Miss Bates once listened to a CBC radio program called “The Myth of the Secular,” which argued that the demise of religion in the public sphere has not come about as Western philosophical thought assumed. During one of the six episodes, a Muslim theologian presented an alternate view to the West’s traditional notion of faith originating in revelation and followed by practice, the most dramatic example being Paul’s road to Damascus moment. She argued that non-Western notions posit that gesture and practice, the physicality of religious ritual, in other words starting with the body, can lead to and sustain faith, understanding, and thought. Faith follows from practice. (One interesting addendum in support of this argument are testimonies from martial arts’ practitioners for fitness’ sake; they find themselves interested in, even adhering to, the Eastern philosophy in which their exercise routine originates.) Miss Bates, what are you talking about, you’d rightly say … and what does it have to do with Ros Clarke’s An Unsuitable Husband? Miss Bates thinks that in a novel like Clarke’s, indeed in a contemporary marriage-of-convenience, a difficult trope to pull off, (Miss Bates has no sampling here, only speculation) the author argues that going through the motions of being married leads to feelings of love and commitment. Or at least it does when it’s done well … and it’s done well in Clarke’s novel.
(To take this notion once step further, consider a novel like Mayberry’s Satisfaction, a more interesting novel than it’ll be given credit for: a relationship based solely on sexual satisfaction, one whose focus is the sexual satisfaction of the heroine as a matter of fact, leads to love and a desire for commitment.) In An Unsuitable Husband‘s case, marital arts’ practitioners bring about faith in the other and love. Miss Bates, you’ll say, what about An Unsuitable Husband? Should I read it? Yes. It is a romance novel, not without its flaws, but Miss Bates was moved by it. She loved Emile and Theresa and their silly marriage-of-convenience … because, in the end, they were flawed, but loveable. It was a place where love-making and pretense-gestures of marital commitment lead to devotion, fidelity, and love, a good marriage’s triumvirate.
One of the most challenging aspects to the contemporary marriage-of-convenience romance are the reasons for the marriage. Clarke’s Unsuitable Husband‘s reasons are as flimsy as any other. Heroine Theresa Chartley prefers “short, self-contained flings with minimal emotional involvement.” Her mother, Melanie, on the other hand, has launched a campaign to find her a responsible, stalwart, middle-class husband. Melanie is loving, but relentless. No matter how sarcastic Theresa is with mum, and she is charmingly so, ” ‘ … this isn’t a Georgette Heyer novel and no one has been on or off the shelf since approximately 1837,’ ” the more Melanie presses potential grooms on Theresa.
When Theresa has a night-club meet-cute and anonymous one-night stand with sexy soccer-player, Emile Renaud, she thinks she’s found a way to fend off her mother’s match-making machinations. Emile, who is droll and sexy, a rare combination in angst-ridden Romancelandia, rightly thinks “She was insane” when she proposes to him the “morning after.” But, a zealous ex, Prada, scandal sheets ridden with his amorous shenanigans, and an ultimatum from his club, Woolwich, to clean up his image, or risk losing the sport he loves playing more than anything, and Emile takes up Theresa’s nutty proposal. Theresa is a corporate lawyer, used to dealing with contracts and obligations. She draws up an ironclad, one-year agreement and they do the deed. Clarke then marvelously records, for our enjoyment, their emotional downfall. Theresa, in particular, is resistant to behaving like a wife, and sometimes rightly so, whereas Emile easily falls into the role. Their journey of love-making, sharing jokes and sharing thoughts lead them right to the very quandary from which they’d planned their escape: commitment and love. Hoisted on their own petard. 🙂
Emile is a charming roguish character and Miss Bates must say, she liked him a lot. He’s loving, giving, and sexy, but he never takes himself terribly seriously. When he behaves like a possessive and/or thoughtless ass, he owns it. Clarke endows Emile with an endearing vulnerability despite the fame, fortune, and Alain-Delon looks. An only child, with an absent father, Emile has lost his loving and devoted mother, the woman who raised him, succored him, and made it possible for him to play his beloved sport. Though he’s surrounded by fans, adoring women, and his mates, Emile is lonely for authenticity. It’s what he didn’t have with his ex, Prada, who gets a bad rap as a rapacious and conniving, as we say in the Great White North, puck-bunny (don’t know the soccer equivalent). His search for authenticity and companionship redeems his occasional arrogance and cluelessness. Theresa asks him about Prada: ” ‘One day you’ll have to tell me what you ever saw in her.’ It took a moment for him to answer, with unexpected bleakness. ‘I was lonely and she was there.’ ” Unlike Theresa, but we’ll speak more of that later, Emile can wear his heart on his sleeve; he may not always behave well, but his heart is in the right place and he’s willing to admit to what he feels for Theresa. In a beautifully feminist reversal of Mad-Men circumstances, the career-minded “Thérèse,” as Emile calls her, has to leave their love-nest for work: “When had he become the kind of guy [who] … trailed a woman downstairs while she waited for a cab to take her to work?” He may not always get the details right, as a matter of fact, there are several appalling occasions when he gets them wrong, but Emile is ready for loving, cocooning domesticity … and that is how going through the motions of being married leads to love for Thérèse and a desire for home and hearth.
Theresa is as loving and caring a character as Emile, but she’s less likely to expose her soft underbelly. She’s focussed on her career, which she loves and pursues single-mindedly and admirably. Miss Bates loved how she stood up against and foiled Emile’s “alpha-man” tendencies. Theresa scuttled Emile’s attempt to sweep in and make decisions for her. One of Emile’s alpha susceptibilities takes the form of buying, and trying to compel Theresa to wear, designer labels. He tries to make her into Prada’s image, even while he heaps scorn on Prada, for which Theresa calls him. It’s refreshing the heroine never attacks the “other woman,” nay, Theresa even expresses sympathy for her at one point, and always holds Emile accountable. Miss Bates loved Theresa’s reply to the clothes debacle, ” ‘I won’t wear them. I told you before, you don’t get to make those choices for me.’ ” She stands up to him; she never relents. Theresa lives by her principles and they are never undermined by the alpha hero’s domination under the guise of unmitigated, obsessive “love.” Hallelujah.
Theresa’s held a self-sufficient and independent stance against her mother, against Emile (but never against her perceptive and gentle dad) for so long that it’s closed her off. When Emile dares to suggest that their co-habitation and genuine like and respect for each may entail feelings, she is defensive, ” ‘I don’t normally sleep with the same guy for more than a few weeks.’ ‘Why not?’ … ‘I get bored. And I’m not interested in any of the emotional baggage.’ … ‘We can’t always control what we feel.’ ” Miss Bates loved how controlled and efficient Theresa was; indeed, she reminded Miss Bates of her favourite kind of heroine, Betty Neels’ nurse-heroines, so efficient and brusque and yet so loving under the crisp, clean uniform and officious manner. But Emile calls her on this, ” ‘ … you’re so emotionally repressed, though.’ ‘What?‘ She wasn’t repressed. Just because she preferred not to let her emotions spill over in uncontrollable chaos.” All Miss Bates can say is that, were it not for Emile, our Theresa had the makings of a great spinster. Even the workaholic, rational Theresa, as she takes on the wifely role, going to Emile’s games, caring for his boo-boos on and off the field, sharing laughter and dinner and sexy times, enacting the motions of marriage bring her to recognize Emile, to see him, as the poet says, “to arrive where we first started and see the place for the first time:” ” … this time he wasn’t a nameless one-night stand. This was Emile. They’d shared eight months together and four months apart. Eight months had been plenty to experience better and worse, sickness and health, triumph and disaster. They’d had fun together and been serious with each other. They’d hurt each other and found ways to heal each other.” In the contemporary marriage-of-silly-convenience, the one-night stand has come full circle … and the circle is a wedding ring.
But Miss Bates, you’ll say, what about the “flaw” you mentioned? Did Clarke’s An Unsuitable Husband give a hiccup? Yes, indeed, it did. Clarke’s narrative dilemma, Miss Bates avers, is time. Theresa sets up the marriage-of-convince to “contractually” last a year … of course, there’s supposed to be a divorce at the end. Clarke tries to cover the gamut of the year in her novel, with ebbs and flows in the relationship and a lot of time spent apart. While this may follow the natural progression of a relationship … gasp … it also results in the nemesis of every English schoolmarm, “telling and not showing.” As Clarke fills in the narrative gaps, authorial voice comes along and does so. A certain flow is lost and we, the readers, lose sight of the couple and their romance. It niggles, but it does not deter from love for Clarke’s Unsuitable Husband; therein, as in our hero, Emile, Miss Bates found that “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Ros Clarke’s An Unsuitable Husband is published by Entangled and has been available, at the usual e-vendors, since April 21st. Miss Bates is grateful to the author and Entangled Publishing for an e-ARC, via Netgalley, in exchange for this honest review.
Miss Bates loved the line quoted above “they’d hurt each other and found ways to heal each other.” It is so very true of the characters and so very true of the best of relationships. What romance novel couples have you read that exemplify this wonderful line?