Phoebe Benedict is prepared for a fight when she shows up (with a kitten) at Simon Clare’s doorstep. After all, he was expecting his sister Diana to come and care for his dangerously ill son, Robert. Instead, Phoebe arrives. Simon Clare is known for his temper, and he has been a recluse since he was injured and scarred by an engine upon which he was experimenting. He is also scarred by his past–one that he would hide from the delectable Miss Benedict. Only her skill with Robert persuades Simon to keep Phoebe on.
Although he never intended to marry a second time, Simon realizes that his household is falling apart without a feminine touch. Phoebe is poor and abandoned by her family. He needs a housekeeper and a nurse for Robert. And he kissed her in a moment of passion. In order to avoid dishonoring Phoebe, he proposes a marriage of convenience. No woman will ever touch his heart. After all, if Phoebe knew the darkness that lurks inside him, she would lose all respect for him . . .
Phoebe is too proud and insecure to demand Simon’s affection, attention, and love. Simon is too stubborn and angry to share any part of himself–except his body–with his wife. Thus begins a tiresome back and forth between protagonists who squabble and misjudge each other. Despite her characters’ differences, Styles does not deliver the witty banter and genuine tension that makes a Regency enjoyable. Impoverished Miss, Convenient Wife was so lackluster that I didn’t want to finish it. I only plowed through the end because by the time I gave up on it, I was three-quarters of the way through.
What is most damning about Styles’s book is that I picked it up this morning to finish it. I couldn’t even remember the fact that I had already read to the last page yesterday!
The main problems lie with the protagonists. Simon is unlikable. He has a short temper, is mean to his son, and refuses to confide in Phoebe at all until the last moments of the book. Then, his whole story tumbles out in a mess of exposition. Phoebe is competent, but not compelling. I don’t identify with her. Though the author tells us she is plucky and is the only one who can stand up to Simon, when it really counts she fails to act.
If anything, Impoverished Miss, Convenient Wife comes across as a pale imitation of better books like Barbara Michaels’s Master of Blacktower or Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. What makes Styles’s book fail (in addition to the poor protagonists) is the fact that those books are Gothic novels. Therefore, they offer mystery and intrigue. There are “alternate” male characters who may or may not be the good guy. We don’t see into the hero’s head. These books build tension because the heroine is in danger if a mystery from the past remains unsolved.
In Impoverished Miss, Convenient Wife, we do see into Simon’s head, and though there is a “mystery” in his past, the reader knows too much, while the heroine learns all the details at once. Their misunderstandings become contrived, and Simon’s secrets seem paltry excuses for his Byronic behavior.
I don’t believe for a minute that the protagonists’ relationship will last. Or that it would be happy. Or that they would have come together in the first place. Simon’s “revelation” comes too late and too quickly. I see no love in him.
Plus, some of the writing is execrable:
“Some days Brett acts like I am made of spun glass rather than the hardy Northumbrian that I am.” (234)
I feel bad for the Northumbrian who was chopped up and assembled into Simon’s sister, Diana.
I have one-and-a-half positive things to say for the book. The first is that the twenty-seven-year-old heroine is portrayed as having gained weight since her Seasons. She is insecure about her larger bottom, belly, and breasts. This is the first book I have seen that has dealt with body issues and a heavier heroine.
The second positive is that the book almost manages to pass the Bechdel Test. There is one scene where a country society lady calls on Phoebe (now Mrs. Clare) to scope out the heroine’s antecedents. Phoebe cleverly trumps all of Lady Bolt’s barbs about her past. Unfortunately, after feeling happy to see a scene where women discuss something other than men, I realized that Lady Bolt’s daughter was also in the scene, obsessing over every man in the neighborhood.
I might note that there is also a scene in which a maid asks Phoebe to promote her to the position of lady’s maid. Though short, I think this one snippet does pass the Bechdel test.
The sex scenes were passable, though devoid of heart. I was rather taken aback by some of the words used to describe an erect penis. “Steel” was particularly odd.
I’m returning this book to the library and taking a break from 2000s Harlequin Historicals. They are becoming too formulaic. Although I appreciate that they feature older heroines and avoid tiresome Marriage Mart plotlines, I am finding that many of them are constructed like watered-down Gothics. I’d rather read a real Gothic novel, if you please.
After this, I’ll also be avoiding Michelle Styles. I miss the five days I spent ploughing through Impoverished Lady, Convenient Wife.