The marriage-of-convenience trope is one of Miss Bates’ most beloved. It is difficult and rare, however, to see it done well in contemporary romance. It is unlikely that the reasons for the marriage will be convincing. What compelling reasons can there be for contemporary characters to agree to such a union? Eons ago, Miss Bates saw a Peter Weir film, Green Card, which posited one possible scenario; or the more recent, less adept, The Proposal, which isn’t really marriage-of-convenience, but engagement-of-convenience, so much less … well … engaging. It’s the idea of a binding marriage that is absorbing for Miss Bates: the-stuck-with-you-getting-to-know-you-daily-grind-and-growing-love ethos of it that she adores. Certainly, the trope triumphs in historical romance. The truth is that any contemporary marriage-of-convenience narrative isn’t plausible in light of the ease and convenience of divorce laws. Lily Everett’s Shoreline Drive, second in her Sanctuary Island series, stands or falls on the believability, the plausibility of her use of this trope. Miss Bates read and enjoyed the first in the series, Sanctuary Island, but what was good in the latter is not echoed in the former. While the premise for Sanctuary Island was convincing, there be misgivings about Shoreline Drive.
Dr. Ben Fairfax of Winter Harbor, Virginia, now of Shoreline Drive, Sanctuary Island, is the curmudgeonly hero of Everett’s novel. We were introduced to him in Sanctuary Island as the taciturn best friend of hero Grady Wilkes. Pregnant “Merry” Meredith Preston of Windy Corner, daughter to Jo Ellen Hollister, and sister to heroine Ella of Sanctuary Island, is the heroine. From the start, familiarity bred contempt in Miss Bates. What followed increased it. In the prologue, Ben helps Merry give birth to Baby Alex. We know from the start that Ben is in love with Merry, has been for some time, and is ready to commit: “Ben stood there and felt all his careful walls and emotional defenses come tumbling down around him as he finally stopped lying to himself. I want Merry and Alex to be my family.” Miss Bates supposes that, if you’re going to write a contemporary marriage-of-convenience story, you’d better get right to it. It comes across, however, as “hurried along” at best; at worst, contrived. Here were insta-love/lust/mating & protective instincts in the midst of a birthing room. Ben, however, is only one piece of the puzzle. How and why does Merry agree to his proposal?
Everett has the good sense to allow four months to elapse from Merry’s giving birth before Ben pops the question, four months to which we are not privy, no build-up, no development to the relationship, not even “fun” antagonism. A little sparring here and there and a lack of self-confidence to hero and heroine: Miss Bates’ least favourite motivating devices to develop characters. But the love, on Ben’s part, still flows. He uses his god-fatherly status to visit Baby Alex and pines and lusts from afar. Everett hurries the story along as if she’s checking items off a checklist. Need some angst to explain “Dr. Crankypants” (as heroine dubs hero) and his proposal. Ben was married; his newborn daughter, Justine, died, “failure to thrive,” the medical reason.
Miss Bates doesn’t know whether it’s her choice of titles lately, but every other romance novel she’s read involves this type of loss. Given the low infant mortality rate of the West, she’s getting a little tired of this angst-creating back-story. In any case, Ben won’t “risk” having another child with another woman, but he still wants Merry and the fact that she comes with a chortling cutie-pie makes it all the better. He decides that she’s not ready to hear these endearing reasons as to why he wants to marry her. He takes advantage of her frustration over living with her mother, financial insecurity, and desire to ensure Baby Alex’s future to propose a marriage-of-convenience on the basis of the preposterous reason that HE NEEDS AN HEIR. He’s a richie-rich boy is our Ben and would ensure the family fortune and get his uber-wealthy, upper-crust parents off his back about fathering an heir to the millions … except not, but more of that mess later. He proposes and Merry accepts.
Merry has her own reasons for accepting Ben’s proposal and Everett works very hard to keep us from seeing them as mercenary. Truth be told, Merry is a young, inexperienced, but loving mother still coming to terms with her mother, Jo Ellen the recovering alcoholic, who’d abandoned her when she was a tot. No matter what stipulations and parameters Merry puts on her acceptance of Ben’s proposal, she marries him because she wants to get away from her mother and ensure the financial future of Baby Alex. She “won’t” take anything for herself. She’s rationalized her decision; she’s a likable character and the reader wants to give way to her reasoning, but at book’s end, despite the HEA, it still doesn’t convince.
Then, the consummation of the marriage: there’s a token I’m-not-buying-you attempt on Ben’s part too, by saying to Merry that he’ll only sleep with her when she “comes to him.” Merry and Ben are, at least, physically attracted to each other and that resolution is soon forgotten. After Merry and Ben marry, they’re good together: they talk, laugh, care for each and the irrepressible Baby Alex. The introduction of solids makes for particularly amusing moments. As far as baby characters go, Miss Bates admits this one was adorable. The problem Everett runs into here is, of course, that writing about happy and feeding times is tedious and reading about them doubly ho-hum. Everett needed tension, some conflict, and it manifests itself in the form of Merry’s mother’s boyfriend’s daughter, Taylor, jealous of Merry, a trouble-maker at school, and a boy she likes, Matthew Little. This is a dose of NA creeping into the novel and it didn’t help the ho-hum factor.
[WARNING: Spoiler Ahead.] Enter Tripp & Pamela Fairfax, Ben’s parents, and their attempt to foil Ben and Merry’s marriage with heavy-handed manipulation. Tripp and Pam are straight out of a 1950s Hollywood B-movie drama. They sweep in, replete with contempt and scorn for the gold-digger from the wrong-side-of-the-tracks who’s swayed their boy. Unfortunately, they are so caricaturish, so over-the-top that the drama is laughable. Witness what they say: ” ‘Our only son plans to bestow the Fairfax name – a name that has been synonymous with good breeding since before our ancestors left the court of King Charles the Second! – on a nameless bastard child, with God only knows what sort of people in his background,” and another gem, ” … Come along, Pamela. Let’s leave these people to their … hoedown.” [SPOILER OVER.]
In the end, Miss Bates found this novel silly and unsavory. In it, she found “rubs and disappointments everywhere,” Mansfield Park.
Lily Everett’s Shoreline Drive has been available from St. Martin’s Press since January 28th.
Miss Bates is grateful to St. Martin’s for a UDG (Uncorrected Digital Galley), via Netgalley, in exchange for this honest review.
Is the marriage-of-convenience one that works for you, or is much beloved, or abhorred? What turns you off? Or, which ones have you read and loved?