Wednesday 16 December 2015

#CBR7 Book 138: "Wallflower Gone Wild" by Maya Rodale

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Lady Olivia Archer is unmarried after four seasons on the marriage market, known as "London's Least Likely to Cause a Scandal". Everywhere she goes, her mother forces her to recount her ladylike accomplishments, such as embroidery, playing the piano, painting water colours and other deathly dull things. Olivia isn't surprised people have taken to calling her "Prissy Missy" and that at one memorable garden party, a gentleman jumped into a hedge rather than speak to her (or her mother).

One of her best friends, Lady Emma, another former wallflower, recently married a duke after a series of unusual events and is now determined to match her two besties with suitable men.  Before she has time to introduce them to anyone, however, Olivia meets a handsome stranger at a ball and has a moment of true chemistry with him after their eyes meet across the room. The morning after, she is told her parents have accepted the proposal of Sir Phinneas Cole for her hand in marriage. A genius and reclusive inventor, Phin is in London to work on completing a machine with Lady Emma's husband. He wants a pretty, quiet and polite wife to help him manage his vast Yorkshire estate. He is also popularly known as "the Mad Baron".

Some years ago, all the newspapers ran stories about the tragic fire in his lab and how his first wife died under mysterious circumstances. While in finishing school, all three wallflowers read the scandalous accounts of how "the Mad Baron" stole his brother's fiancee and later likely murdered her. Because he lives in Yorkshire and never goes into society, Phin was of the naive belief that the rumours had died down. He was very wrong. It's clear that the woman he wants to marry is both afraid of him and behaving very strangely.

Olivia has concocted a plan with her friends to make Phin break off the engagement. If he wants a proper and ladylike bride, then Olivia must be everything but. She's been brought up knowing all the rules that mustn't be broken and has never stepped a toe out of line before. This has brought her nothing but scorn, ugly nicknames and now a very unwanted, possibly murderous fiancee. She starts behaving as scandalously as she can - wearing excessive amounts of makeup, getting drunk in public, dancing with rakes and scoundrels and generally trying to cause scenes (she's not very good at it).

Phin (who of course is the handsome man she met that magical night) is puzzled by the erratic behaviour of Lady Olivia. He can't deny the attraction he felt for her that first night, and even at her worst, Olivia can't come close to causing the sort of scandals his first wife inspired. The more outrageously Olivia acts, the more determined he is to go through with the marriage.

While Olivia doesn't know that Phin isn't a crazy murderer, the readers are of course privy to his POV and fully aware that he's not as dangerous as the rumours would have it. A big old science nerd, he's actually quite dreadfully clueless around women, and tries to take courtship advice from his more wordly (but moronic) friend, with the results that Olivia isn't just afraid of him, but thinks he's a dolt as well. The only thing their relationship has going for it is that first brief meeting when their glances caught across a crowded room and they shared a brief moment, until some of the catty ladies of the ton came to interrupt before anything significant could happen. The undeniable chemistry between them then is what makes Phin determined to win Olivia, and makes her unsure of whether he can be as bad as his reputation suggests.

Brought up to do only what is right and proper for a young lady, Olivia has never been given the opportunity to actually decide what she likes or wants from life, and her attempts at acting out go rather badly, because there is a reason she and her friends are dubbed "London's Least Likely". In one last-ditch attempt to rebel, Olivia goes to a masquerade, where she is rescued from a near-assault by none other than her (obviously masked) fiancee. Overwhelmed by everything that's happened since she became engaged against her will, she breaks down in his arms, and speaks honestly of her hopes and fears. Phin, to his credit, realises how dumb he has been and determines to treat his bride better, encouraging her to forge her own way and make her own choices once they are married.

He does not, however, tell her the truth behind the lurid gossip surrounding his first wife's death for quite some time, creating one of those frustrating misunderstandings that seems to be so common in romance. Of course things improve immensely between the couple once the full story is out, just in time for Olivia to injure herself badly, making Phin realise his feelings for her now that he might suddenly lose her.

Which brings me to my biggest gripe with this book. In addition to the "let's act all mad-cap and crazy to put off my fiancee" section that goes on a bit too long, this book has one of the most unbelievable deflowering scenes I've ever come across. Now, I may be extra critical, reading this book shortly after I myself fell on the ice and broke my left wrist quite badly. Nonetheless, I'm literally painfully aware of how much this hurts, and how sore and unwieldy a broken limb is, for up to a week after the injury. Even with the benefit of modern painkillers, I really didn't want to use my left arm for much of anything. Olivia breaks her ankle in an accident, yet seems perfectly able to consummate her marriage only a day or two afterwards. I don't care what superhuman erotic abilities "the Mad Baron" possesses, there is NO way that she would happily be spreading her legs and engaging in carnal acts so shortly after breaking a limb. As far as I'm aware, the most common painkiller in the Regency era would have been laudanum. Olivia would therefore either be more or less passed out in a morphine haze or in absolute agony if someone tried to move make her "open her legs".

Now, if you don't have the painful real life experience of breaking a limb fresh in your mind, this might not be a deal breaker for you. This book had a lot of potential, and I liked it better than the first book in the series, but there still wasn't anything out of the ordinary to make me consider Maya Rodale as an essential romance writer whose books I'll be looking out for or pre-ordering.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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