Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Fractal Plot

My TBR Challenge book is A Scandalous Proposal by Julia Justiss, a new-to-me author.

The set-up is familiar to fans of Regency romances:  A beautiful and genteel war widow needs to make a life for herself, so she opens a hat shop.  An aristocratic gentleman calls in to collect a bonnet for his mother and falls madly in love with the widow.  When she's forced to deal with extortion, the gentleman takes care of her, and then...takes care of her in a more traditional arrangement.

Not that different from the classic, His Lordship's Mistress by Joan Wolf.  But Wolf's book is completely linear:  Jessica needs money, the Earl of Linton needs a mistress, they fall in love but clearly can't marry...until they can.

A Scandalous Proposal is a fractal where His Lordship's Mistress is linear.  We start with Emily, the hat shop proprietress, but we'll end with a cast of dozens -- friends, family, business associates, and social equals -- and some rather odd juxtapositions of social status and profession.

When the book opens, we meet Emily as a widow with a young son.  We know she's hiding from her former father-in-law, and like Jessica, she needs money.  Unlike Jessica, Emily doesn't intend to seek a man's protection; she just wants to make a living using the skills she has.  Still, she and her earl fall in love just as Jessica and Linton do.

We know that these books have to end the same way: with two people of seemingly incompatible social standing happily married and not shunned by the aristocracy.  Wolf just tackles the problem head-on:  Jessica has kept her identity hidden from Linton, so he first has to find out who she really is and then see if her actions -- which are undeniably scandalous -- can be twisted to seem almost noble.  It helps that his sister is a patroness of Almack's.

Here's a third example of this plot.  In Mary Balogh's Longing (which I rather imagine gets referred to as "the Welsh romance") a marquess falls in love with the illegitimate daughter of a minor noble.  Because the protagonists live in, and wish to stay in, Wales, one rather supposes the HEA will work as long as they stay in Wales.  By the time their children need to be presented in London, most people will have gotten past the distasteful nature of the Marchioness's origins.  It helps -- it always helps -- that there's a good bit of money in the estate to fund the entail, settle on any younger sons, and provide generous dowries for the daughters.

In A Scandalous Proposal, Emily and Evan, Earl of Cheverley, find their situation complicated by trade.  Emily is a tradeswoman.  That's not socially acceptable.  She has waited upon women she will later wish to treat her as a peer.  Justiss solves that problem -- not particularly convincingly -- by just stating that of course Emily will be allowed to continue to design dresses for the ton.  But while that hardly seems plausible, it's also not necessary.

Without giving too much of the game away, Emily -- like Wolf's Jessica -- is revealed at the end to be more than the penniless widow of an army officer.  In a linear plot, that would be the solution the protagonists needed to solve their problem.  By the end of A Scandalous Proposal, the plot has been so complicated by frilly detail that the truth of her birth is but one revelation in a sea of revelations.  The reason she was hiding isn't quite as we think, the details of her upbringing aren't quite what we think, her options aren't quite as limited as we think, and frankly, she's not quite what we think.

In addition, we have a hero, a back-up hero, a non-villain, a secondary romance that takes place entirely off-stage, and a truly bizarre subplot that involves that most hoary of Regency romance traditions: the Napoleonic War Spy!

We also have wounded war heroes, dead war heroes, dying war heroes, and a Portuguese maid.  Oh, and a landscape painting that sounds far too small to put over a mantel in the house of a lord.  I'd have placed it lower down, at eye level when he's sitting at his desk.

Yes, you read that correctly.  With such a complicated plot, I ended up fixated on the best position for a specific painting.

Not that A Scandalous Proposal is a bad book.  It's not.  I can recommend it to fans of the sub-genre of "Lord X wishes to marry his mistress" books.  But His Lordship's Mistress is better.  In this case, linear is better than fractal.

3 comments:

  1. I read this book not long after it came out. I still remember it well, so I guess there's solid writing in the author's favor. However, I also clearly remember being overwhelmed by the maze of people and plots that you mention. This one's not a bad read, but some of her later books are better, in my opinion.

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  2. Janet W: I'm never surprised when the majority of books I read - even ones I love - fall apart a little at the end. I love this book though, especially her love for her first husband, the smells and senses of Spain, which still permeate her life in London, and the uncertainty of the earl, wondering that this marvelous woman loves him. I can suspend a lot of disbelief when I like an H/h as much as I liked these two.

    The trio I oft re-visit are: Wolf's His Lordship's Mistress, Balogh's More than a Mistress and this one. I would agree with Lynn Spencer that this book, like the others, is indeed well-written, always a point in a book's favour :)

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  3. Janet -- I completely agree. If Justiss had kept it focused on Evan and Emily, it would have been a much stronger contender against Wolf's His Lordship's Mistress. (I haven't read More than a Mistress yet. It's in my TBR, but she's hardly a "new-to-me-author"!)

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