Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Review: When She Said I Do by Celeste Bradley (1 star, historical)

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  • Cotswolds, England. 1816.

  • Heroine: Unwed at the age of thirty, the heroine is mostly definitely a spinster despite her extreme beauty. It is alluded that the reason for her spinsterhood is that she has been busy taking charge of her immense family, rather than ever having a season. She is one of those characters that are wonderful nearly to the point of disbelief. Her mix of determination, welcoming eagerness, and just a tad bit of manipulation is exactly what the hero needs.
  • Hero: True to his "Beast" inspiration, the hero has been severely scared. Physical scars, when someone tried to murder him with a pike, but also emotional scars from being betrayed by a member of the spy network he belonged to. He feels quite a bit of self-loathing as he progresses in the physical relationship he has with the heroine, even though he always demonstrates restraint in her presence. For the most part, he is a good guy that struggles to feel any self worth.

  • The heroine and her family enter a seemly deserted estate, to recover from a near drowning experience. The heroine explores the house, idly playing with some jewels. The hero comes upon her, believing her to be a figment of his alcohol-addled brain. He makes a proposal in jest of the "angel" obeying one of his commands for every pearl, and starts to fondle her. One of the heroine's brothers finds them, and challenges the hero to a duel. The hero is perfectly resigned to be killed. However, the heroine does not want her brother to kill a man - so she gets the hero to agree to a marriage, with the same conditions of the pearls that he made before.
  • The plot progression spends almost as much time in the bedroom as it does outside it, as the heroine brings the hero out of his shell and he quickly comes to feel this woman is much too good for him. Yet he also rises to her challenges, rescues her when necessary, drives her mad with passion, and appears to be just the man for her. Much of the external conflict resolves around someone trying to kill the heroine.

What I did like: 
  • The romance development. It was significantly more physical than I would have preferred, and I didn't  completely understand the subtle layer of domination/submission within the relationship. But it is undeniable that Bradley crafts a moving romance of redemption, as the heroine breaths new meaning into the hero's life and she finds unexpected love.
  • The humor. The characters' thoughts, particularly those of the heroine, were frequently hilarious.
  • The writing. Even when the characters are at their most absurd, Bradley does an exception job of creating meaningful characterizations and deep emotions. I just hate that this skillful writing is later used to jerk around the reader's emotions.

What I did not like: 
  • The absurdity. So much absurdity. As much as I dislike it, I understand that sometimes authors like to operate outside the bounds of historical reality. But I really felt that Bradley pushed the limits of my disbelief. Such as with Mr. Button. I don't really know the whole history of Button in relation to Bradley's books, but - what I do know of the history of Regency England - suggests that it would be highly improper for a woman to take off her dress and allow a strange man to take her measurements. This, along with the close friendship they develop, would make almost any real husband jealous - particularly an insecure husband (like the hero), and most particularly in a time where men and women were not easily friends. But instead, the hero takes to Button as quickly as the heroine does and no mention of the improprieties are made. I also became annoyed with the whole Worthington brood. I understand that the plot wouldn't be as rich without the crazy family - hell, the family is the basis for the entire series. At the same time, though, their extreme antics boggled my mind. [Spoiler] One of the reviews on Goodreads mentioned their frustration with the heroine's sister shooting the heroine, and before reading the book I couldn't really understand. But now I am in complete sympathy with that reviewer - I though it was tremendously insane that a twelve year old is poisoning and shooting at a man. It's possible, I suppose, even in the repressed Regency world. But also crazy. Similarly, I felt almost like I was reading historical fantasy (or steampunk or something) by the time the family pulled out a strange, mechanical machine in the middle of a ball. And speaking of a ball, since when is an entire village invited to a noble's ball? Or openly belligerent to the lord and lady of the manor, for that matter? I found all these unusual elements to be off-putting in the extreme, rather than anachronistically charming.
  • The external conflict. If you've ever read a historical by Lynsay Sands, you've probably read a book where someone is trying to murder the main character. But they want to make it look like an accident, so they botch it up repeatedly until the conflict can be concluded at the end. It's not a very good external conflict, having been used many times before. But it is particularly bad in this book because the "villain" is portrayed as almost "accidentally" trying to kill to the heroine. Yeah, right.
  • The first major romantic conflict. Early on in the novel, I told myself I was going to love this book - as long as the author did not do something stupid at the end. So what does Bradley do? She uses one of the most cliche romantic conflicts possible - the hero lashes out in anger, and suddenly hurt feelings abound. The heroine leaves, then she stays. The hero loses faith in her, but only until she's seriously injured - then suddenly he realizes how much she means to him.
  • The second major romantic conflict. After the first major romantic conflict, I didn't think things could possibly become worse. But then Bradley uses something even more trite than the first conflict - the hero tries to break the heroine's heart with lies, because it's "for her own good." Gee golly, I've never heard that one before. This situation was particularly inane because it make no damn sense whatsoever. The hero's actions at the end are completely contradictory with his actions for the entire rest of the story, just so he can screw up and be forgiven in the last few pages. I was thoroughly disgusted.
  • The moments when the heroine lusts after a handsome man other than her husband. It's a small thing, and I quite aware that harmless fantasy happens in the minds of real life spouses. But still, I feel that readers would be a little less forgiving if it had been the hero that was fantasizing about a beautiful naked woman who was not his wife, rather than the other way around.

  • There was so much to Celeste Bradley's When She Said I Do that I loved. She manages to instill a great deal of authenticity in this beauty and the beast marriage of convenience that turns into everlasting love. The relationship progression is endearing, intelligently humorous, and passionate.  But all of that - the genuine romance, the well developed characters - made the mangled ending even more devastating. By the time all the drama finally played out, I no longer cared one whit about the protagonists. And to me, that is the worst kind of romance novel possible.

*There are numerous explicit love scenes in the novel.

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