I don't think I've read a novel as uninviting, as boring and as unimaginative as Mary Jo Putney's THE BARGAIN in quite some time. In THE BARGAIN, you have the aristocratic and domineering Lady Jocelyn Kendal, a heroine with commitment issues who flees her kind, down-to-earth hero Major David Lancaster after he conveys words of love. Romance novelists savor shattering the arrogance of male aristocrats while lauding and respecting that same quality in their lady heroines. Lady Jocelyn represents the crown of beauty, elegance, compassion and aristocracy to David, but I disliked Jocelyn's superior, snide demeanor, often directed towards David's sister Sally (more than once, the beautiful Jocelyn thinks Sally's bland looks beneath her station). Granted, Sally inflames their belligerent interactions, but it's always Sally apologizing to Jocelyn (twice), it's Sally begging Jocelyn to allow her dying brother to stay in Jocelyn's home (p. 69). David's patience with the commitment-wary Jocelyn knows no bounds as it takes over 320 pages for something to happen in this 371-page papberback. I found the exchanges between David and Jocelyn completely bereft of passion and chemistry. Putney's David Lancaster is very dry; it's possible to write engaging honorable heroes, but you'd never know it from this book. The book belongs to Jocelyn, her tiresome struggle to overcome a family scandal during her childhood and consequently commit to David. The book isn't big on the something-happening department as it relays an interminable succession of the mundane. A cure for insomniacs to be sure. Impossibly, the prose and writing fare worse than the plotting and pacing. For instance, consider: "[Jocelyn] looked tantalizingly huggable." (p. 116) Nevermind that David's thoughts about Jocelyn being "huggable" here seemed better suited to what a girl wants a guy to think, but tantalizingly huggable? Juvenile prose to say the least.
Possible SPOILERS ahead.
The basic idea of the novel isn't bad: a soldier dying from his injuries at Waterloo while the daughter of an earl in need of a husband before her 25th birthday to retain her fortune. The book reminded me of Nicola Cornick's awful DECEIVED in which its heroine wishes a husband deeply in debt and safely locked behind bars to acquire her own debts. Regrettably, THE BARGAIN fails to execute this idea in any entertaining fashion. In exchange for securing his sister Sally's long-term future, David agrees to marry Jocelyn and help her secure her fortune. Neither expect the marriage to last as all the doctors anticipate David's death at any minute. When David's sister Sally perseveres to help cure David, Jocelyn is left with an unwanted husband. Jocelyn has her sights set on a notorious rake from the beginning: the Duke of Candover. Since Candover only engages in affairs with married women and widows, Jocelyn hopes her widow status will soon attract the pimp's attentions. David has other plans and methodically courts Jocelyn as her husband after his convalescence from a paralysis. Conveniently, David's elder three brothers perish and he inherits a barony. Jocelyn agrees to help David organize his affairs at Westholme since she has more experience in the administration of an estate. When highway robbers jump the coach, the book showcases Jocelyn's superior gunship as she kills the man threatening David. Not only only is she beautiful, a virgin, an heiress, a charitable philanthropist, and a competent estate and finance manager, but she's also an excellent gunshot. David's stolid courtship continues at Westholme. The book is at its exhausting worst here: David arranges affairs outside the estate while Jocelyn helps tidy up his home from the inside. They go about their business during the day, they share each other's day over dinner, they exchange a comfortable kiss, go to separate beds to sleep, rinse and repeat. Jocelyn finally invites David's amorous desires in bed when the prospect of sleeping with him would help improve her chances with Candover since Candover shuns innocent virgins. After they share a night of passionless sex, David expresses his heartfelt words of love. Jocelyn rejects David after their first night together and travels back to London to kiss Candover. The glutton for punishment that he is, David gives chase and finds Jocelyn kissing Candover. When Jocelyn mildly explains her scarred childhood with her divorced mother and that she was experimenting to ensure she has no feelings for the duke anymore, David happily agrees like the puppy dog he is. The End.
In spite of the slight gender reversals in personality and status, many things in this book conformed to the romance stereotype. It's David who must pursue Jocelyn and make all the moves. It's David who must chase Jocelyn after she rejects him towards the end. The book mentions Jocelyn is no "green-eyed girl" and yet she's a 25 year-old virgin like all the other virginal heroines. David courts Jocelyn so languidly, so sluggishly, so passively, you have to wonder about their chemistry. Because of her childhood scars, Jocelyn responds so disinterestedly, so apathetically that if the roles were reversed, romance readers would scream for the girl to move on and not waste your time! I know I was screaming for David to move on and let Candover have her. All the while, Jocelyn yearns for the notorious rake, the Duke of Candover. Towards the end, Putney sets up a vulnerable Candover for a future book. A rake and libertine shielding a deep vulnerable side, where have we heard that one before? I was hoping to see Jocelyn realize her dream of sleeping with Candover. At least then David would be free of her.
I thought Sally steals the show completely and she deserved much more appreciation and love from her brother David for everything she does for him. Sally survives independently as a governess, visits her dying brother daily, perseveres to cure him despite the odds, nurses her brother, and then aids Dr. Ian Kinlock immeasurably with his finances and practice. She's spirited, giving, resilient and unafraid to make the first move. There isn't a guy in the world that wouldn't fall in love with Sally Lancaster. Compared to Jocelyn's uninspiring paragon of superiority and aristocracy, Sally shines and perseveres.
Anyway, a very boring book to a vaguely interesting idea.