Last year, I started reading Mary Balogh reissues, which promptly hooked me. It was a welcome change of pace, romance novels where prose, for one, mattered more than the hijinks the hero and the heroine commit themselves to on the trail to True Love. [I keep saying it, and I’ll do so again: Balogh’s prose is graceful.] It’s almost quaint, these renderings of the love story; and though they were rarely intense reading for me, they could aspire for the quietly romantic at their best moments. The archetypes—nearly institutions, really—are as vivid as they’ll ever be, and the Baloghs of the 80s and 90s are perfect examples of how the formulae of the genres work: Here’s the virtuous daughter, the brooding peer, the naïve but refreshing country lass, the flamboyant lord. And on and on we go, with tropes galore.
Now, I don’t know how consciously Balogh subverted those archetypes and those tropes—if it was a conscious decision at all—in A Christmas Bride. [Here’s how I made a hash of the premise the last time I was here, talking about this book.] Sigh: I admit my impatience and my frustration with this book; skimming was how I went about reading it once I realized (after so many reminders to wait and see) that Lady Stapleton was going to remain a bitch of the highest order—unnecessarily mocking, lashing out at every opportunity because of some moral failing in her past (a failing that only the hero could help her get over, never mind it’s been well nigh ten years)—and defiantly snide about it, to boot. [Let’s not forget that as she reveals her damning past mockingly, she’s waiting for the other to cast her off upon the revelation!] There’s also her sly skirting of convention (doubly hard, I give her that, for a woman to do at the time) while managing to remain firmly ton. And let’s not forget all the lashing out and the unnecessary bitchiness. Augh. Lady Stapleton is an all-around meanie, for realsies.
And then I found this review on Goodreads, which basically described Lady Stapleton as a hero—with all the angst-ridden, nearing-asshat machinations that heroes are wont to do in romance novels. It’s an apt observation, if a very disturbing one—but I’d like to amend it, because for all the hero’s staple characteristics that Lady Stapleton manages to tick off, Lady Stapleton forgets to cover the gradual and continuous redemption that these be-breeches-ed men in romance novels must undergo—must actively pursue—to be fittingly called a goddamned Hero.
See, in my reading of the heroes who act the same way [teetering toward Total Asshat Avenue, yes], it’s that one fortunate rule that has to have him relent emotionally to the heroine, and especially to giving in (because, man, does he struggle) to his feelings for the heroine. That’s the part that makes you giddy, makes you swoon. And there’s absolutely none of that with Lady Stapleton. She just keeps playing the head-scratcher mean-girl part; you never stop wanting to tell her, “Dude, you are not a nice person at all, not a bearable one.”
The one time she relented, it was for sex, and as much as she enjoyed it—as much as she initiated it, pursued him—the self-loathing was quick to follow. And those tedious avowals of how much she hated Mr. Edgar Downes! There’s never any glimpse of Lady Stapleton convincingly softening for Edgar, convincingly easing up on herself. It took a fucking Christmas party and one of the most awkward family reunions for one scarily massive mood swing that had her going, “Oh, I love you, Edgar.” [Oh, Edgar? Edgar must be a nice guy, but I was too caught up wondering what the hell was wrong with Helena to even worry abut him. Seriously: You poor thing.]
PS – Someday I’m going to find the energy to talk about the rest of the Balogh reissues, because they really are wunnerful. It’s just that, you know, I’ll have to reread them and nobody’s got time for that! [I kid.] [I hope.]