>Review: Simply Perfect by Mary Balogh

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I know, I promised you a review of S. M. Stirling’s fast-paced post-apocalyptic epic The Sunrise Lands. And I fully intend to deliver… soon. Unfortunately, yours truly has been sick, sick, sick literally all year, and there wasn’t room in my snot-filled brain to deal with complex political ideology plus militaristic action. So instead, you’re going to get a review of something a little fluffier, since that’s about at my level this week. Look for me to resume regular scheduled programming once nose-blowing, coughing, wheezing, and laryngitis has subsided.

Simply Perfect
Simply PerfectAs headmistress of Miss Martin’s School for Girls in Bath, Claudia Martin long ago resigned herself to a life without love. Until Joseph, Marquess of Attingsborough, arrives unannounced and tempts her to toss away a lifetime of propriety for an affair that can only lead to ruin, embarking on a plan of seduction that leaves them both yearning for more. But Claudia knows she has no place in Joseph’s aristocratic world. And now that world is about to be rocked by scandal… An arranged marriage, a secret that will shock the ton, and a man from Claudia’s past conspire to drive the lovers apart. But Joseph is determined to make Claudia his at any cost – even if that means breaking every rule for a love that is everything he has ever wanted…

I consider myself a semi-discriminating romance reader. While I read fellow Doll Noa’s articles on common complaints about the genre with interest, amusement, and a great deal (if not total) of agreement, I don’t think I can hope to kvetch in the same class she does. I demand a fair amount from my romances, but I don’t read them with my etymological dictionary (yes, I own one!) in the other hand. I insist on a high degree of historical accuracy, but forgive the author if she needed to move the date of a relatively minor historical battle by a matter of months to make her plot work (especially if she apologizes in an author’s note and provides the accurate information for the particular-minded). I don’t know enough about fashion (either historical or current!) to be able to pinpoint inaccuracies of dress, and although blatant behavioral inaccuracies really disturb me, I don’t want to read about pseudo-cavemen and their chattel, either.

What I insist upon without fail are three things: 1) a story about interesting people with interesting emotional and interpersonal dynamics, 2) a good plot surrounding their fall into love (preferably one that provides some external tension and creates difficulties beyond how the main characters manage to maneuver each other into bed), and 3) a happy ending. Noa is absolutely right – romances are escapes from the dreary everyday world, and Romeo and Juliet is not romantic. (I should also include proper grammar and punctuation in this list, but since I think that should be the absolute minimum standard for anything published, I feel it should go without saying. Unfortunately, the world doesn’t seem to agree with me on this point…)

Usually, a book written by Mary Balogh can be depended upon to provide all three of the essential points (properly written!), and she’s usually pretty reliable about the points in the first paragraph, as well. Unfortunately, I just can’t say that was the case in Simply Perfect. Allow me to elaborate.

The only essential point that came up trumps was the happy ending, but to get there required such plot contortions, leaps of illogic, and unlikely behavior that providing it almost wasn’t worth it. It demanded  trespasses against historical standards of behavior, human psychology, and, well… it was just irritating. The fact that happy endings are a foregone conclusion, and that this one seemed so impossible to achieve just made the whole plot chafe.

As for historical standards of behavior… well. I’m sorry, I know we all love Cinderella stories, but the heirs to dukedoms simply did not behave in any of the ways that Joseph, Marquess of Attingsborough did. Not if they expected to remain heirs, had any sense of familial or social duty, or had any desire to be able to continue in society in any fashion. They did not cultivate intensely loving relationships with their illegitimate, handicapped children, and did not marry school teachers on the shady side of 35, even if they were in love, for starters. They also didn’t free themselves to marry said spinster school marms by committing social solecisms so egregious that their fiancees felt obliged to kick them to the curb.

The fact that his behaviors made him so perfect and enlightened (from a modern perspective) as to be a candidate for sainthood made them more irritating, in my opinion. Maybe I was just predisposed against the character because Joseph isn’t my favorite name (apologies to any Josephs or Joes out there). I don’t know. I just know that the man was so sickeningly perfect and sweet that he made my teeth hurt. Not only are men (and women, too!) far from perfect, his perfection was even more galling because it was anachronistic. He was an ickle precious perfect modern man, and had no business behaving like that in the early nineteenth century.

But our Joseph had to be that perfect, because that was the only way that he was going to win over our aging and bitter spinster. Claudia Martin, headmistress, had appeared as a minor character in three previous books set around the romances of teachers at her school (the “Simply” series). Although tart and a bit anti-man, she was interesting and sympathetic enough that I wanted to read this book to find out her story. But my interest and sympathy evaporated quickly upon nearer acquaintance. For someone who prided herself on being an intelligent woman, she was an absolute mass of prejudices! Prejudices against the useless, despicable aristocracy, and dukes (and eventual dukes, too) in particular. Despite the fact that three of her close friends had married into the aristocracy, and were married to worthy, likable, non-despicable sorts of men, all that meant to Claudia was that there were three exceptions in the world to an otherwise ironclad rule. Aristocrats equal bad news!

As the story progresses, it becomes apparent that this entire prejudice, and the whole of her reason for treating St. Joseph the Ickle with a completely unacceptable lack of anything even resembling common courtesy (until the sunshine of his irresistible charm melted the ice in her personality – gak!), stemmed from a single incident of personal tragedy perpetrated against her young heart by an 18-year-old (you guessed it) duke. So, therefore, he and the whole of his kind were summarily judged as being cut from the same disgusting cloth, and that was that. For the next 18 years of this supposedly intelligent woman’s life! And that wasn’t even the only example of this woman’s ability to hold a grudge. When she gets her hate on, watch out!

So, we have a story with two main characters I didn’t really like, who behave absurdly and anachronistically in ways that seem to me to strain the bounds of what is psychologically credible, suffering almost zero sexual tension, encased in a distressingly thin plot. The only thing keeping our two lovebirds apart is, well, the fact that in real life they would never have gotten together. I know a suspension of disbelief is required when reading many historical romance novels, particularly the ones with Cinderella leanings, but really? Seriously? Usually I can go with the flow, but this one pushed me too far, and my suspension is un-suspended.

I am sorry as can be to have to so thoroughly pan an offering by a usually highly reliable romance author. Perhaps it is precisely because she is usually so reliable that I’m being so harsh. (My cranky, sickly, insufficiently medicated state might also have something to do with it. But I read the book when I was healthy, and I didn’t feel any more charitable then. I’m just less tactful when my nose is chapped.) Simply Perfect was published in 2008, and I’ve read books Mary Balogh has written since, so I know she returned to her usual good form. I suppose this book is one of those ones that proves that the Bell curve applies to most everything in life. I just wish I’d known that before I spent my money on it.

This book was, unfortunately, purchased by Elvie. To find out more about Mary Balogh and get a list of the much better other books she’s written, you can visit the author at her website.

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