Miss Bates wended a weary way through Renée Ryan’s The Marriage Agreement. Sometimes, the world is “too much with us” and even a romance can’t carry us away from daily worries. Miss Bates can say with certainty the slow pacing and preciousness of inspirational romance make the immersive reader experience elusive. Ryan’s novel is of that ilk of eye-rolling premises calling for reader tolerance and suspension of chagrin.
Ryan’s inspirational romance opens in 1896 Denver, at the Hotel Dupree, with handsome, aloof owner, Jonathan Hawkins, and his pretty, blonde guest services manager, Fanny Mitchell. It’s obvious to the reader Fanny and Jonathan carry a whiff of notoriety. Fanny rejected a suitor, a fiancé actually, at the last minute, a man her parents, family, and friends thought ideal. She held out, rejecting a man she didn’t love who didn’t love her; her reputation, the price. Alas, it looks like scandal dogs her in Denver, possibly, according to Ryan’s rendition, the most supremely puritanical “upright” Christian town ever conceived. A broken engagement and Fanny might as well slap a J on her dress for Jezebel. Jonathan fares no better: though a successful, wealthy, caring man, who runs his businesses with employees who would otherwise be on the street, prostitutes and their children, he carries the stigma of illegitimacy and a prostitute mother. He and Fanny share friendship, affection, and an affable working relationship at the hotel. When a charity ball finds them NOT fighting (horrors! 😮 ) their attraction by sharing a kiss and caught by a gossiping silly puss of a girl, well, Jonathan, to save a woman he’s come to care deeply about, offers marriage.
For Fanny, this is dream and nightmare. She wants Jonathan, admires, respects, and finds him beautiful. At the same time, she doesn’t want, again, to make the choice of a marriage without love. Circumstances conspire, however, to convince her, as well as her hope she’ll convince Jonathan to make their marriage “real”. What, you say? A marriage in name only between two healthy, young adults, who obviously care for one another and share an attraction? Yes. Because Jonathan, son of a prostitute mother and philandering upper-crust father who never acknowledged him or his abandoned mother Amelia with anything but contempt, cannot risk fathering a child and passing on his “bad blood.”
WTH, you might say? Miss Bates did. Jonathan’s sense of wrong-doing, though he bears no guilt, is overwrought, really quite hysterical. Fanny’s reassurance he is a child of God and as such, God’s beloved creature, one who struggled against his birth and what he did to survive, to become a loving, righteous man. The gentleman doth protest too too much. Jonathan struggles with the idea that he can’t be a good husband and father, as well as the “bad blood” passing-on to his children. This serves only to render the character, well, stupid: here he is, helping the wretched, saving Fanny’s reputation, and treating her as one would a precious possession, but his own example cannot stand, in his eyes, as an indication of his goodness and effort? He’s lovely, but he’s dense. This is especially problematic to the inspirational romance: how to convey the alpha-ness of your hero, with his broad shoulders and growly commands, all the while making him lamb-like and meek? Ryan does no better than any other inspirational romance. Except for Jonathan’s utter harmlessness.
Fanny is, initially, an interesting character. She’s fey, fun, and Miss Bates liked how she held out for love. Marrying the grey-eyed looker, Jonathan, was not onerous. Miss Bates appreciated how Fanny held out for the marriage bed, and even how she took a little initiative. It was refreshing and fun in an inspirational. Jonathan’s “marital relations” stance, to reiterate what Miss Bates stated above, came across as ludicrous: to maintain a life-long celibacy, while married to a beautiful, loving woman he cares for and is attracted to? It’s good he succumbed to her wifely pleas, otherwise, this baby would’ve seen DNF territory. Something happened to Fanny’s character about half-way through, however, etiolating her exuberance and chutzpah. She became the story’s moral spokeswoman, urging Jonathan to rescind his stance on irredeemable “bad blood”. Fanny convinces Jonathan that a life left in God’s hands, of faith, surrender, and belief in God’s redemptive power washes clean the determinism of Jonathan’s “bad blood” as inherited through his callous, cruel father (it was good to see that it wasn’t generated through his innocent mother).
Miss Bates understands the importance of the redemptive message to inspirational romance: acknowledgement of sin and openness to God redeems the hardened sinner as well as the man, like Jonathan, whose sense of his sinfulness mistakenly finds its source in what he’s inherited instead of wrought and how he’s treated others. The importance of this message to inspirational romance, while mildly vexing in The Marriage Agreement, has also led inspirational romance to redeem the irredeemable. Such as the concentration camp commander of Kate Breslin’s For Such A Time. Miss Bates thinks that one of inspirational romance’s theological errors lies in its lack of distinguishing between salvation and redemption. Salvation belongs to all; in the same way, to echo Viktor Frankl, there is no collective guilt. There is collective salvation. Not even romance, however, can, or should redeem the irredeemable in the individual.
Of Ryan’s The Marriage Agreement? The shift in the lively and interesting heroine and hero’s relentless obsession with blood-guilt and his humourless celibacy turned Miss Bates off till the last few chapters. Jonathan’s confrontation with his cold-hearted father and the complexity, finally!, of his relationship with Fanny “redeemed” the novel – um, somewhat 😉 With Miss Austen, Miss Bates says of Renée Ryan’s The Marriage Agreement, here is “tolerable comfort,” Mansfield Park.
Renée Ryan’s The Marriage Agreement is published by Harlequin Books Historical Inspirational line. It was released on July 7th and may be acquired through your preferred vendors. Miss Bates received an e-ARC from Harlequin via Netgalley.