Miss Bates’ determination to read inspirational romance is quixotic. (It hasn’t been in vain: there’re last Christmas’s Lacy Williams and Karen Kirst discoveries). Most of her inspirational reads have been duds at worse; “okay” at best. And yet, there goes Miss B., tilting at reader windmills. That the combination of faith in love and God may be conjoined in a romance narrative persists in Miss B’s “this can work” universe. Her latest inspie read, Sherri Shackelford’s The Engagement Bargain, proved to Miss B., once again, the marriage of faith and romantic love, as defined by the inspirational subgenre, is elusive. There was much to like in Shackelford’s effort and much not to. To start, Miss Bates liked the premise, the build-up. Small-town veterinarian Caleb McCoy escorts his sister, JoBeth, to a suffragist rally in late 19th-century Kansas City. Caleb is mesmerized by the speaker, determined, committed, and beautiful Anna Bishop. Anna’s impassioned speech is barely underway when she is shot. Caleb carries her to the nearby Savoy Hotel to succor and heal her. Caleb and Jo continue to care for weakened Anna; Caleb has fierce and uncomfortable urges to protect her. Anna, used to her independence, is discomfited by her reliance on Caleb, but can’t deny how safe and cared for he helps her feel. An unsavory Pinkerton detective shows up; another attempt is made on Anna’s life. The usually reticent Caleb, drawn more and more to Anna’s intelligence, blue eyes, and bearing up under fear and danger, offers to take her to his home town, Cimarron Springs, under the guise of being his fiancée. She will be cared for by his family and her safety assured.
Caleb McCoy is a wonderful hero. He admires the work Anna is doing to gain women the vote and never deviates from his encouragement and support for her cause. He’s lovingly rendered as a man not given to talk, preferring the background to the fore, an introverted type. His sister, Jo, a likeable character, teases him at the novel’s start:
” … You talk to animals more than people.”
“That’s my job,” he grumbled. “Animals don’t expect small talk.” … He wasn’t a man who sought attention. He wasn’t a man who liked crowds … He wasn’t good with people … He never missed the opportunity to remain silent in a group, letting others carry the conversation.
Caleb is not shy, but self-effacing. He’s a gentle man whose care for animals makes him as careful with people. There are lovely scenes, such as his taking in of newborn kittens. Several hilarious scenes around a goat-runt Caleb is bamboozled into sheltering, who develops a peculiar attachment to Anna. Caleb carries some past hurts that have rendered him reticent around women. Anna’s prestige, in turn, makes him even more reluctant to propose a relationship to her. But he’s a steadfast, loyal friend who shares his feelings, giving her the freedom to choose what she’ll do about them, if anything (he does the same when it come to Anna’s church attendance; this was refreshing, given the subgenre’s propensity to insist on the conversion of hero, or heroine). Miss Bates hopes she hasn’t made Caleb sound like a stick-in-the-mud because he’s not. He’s charming, funny, and loving.
Anna’s characterization is more problematic because Anna must work towards redefining herself in light of what she realizes about her mother. Her mother is a harsh, difficult woman whose sole purpose is, and in whose service she reared her daughter, the cause of women’s suffrage. Victoria Bishop defines the cause by heaping contempt on men: “Husbands were for women who lived a mediocre existence … Women didn’t need men to raise children. They didn’t need men to earn money. They didn’t need men for much of anything, other than to prove their point.” Anna lives in her mother’s shadow. Anna’s talents are at her mother’s use. When Anna is hurt, her mother doesn’t travel to Kansas to care for her. She’s cold, unfeeling. Miss Bates thought Victoria Bishop’s portrayal a deliberate condemnation of a narrow-minded understanding of feminism, a cause needing mitigating by the Christian message, as represented by the good Christian man, Caleb. This underlying agenda to the romance narrative took Miss Bates right out of it. In contrast to Victoria Bishop, Shackelford writes the suffragist widow who chaperones Anna, traveling with her to Cimarron Springs: “Mrs. Franklin seemed to revel in her role as protector and nurturer – character traits her mother abhorred.” Anna looks to the role models around her, to Caleb, Mrs. Franklin, and Caleb’s sister Jo, mother, wife, and suffragist, to reject her mother’s rigid teachings. Anna’s questioning of her mother, however, sounds petty in comments such as, “Why was the desire to look attractive such an appalling offense?”
In Cimarron Springs, Anna finds a new set of values to adhere to, ones more in keeping with what her heart dictates instead of her mother. Miss Bates wishes, however, they weren’t puerile and simplistic, such as “As the door swung open, she recalled her embroidery and quickly shoved the evidence beneath her pillow. For reasons she couldn’t explain, she kept the feminine hobby to herself.” It seems that an appreciation of the domestic arts are Anna’s way of repudiating her mother’s view of them as demeaning, “Oddly enough, polishing the floor had given her the same sense of accomplishment as giving a speech. There was pride in a job well done, no matter what the job.” Shackelford’s point is a humble, true one: no job is beneath us, “small changes were just as good as grand gestures,” the quiet life of service IS of value. Miss Bates doesn’t fault Shackelford for this perspective; she wishes, however, that it didn’t have to be made by creating yet another evil, man-hating, emotionally distant mother, especially when that mother works for one of the greatest of women’s causes. To give credit where it’s due, Anna, in the end, doesn’t reject the movement; she redefines it, continues to work for it, and wins her HEA with Caleb.
Shackelford’s Engagement Bargain has strengths. It wasn’t all given over to an agenda, or if it was, there was a freshness and attractiveness to the writing that won Miss B. over. For example, there’s a wonderful conversation/first fight between Caleb and Anna:
Her suspicions flared. “No one says they’re sorry.”
“I did. Just now.”
She sidled closer and narrowed her gaze. “Do you mean that?” No one in the Bishop household ever apologized. Ever. An apology was a sign of weakness. … “Why are you giving up so easily?”
“I’m not giving up. I’m admitting that I was wrong. There’s a difference.”
“This isn’t a war, Anna. We’re having a conversation, not a battle. I said I was sorry, and I am.”
… This was not at all how she’d been taught to argue. A disagreement was absolutely a war. Battle lines were drawn, troops mustered for the opposing sides. Words were fired like gunshots, aimed to inflict the most damage … Anna realized the true folly of what she’d been taught all her life.
Caleb teaches Anna there’s a different way of being with other people. He shows her men are not the enemy, though the narrative doesn’t deny many were. It also portrays the wrongs and abuse women suffered who upheld the cause of women’s rights. Caleb breaks every mold her mother taught her. He does so because he embodies Christian values, not expressly masculine ones: love, sacrifice, forgiveness, and atonement. This conciliatory way of relating to others contrasts with Victoria Bishop’s antagonistic divisiveness. As far as messages go, it’s an attractive one; Miss Bates wishes it weren’t made with the underlying assumption that feminism carries acrimonious animosity.
Sherri Shackelford’s The Engagement Bargain is, as Miss Austen says, “almost pretty,” Northanger Abbey. The Engagement Bargain, published by Harlequin, has been available since February 3rd, in “e” and paper, at your favourite vendors. Miss Bates is grateful to Harlequin for an e-ARC, via Netgalley.