REVIEW: Caitlin Crews’s THE REPLACEMENT WIFE, Or An Unlikely Henry and Eliza

The Replacement WifeAfter floundering in the richness and nuance of Gaffney’s To Love and To Cherish, Miss Bates wanted her romance reading to come down to something simple and predictable. What better than an HP for what ailed her? An HP with its clear-cut universe of billionaires and ingenues, overwrought frissons of physicality and high-pitched emotions. She knew exactly what she was getting in Caitlin Crews’s The Replacement Wife, and even got something more: stronger characterization, purpley but smooth prose, and a palatable ethic of love winning over money and fame. She was pleasantly surprised by this romance novel about a hero and heroine trying to fit in, to be “good enough” in a world of money, power, and privilege. Miss Bates enjoyed her foray into the hyperbole-ruled HP universe.

The Replacement Wife‘s premise is as unlikely as any soap-opera plot. In a moment of self-effacing irony, the heroine, Becca Whitney, exclaims, “Is this a soap opera?” Notorious society beauty Larissa Whitney lies in an excess-induced coma, potentially leaving her share of the family’s vast wealth in the hands of a ne’er-do-well lover. Her fiancé and CEO of Whitney Media, Theo Markou Garcia, father, and aunt are beside themselves. Theo recruits Becca, Larissa’s first cousin, look-alike, and illegitimate daughter of a disinherited Whitney sister, to pretend to be Larissa and steal the will from the lover. Becca loathes the family that rejected her mother and left them destitute, but agrees to the mad scheme in exchange for money to put her beloved baby sister, Emily, through college. You’d think a team of lawyers and the fact that Larisssa is not dead might be more effective than an elaborate ruse? The key, however, to enjoying the HP candy is, to quote Coleridge in this unlikeliest of places, a “suspension of disbelief.”

Theo, our nearly-not-hero, and Becca embark on her make-over from off-the-rack-suited paralegal to Kardashian-esque splendor. Theo plays Henry Higgins to Becca’s Eliza Doolittle. In another charmingly self-conscious moment, Crews has Becca rip into Theo, “I am having a delightful time playing Eliza Doolittle to your Henry Higgins, but this is too much.” He serves as her personal trainer, with the motto, “Run faster. Talk less.” In the Becca-polishing process, Theo and Becca get to know each other. Theo has his own wrong-side-of-the-tracks saga, having risen from the barrio-badness of Florida to his present grandeur. But, he’s still only an “employee” and getting his hands on those shares will complete his journey to redeeming every cruelty, loss, and humiliation his family ever experienced.

Miss Bates would venture to claim that most HPs are launched with a power imbalance between hero and heroine, the bulk of the socially-recognized power base lying with the hero. In this case, Theo is physically, financially, and socially more powerful than Becca. His humble origins humanize him a tad and make his ambition more palatable. Moreover, in most HPs, the heroine is equal to the hero in … well, looks; and, if there’s an edge to her too, she’s usually a poor-little-rich-girl (you can see some of that in Crews’s sequel to Replacement Wife, Heiress Behind the Headlines). But, there’s one area where the heroine is more “powerful”: she is morally superior to the hero. This is certainly true in Becca’s case, the idea introduced to the reader immediately by the self-sacrificing devil’s bargain that ensures her sister’s future.

The appeal of The Replacement Wife lies in Becca’s characterization, while Theo hovers on the edge of jerk territory, barely redeemed by the end. She’s strong, independent, intelligent, funny, and caring. She doesn’t suffer fools easily, but she’s willing and open to recognizing another’s pain, which is how she comes to sympathize with Larissa once she gets to know her cruel uncle and understands Larissa’s treatment at his hands. Becca’s vulnerability lies in her desire to be loved and accepted, not by compromising herself or her principles, but in a human, normal well-adjusted way by her family and Theo. This marvelous character, from the get-go, is immobilized by the hero’s charisma, ” … she couldn’t seem to move. It was the way he looked at her. The command in it, perhaps. The heat. It kept her still. Obedient.” The only power that induces her to abandon her hope for love and acceptance is the realization that it is the right thing to do.

Theo is a morally ambiguous figure, and even here Miss Bates is generous. Crews endows him with so much power, ambition, and single-minded pursuit of his goal that he loses himself. He’s as close to villain as an HP hero can get; he squelches every goodness in himself: his urge to protect Becca from marauding paparazzi, his inclination to save her from her uncle’s humiliating tongue-lashing, his longing to stop her simply from even being part of his sordid scheme. As he says to Becca, “I wish I could be a better man. But I don’t know how.” By the end, he is a “better man,” especially in light of Becca’s example, but his grovel and sacrifice don’t quite suffice in Miss Bates’s estimation.

The Replacement Wife is over-the-top in its plotting, exaggerated in its characterization, and caricaturish in its villains. Miss Bates enjoyed it. It didn’t challenge her intellectually as Gaffney’s To Love and To Cherish did; it didn’t disturb and enthrall her either as the latter did. But in Becca’s chutzpah and Theo’s moral waffling and their HEA, she was touched. Crews’s The Replacement Wife, while not as good as its sequel, is still “almost pretty” (Northanger Abbey) and provided some fun for Miss Bates.

The Replacement Wife was published by Harlequin in 2011 and purchased by Miss Bates shortly thereafter. It’s available in the usual places.

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