The Marriage List by Dorothy McFalls
(Signet, $4.99, G) ISBN 0-451-21499-4
The Marriage List left me in a quandary. This is a debut novel, with a decent premise and characters that obviously are dear to the author’s heart. But the writing is often clunky and unpolished, with a heavy dependence on the thesaurus. This leads to unfortunate word choices that create too many jarring mental images. Frankly, I blame the editors more than the author.

Radford, Viscount Evers, has returned from the war with a badly damaged leg. He’s in pain a lot of the time, and his doctors have told him he won’t be doing much riding again. For a man whose dream was to breed some of the best horseflesh in England, this is a major blow. When the story opens in Bath, Radford is in a blue funk and has decided he might as well marry and produce a brood of heirs, preferably sons. With his friend Wynters in attendance, Radford makes a Marriage List of qualities he wants in a wife.

May Sheffers is living in a small cottage in Bath with her elderly aunt, a semi-invalid. May’s parents have been off exploring in South America and haven’t been heard from in years (and the author makes a few blunders with this sub-thread). May is now in her mid-twenties and “on the shelf” due to whispers about her father’s parentage. An uncle controls the money left in trust for May, and he is cutting off funds in order to force May into marriage with one of his acquaintances, a man old enough to be May’s father.

Having received an eviction notice, May goes to plead her case with the cottage’s owner, who turns out to be none other than Radford. Their initial meeting is contentious, and Radford can’t help noticing that May barely gives his injuries glance. She doesn’t possess any of his marriage list qualities, of course, but he’s intrigued. Nevertheless, Radford decides to pursue the beautiful daughter of a duke, a woman who does seem to embody all he thinks he wants.

That’s about it for the setup. Radford falls for May but stubbornly pursues the woman of his dreams, even though readers can tell from the first meeting that she’s a shrew. May falls for Radford, but believes he could never want her because of her background. Their friends see what’s going on and try to force the couple together. Radford’s mother tries to force them apart. The nasty uncle hangs around, the unwanted suitor makes unwanted offers, and the plot goes around in circles for a long time.

This is a story that, instead of hitting a mid-book sag, simply skidded on downhill to an inglorious ending. The author must have kept that thesaurus at her elbow, because I ended up losing much interest in the plot and pondering the bizarre word choices used, instead. For instance, the author describes May’s unwanted suitor at one of their first meetings as having a bland face, pleasant tone, and a “vicious” smile. “Vicious”? No, dear, he’s trying to impress the young lady. At another point, May “tosses” herself into someone’s arms. I know the author must have wanted an alternative to “threw herself into his arms”, but “tossed” is something you don’t do to yourself. The whole phrase looked weird. And the mental image was even stranger.

May is sensible enough, though the ultimate separation is dependent on her losing her spine at a convenient moment. Radford leaves his initial pity party behind, thank goodness, but instead becomes remarkably thick-headed about his marriage list. It’s not a case of stubbornness as much as a lack of self-understanding, and it takes Radford (and the reader) a long time to get where he needs to go, which is by May’s side. A couple of kisses, followed by instant denial, isn’t much of a romance.

The Marriage List offers an interesting premise but flounders upon execution. The ending, which resolves the issue of the parents, feels tacked-on at best and patently ridiculous, with an explanation a six-year-old would question. Dorothy McFalls may yet make her mark in the Regency genre, but she’ll need to throw away her thesaurus and concentrate on making her stories come alive, instead.

--Cathy Sova

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