Continuing with my category romance reading for Wendy’s TBR Challenge 2022 I was happy to see this month’s fairy-tale theme. After all, what are romance novels but fairy tale retellings? And what is closer to fantasy and wish-fulfillment than the HP category romance? Which is why I chose to read Caitlin Crews’s The Man Behind the Scars. When an HP is done right, you stay up reading till past your it’s-a-work-day bedtime, as I did with Crews’s little HP gem. It’s over-the-top and groans under the weight of its melodrama, but I enjoyed it. Is the premise ludicrous? Yes, that’s what makes it fun. The scarred hero, Rafe McFarland, eighth Earl of Pembroke, is lurking in the shadows of a society wedding when Angel Tilson, “former model and tabloid darling,” spots him. On the lookout for a rich husband, one waltz later, Rafe and Angel are engaged! She needs money and he, an heir. Before you know it, they’re ensconced in Rafe’s “remote Scottish estate” as husband and wife and the interplay of two lonely people who feel unworthy of love prove how much they deserve it.
That description doesn’t do the romance justice. While it falls back on ye olde annoying conventions of bad mothers, in this case, for both hero and heroine, it still makes for two terrific portags. (Because one negligent, cruel, careless, promiscuous mother isn’t enough, Crews has to pile it on.) Angel’s mother racks up 50 000 pounds on Angel’s credit card. Rafe’s mother, with his brother, RIP and good riddance, was downright cruel, so much so that Rafe “escaped” to the military where he lost his friends in a bombing and was scarred in more ways than the physical, “his long, nightmare-ridden, scarred agony of survival.” So, two broken people, an agonyfest of a hero who sees a monster without and “within.” Ah, but Angel is true to her name. She is tough, cynical, but strangely vulnerable too. Crews ensures that what at first appears to be money-hunger is her attempt to survive a bad mother. (Because, to its detriment, the genre cannot possibly support morally compromised protagonists.) And yet, these two are likable and their interactions express a depth of growing connection and understanding. Crews also delays the love-making and keeps it tame and tender. This made me like them even more.
What I also liked about the romance was Crews’s awareness of what the genre owes the fairy-tale, in this case, a beauty-and-beast retelling, or as Angel thinks, as she proposes to Rafe, “A fairy tale by design, on demand.” When Rafe accepts, Angel remarks, ” ‘But I feel the occasion calls for something, don’t you? Something to mark such a momentous decision. How about a kiss?’ ‘A kiss.’ His voice was dark and disbelieving. Gruff. ‘This is no fairy take, Angel.’ ” It’s hard to believe he delivers that line with a straight face, but romance’s sense of irony is ever gentle and inevitably fleeting. Because this is exactly what this is: a man who feels a monster meets a woman who is beautiful, yet tainted by reputation. There are references to Cinderella and Bluebeard and I enjoyed those moments of being taken out of the narrative into a wink-wink fairy-tale homage as much as I enjoyed rooting for Angel and Rafe.