When Grace Curtis, the daughter of an improvident baronet, inherits nothing but debts, she must make a choice. She can either go into denial about her new poverty as her house falls down around her and the debt collectors pound at her door, or she can accept that she has “slipped.” Not one to enter denial, Grace makes the best choice she can: she sells her father’s manor, settles as many debts as possible, and indentures herself to couple who run a local bakery to settle their enormous bill. Ten years later, at twenty-eight years of age, she has accepted her new station in life. But then, the crotchety Lord Thompson—who has a weakness for Grace’s Quimby Creames and few relatives who treat him as well as she does—leaves her a legacy in his will. A legacy with a big string attached…
Author Carla Kelly must have been stunned by the title and summary that her publisher put on the back of Marriage of Mercy. Both are entirely off the mark—I’ve rarely felt so mislead by a book’s packaging. Fortunately, the book itself has merit. I will try to do the author the service of explaining the book’s real premise.
Indeed, Lord Thompson leaves Grace a legacy—but it is a tiny one. She can live in the Quarle estate’s dower house for the rest of her lifetime and receive a meagre thirty pounds per year. In exchange, she is expected to take in an inconvenient charge: Captain Daniel Duncan, who is an American prisoner-of-war and the late lord’s illegitimate American son. To fulfill her end of the bargain, Grace must never allow her parolee to leave the new Lord Thompson’s estate unless he remains constantly in her sight.
An ambitious woman who dreams of one day buying the bakery for herself, Grace accepts. But when she arrives at Dartmoor prison, Captain Duncan is on his deathbed. He begs her to choose one of his crewmen to take his place secretly. For some reason, she selects the red-headed Rob Inman. Though starving, flea-bitten, and lousy, Inman proves to be a daunting charge: he is detested by the townspeople for being a Yankee, resented by the new Lord Thompson, and followed constantly by a frightening figure they know only as “Ugly Butler.”
Inman longs for nothing more than to flee back to Nantucket. Grace struggles to keep him in hand while nursing him back to health. Sharp exchanges and battles of will are the order of the day. Most significantly, their opposite situations—Inman’s rise from British guttersnipe to American sailing master is the inverse of Grace’s fall from lady to baker’s assistant—awaken Grace’s anger and doubt about her future in England.
I found Marriage of Mercy to be a fairly compelling book, despite the fact that it was not at all the story I had thought I’d selected. Grace and Rob complement each other well, and their differences—which become smaller and smaller as they grow closer—do make for compelling chemistry. The stark class differences, even if Grace has slipped, are a considerable obstacle, and the menacing presence of Ugly Butler and the constant threat of Rob being shot if he leaves Grace’s side are a good conceits.
At the same time, there are problems with this book. Some of the “surprises” that are revealed towards the end of the book are obvious from the beginning. At times, I paused as the characters laughed uproariously over exchanges that I didn’t find particularly witty or insightful. Worse, the copyeditor deserves censure for allowing the book to move forward in the publication process when there are several exchanges in which one character’s response clearly doesn’t follow the text that came before. It is as if some passages were incompletely trimmed (unfortunately, as I read the Kindle edition, I cannot point to a page number).
The book also gives us a twist ending and a celebrity appearance (one of my favorite Big Names from the era). Although the twist stretches credulity, the portrayal of the guest star is in character with what I know about him. I enjoyed the scene immensely—it has a certain sweetness and poignancy.
Grace is just the kind of plucky, no-nonsense heroine that I like, and Kelly explores her buried anger at her lot in life well. Rob is somewhat less adroitly handled: though he is interesting, he also swings back and forth between extremes. At one moment he seems content, the next he tries to break parole, even though he knows this would put Grace in a terrible position. I have trouble buying this antic if it happens more than once.
I ought to give some attention to the sex scenes. I hope that Amy can give a slightly better evaluation of Marriage of Mercy‘s “Hotness.” As I recall, there are a couple bedroom scenes, but not graphically described. Honestly, they didn’t make much of an impression on me.
I read Marriage of Mercy, however, with pleasure, and I particularly appreciate its poignant ending.