Because of You

Falling In Love Again

Married in Haste

A Scandalous Marriage

When Dreams Come True

You And No Other

The Marriage Contract
by Cathy Maxwell
(Avon, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-380-80833-1
The basic premise of this romance - marriage by proxy between two strangers - is implausible at best ... if it could happen at all which I have reason to doubt.

I expect there have been countless mothers who have wanted to believe their feckless sons who spend all their time loafing around in laundry-challenged clothing and goofing off with their beer-guzzling buds would suddenly become responsible, contributing members of society if they could only marry them off to smart, capable women who would whip them into shape. In The Marriage Contract, itís the heroís sister who conceives this plan. Why? Because she knows sheís dying and wants to be certain her little brother is in the heir-production business before she goes.

Personally, I think itís dreadfully unfair to the poor heroine who is stuck with the job of cleaning up the hero ... along with his castle, furnishings, pots, pans, dishes, silverware, and everything else in sight. Compared to the heroine in this story, Hercules got off easy with the Augean stables. (Yes, the hero dumps that task on the heroine, too.) Whatís cute in five-year-old boys isnít so cute in adult men. This heroís has a classic case of arrested development, and that makes it pretty tough to figure out why the heroine doesnít wash her hands of him and his castle and leave him to wallow in the muck.

The story begins in London in 1815. The orphaned Anne Burnett has failed to snag a husband after two Seasons due to her lack of stunning beauty, fortune, or connections. Her uncle and aunt arrange that she marry Aidan Black, Earl of Tiebauld, who is rumored to be insane. Lady Waldo, Aidanís sister arranges this marriage without her brotherís knowledge or consent. She insists there is nothing wrong with her brother, and Anne realizes she has no alternatives to this unusual match. She travels to Scotland to begin her new life.

Aidan has isolated himself in his castle in Scotland because he didnít fit in well in London society. He is a scholar of medieval history and has tried to duplicate the medieval practices and traditions at Kelwin Castle. The first time Anne sees him he and his friends have painted their faces blue and are playing warrior games.

Aidan is stunned to learn what his sister has done but easily accepts the legality of the marriage. Even though he is surprisingly attracted to his little virgin wife, he decides to make Anneís life so difficult that she will flee back to England. Anne is appalled by the filthy conditions of the castle and the gross manners of her husband and his cohorts. Since she knows that returning to England is not an option, she sets forth to correct the conditions and win over her reluctant spouse.

The women of the town have resented the idle ways of the menfolk and are pleased to see the lairdís wife taking charge of things and soon pitch in to help her. Aidan himself is secretly impressed with his wife, her industry, and generous spirit and begins to appreciate the improvement around the place. Slowly Aidan begins to allow Anne into his life and his heart.

One of Aidanís friends, however, is urging him to join in a Jacobite rebellion and threatens not only their happiness but their very safety.

Anne is a plucky heroine, and the best part of this book. The numerous recalcitrant males havenít a chance against her determination. Thereís one scene where Anne challenges the castle cook that will have readers smiling.

Unfortunately, she could do a lot better for a hero than Aidan. First of all, heís just plain mean to her. When they first meet and before she knows his identity, Anne hits him in a very vulnerable place. Given his later treatment of her, I hope she gave it everything she had. Furthermore, this guy needs to develop a little backbone and assume some responsibility. The best heroes are men of conviction. Aidanís unwillingness to take a firm stand against his traitorous friends endangers not only his own life but those of his wife and his people. Since he knows any rebellion is doomed to failure, his indecisive behavior is difficult to justify. In addition, the resolution to this subplot degenerates from implausibility into farce.

A word on the viability of the marriage-by-proxy plot device: marriage by proxy could only be arranged if the proxy had the authority of the absent party contracting the marriage. The idea that an earlís older sister could marry him off without his knowledge or consent just doesnít hold up - particularly during an era when women had little legal power. Romance readers know that what weíre reading is fiction, but we want to believe it could have happened that way.

Regardless of plot or setting, a successful romance features a hero and heroine who are uniquely perfect for each other. In this respect, The Marriage Contract comes up lacking. When it seems preferable that the requisite happily ever after should be the heroine eagerly embracing a lifetime of solitary spinsterhood rather than the hero, it is not a satisfactory romance.

--Lesley Dunlap

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