The TBR challenge for September is to get caught up in a series I'm behind in. I'll admit it: my TBR collection has a lot of options for this month's challenge, but because the fabulous Megan Mulry read Mary Balogh's The Devil's Web last week (and loved it), I thought I would both get caught up with the Web series and actually finish it!
Unfortunately, I didn't like the characters in The Devil's Web enough to really enjoy the book. We met them both in the first book, The Gilded Web, when the Earl of Amberley (our heroine's brother) and Alexandra Purnell (our hero's sister) made a match of it under non-ideal circumstances. James Purnell is taciturn, but underneath his gruffness we know him to be awkward and tongue-tied, particularly around Lady Madeline Raine. She's a bit of a social butterfly, imagining herself in love with the nearest attractive suitor, but underneath her fluttering we know her to be desperately afraid that her feelings for Mr. Purnell are real, but not in a good way.
"Not in a good way" is an excellent catch phrase for The Devil's Web. James and Madeline love each other, but not in a good way. What they feel doesn't make them happy, or even allow them to take pleasure in each other's company. They're intensely aware of one another but then avoid each other. Or they seek each other out, but they quarrel. For the first half of the book, it's not fun being with either one of them. I'll admit it, I skimmed a lot of the first half.
Then, precisely halfway in, James's father dies. Lord Beckworth was a bit of a religious zealot/nutter. It's a relief when he dies because he truly was toxic; he was almost certainly the real reason James has spent the last four years in Canada in the fur trade. With Lord Beckworth's death, James should feel free, but if anything, he signs up for a new sense of imprisonment. He's ascended to the title, of course, and now owns the estates in Yorkshire. Why not get married to the woman he loves but can't bring himself to like? A perfect plan, but not in a good way.
Marriage of inconvenience plots aren't my favorites. Why should I read a book that requires me to voluntarily spend time with people who don't behave well toward each other? And for virtually all of the second half, Madeline and James behave badly. He thinks, "Oh, I love her. I should smile at her, call her by her name, something," and yet he's grim and unyielding. She thinks, "Oh, I love him. I should tell him, trust him, let him know how much pleasure he gives me," and yet she's shrewish and nasty. And not in a good way.
This might have made for a delightfully angsty book if either character made sense or was enjoyable. James comes closer to making sense -- his was a particularly grim childhood and his father hardly displayed any skills useful to the conducting of human relationships -- but then he's just dim about it all. Why not tell his wife about his childhood? Madeline comes closer to being enjoyable -- she's good company in normal circumstances -- but she makes no sense. Her upbringing was pleasant enough and she's had ample opportunity to see how couples can love each other. So what's stopping her from telling James that she loves him?
The happy ending similarly makes no sense. Why wait until page 425 to do and say what they could have (and should have) done and said on page 225? Either there was a good reason, in which case why is it no longer in effect, or it was all a big misunderstanding, in which case they're both TSTL (Too Stupid To Live).
Sorry I can't enthuse more about a Mary Balogh. I'm glad I finished with the Webs, though. Just not in a good way.