings and lack of character development…
Comparison to Other Authors:
Argh. Parts of her writing are so clean and crisp that it’s very Lisa Klepyas, Sherry Thomas, Loretta Chase. The problem is that those authors (except for Sherry Thomas who sometimes toes the line to the point of crossing) have characters that seem capable of growth. The rape-y-misogyny is very Catherine Coulter-esque, or, if you prefer, a Stephanie Laurens hero on steroids. What would be seen as over-protectiveness that the hero at least sometimes tries to rein in from a Laurens-esque Cynster male becomes totally overdone, let’s-punish-punish in McNaught’s story.