Miss Bates loves the reunited husband-and-wife trope. When Douglas offered her an ARC of A Deal to Mend Their Marriage, she accepted (though she dislikes the line’s closed-bedroom-door “love scenes”). Miss B. was pleasantly surprised when Douglas’s romance followed her own missbatesian edict to keep the relationship “kisses only” (not keeping anything from the reader that might be essential to understanding the protagonists’ relationship). What intense, character- and relationship-building kisses they are! Douglas’s title, A Deal to Mend Their Marriage, plays cleverly with the initial state of the hero and heroine’s marriage, “a deal to end their marriage.” Caro Fielding is at the reading of her father’s will. Their relationship was fraught, with Caro failing to fulfill her father’s expectations. She’s achieved a hard-won independence working as an antique dealer, reconciled to being disinherited. Instead, Rolland Fielding leaves Caro a vast fortune and his loving, devoted second wife, Barbara, zilch. Caro and Barbara share a warm relationship. Caro wants to redress her father’s injustice, until she realizes her father thought Barbara was stealing from him. When an expensive antique snuffbox in Caro’s possession on behalf of her employer goes missing, soft-hearted Caro wants to save Barbara from legal repercussions. She turns to her security-and-detecting-agency-owning, estranged husband, Jack Pearce, to help her solve the mystery of the missing snuffbox and save her beloved step-mother.
Douglas’s romance is an interesting combination of romance caper à la Hepburn-Grant-Charade with echoes of The Philadelphia Story in the reunited, antagonistic husband-and-wife trope, and honest, at times uncomfortable treatment of a contemporary couple’s clashes over family, children, reproductive choices, career conflicts, and gender roles. That’s quite a recipe for a mite of a book! But Douglas pulls it off with relative success. Miss Bates’s only criticism lies in the jar between the caper-like scenes and the emotionally painful, bitter exchanges between Jack and Caro.
Jack and Caro are wonderful creations. Douglas manages to show how they’re both wrong and right about their marriage. She makes her reader like and sympathize with both. Douglas shows a couple who fell deeply in love, married “in haste” and spent five years “repenting at leisure,” as Caro herself notes. Their problems are not original, but Douglas portrays them with depth and sensitivity. Simply put, they didn’t have the emotional tools to hold the marriage together. They married at whim, dealt with each other on the basis of need instead of respect and consideration, failed to communicate, and rendered judgement impatiently and prejudiciously.
Douglas adds some piquant aspects to their relationship. Again, not original, but well developped, rendering her characters sympathetic and three-dimensional. She doesn’t take sides, but shows sides. A lot of Caro and Jack’s problems stem from unresolved childhood issues. As Miss Bates already mentioned in her intro, Caro and her father had a difficult relationship. In turn, Caro’s mother’s loss when Caro was five left her without a motherly influence and possible mitigating foil to her controlling, demanding father. Jack is the product of a child services system that saw him bounced from foster home to foster home. Jack yearns for family and imprinted onto Caro the dream of children, home and hearth, with him as protector-provider and Caro as madonna. For her part, while Caro never dismissed having children, she was terrified of her dearth of good parenting role models, desirous of establishing her career “first,” and uninterested in being a stay-at-home mom. Add the piquancy of Jack’s feelings of class and financial inadequacy and you have the perfect recipe for a youthful marriage going off the rails. As it did.
When Jack and Caro first reunite in the Great Snuffbox Caper, they are angry and bitter. They hurt each other on sundry occasions. Their conversations are honest, painful, and a testament of Douglas’s dialogue and characterization skills. Here is one early exchange:
“My job,” Caro continued, “has provided me with the means to pay the rent on my own flat and to live my own life. How dare you belittle that? My job has given me independence and freedom and the means – “
“I understand you needing independence from your father.” Fury rose through him. “But you didn’t need it from me! I’m nothing like your father.”
“You’re exactly like my father!” She’d shouted at him with such force he found himself falling back a step. His mouth went dry. She was wrong. He was nothing like her father. “You wanted to control me the same way he did. What I wanted didn’t matter one jot. It was always what you wanted that mattered!” Her voice rose even higher and louder. “You didn’t want a wife! You wanted a … a brood mare!” The accusation shot out of her like grapeshot and he stared at her utterly speechless.
Harsh truths and mutual misreading are slowly and painfully cleared up between Caro and Jack. Their physical desires are never used to bridge their differences’ chasm and that too is to Douglas’s credit. Too many romances resort to bedroom capers to solve conflicts of interest and personality, or those conflicts are so flimsily established they don’t need more than a roll in the hay to dissipate. In this particular exchange, don’t know about you, dear reader, but Miss Bates ended up on the heroine’s side. But Douglas doesn’t neglect to show where Caro went wrong either. It needs be said here that the issue of terminating a pregnancy figures prominently in Jack and Caro’s relationship. Some readers may feel that the incident carries with it the stink of the Big Mis, but Miss Bates still thought it was handled sensitively and skillfully. The end to the mystery is a tad clunky, but overall, darnit, Miss Bates has yet another category author to love and follow. Read Douglas’s romance, dear readers, it’s terrific. With Miss Austen, Miss Bates says that in Michelle Douglas’s A Deal to Mend Their Marriage there is “no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Michelle Douglas’s A Deal to Mend Their Marriage is published by Harlequin Romance. It was released on February 9th and is available at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates is grateful for an e-ARC from the author.