This is the book version of what my brothers used to call a “sister-kisser.” Both teams are on the field but nobody’s heart is in the game and everybody’s just going through the motions.
Olivia DeAngelis has six months to get married or lose her inheritance - one third of Stone’s End farm in Vermont. On her way back after meeting the lawyer, her car breaks down and she takes shelter in a roadside café. There, she stumbles across Drew Pierce. Drew has just been released after serving five years in prison for safety violations and mismanagement at his family’s logging company.
Drew is on his way to his family home which, surprise, surprise, just happens to be right next door to Stone’s End. His family packed up and left town after his conviction and he’s just stopping by long enough to cash in a trust fund. He’s broke until he gets there though, so when he fixes her car Olivia gives him a lift. The car breaks down again along the way, but within easy walking distance of, surprise, surprise, a cabin that Drew just happens to know about and they wait there while the car is repaired. Olivia blithely cooks and cleans her heart out, strews her lacy underwear around, and thinks what a good idea it would be to marry an ex-con she just met in order to collect her inheritance.
Once home, Drew decides to make amends to the town by reopening the logging company. Olivia’s property, surprise, surprise, has lots of trees, so a marriage of convenience suddenly looks a lot more convenient to Drew.
While some parts of the story are thus conveniently simplified, others are unnecessarily complicated. If the adopted Olivia’s birth father didn’t know she existed, why would he send a private detective to find her? There’s something vague about “letters in the attic” that’s supposed to explain this but doesn’t. And why did she have to be married to inherit her part of the farm? I’m still scratching my head, but we need to move on to other things.
Like the total reliance on clichés for plot and characterization. Marriage as a condition of inheritance is one of the romance handbook’s least credible and most overused ploys to get two strangers into close personal proximity (but apparently there was simply no other way to get these characters together. Even though they’re next-door neighbors). She can’t trust anyone because of an unhappy childhood. He’ll never love again because of a youthful romance gone wrong. She’s a clueless innocent. He’s a cynical loner. Because their connection is so tenuous, both of them are ready to throw in the towel at the first sign of trouble. The only thing in their way is an author.
All of the above combine with a choppy, abrupt sentence structure to set a tedious pace in which every moment in the story takes on equal weight. No highs. No lows. No surprises.
Most lethal of all, however, there are too many unsupported statements that come out of nowhere and leave the reader mystified as to what was going on the characters’ heads. The book says: “She made lunch.” Then Drew gets all bent out of shape over this blatant attempt at seduction. Olivia makes the “wedding bargain” of the title in order to secure her inheritance, then a few paragraphs later she’s moping because Drew doesn’t love her unconditionally. The book is full of moments like this - it’s as if the characters don’t remember what they did, said or thought on the previous page. Unfortunately my memory works rather better.
I believe this book is the third in a series and my sense is that there are more to come. I’ve read good reports about the earlier installments and can only say how disappointed I am that The Wedding Bargain didn’t live up to those notices. I hope that with her next effort, this author sets formula aside for more spontaneity, and actually takes us inside her characters’ hearts instead of leaving us sitting and wondering on the sidelines.