Simply Perfect, by Mary Balogh

>> Wednesday, June 19, 2013

TITLE: Simply Perfect
AUTHOR: Mary Balogh

PAGES: 464

SETTING: Early 19th century England
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: 4th in the Simply series

Set against the seductive backdrop of Regency England, New York Times bestselling author Mary Balogh’s latest novel sweeps us into the sensual, enthralling world of an elite academy for young ladies. Here, amid music lessons and garden parties, whispered confessions and secret yearnings, one of the school’s teachers—headmistress Claudia Martin—will find her well-ordered world jolted by love when she meets a man who would make the perfect husband…for somebody else.

Tall, dark, and exquisitely sensual, he is the epitome of male perfection. Not that Claudia Martin is looking for a lover. Or a husband. As owner and headmistress of Miss Martin’s School for Girls in Bath, she 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.

Joseph has his own reasons for seeking Claudia out. Instantly, irresistibly attracted to the dedicated teacher, he embarks on a plan of seduction that leaves them both yearning for more. But as heir to a prestigious dukedom, Joseph is expected to carry on his family’s legacy. And Claudia knows she has no place in his world.
The Simply series is centred around Miss Martin's School For Girls, an enlightened establishment where both paying and charity students are educated and prepared for a fulfilling future life. The previous 3 books featured heroines who taught there, but in this last one, it's the founder, Claudia Martin herself who's the heroine.

After painful past experiences, Claudia has no liking for the aristocracy. A title predisposes her not to like the person, so a visit to her friends from previous books (all married to titled men, of course), brings her in contact with Joseph, Marquess of Attingsborough, he needs to earn her liking.

Joseph has reasons to cultivate Claudia's acquaintance, as there's someone in his life for whom Claudia's school could be a godsend. But to his surprise, he finds he likes her company very much, and liking soon develops into a strong attraction. However, it's an attraction that can go nowhere, as his father has decided Joseph needs to get married soon, and has chosen a very elegible bride for him. Joseph has no particular liking for the woman, but he does need to do his duty, so he might as well, and a 35-year-old schoolteacher is a complete no-go in the area.

Oh, so frustrating! There's a lot here that I liked, even loved, but a lot that drove me nuts.

Claudia herself is very high on the likes. She is one prickly woman, and she's allowed to be so pretty much all the way through the book. She can be rude and disapproving, but is always willing to admit when she has been wrong in her snap judgments and apologise.

I also really liked the slow way in which her relationship with Joseph develops. Balogh takes the time to do the groundwork here. We see them like each other first, and their shared interest in Claudia's school provides a really good reason why they'd interact. That liking gradually becomes more and more, and I completely bought the love betweeen them. They are both quite lonely people, in spite of being surrounded by friends, and I could totally see that connection between them that drove the loneliness away.

Unfortunately, Joseph himself was one of the things that made me want to scream. He is a very nice guy, and I liked him very much, but I found him a very frustrating character in how he dealt with his intended bride. The situation is that his father basically presents Joseph with a done deal. Dad's waited long enough, he's afraid his health is failing, and so he's spoken to the father of the young woman in question (Portia Hunt, whom readers of the series might remember as the jilted woman from book 1 in this series), and it's all but arranged. Joseph doesn't know Portia very well, but he has no objections to her. Also, he recognises he does have to marry at some point, and it might as well be now and it might as well be Portia. So he resigns himself to court her.

So far, so good. The problem comes when Joseph does start to get to know Portia. The thing is, he is very clear that he wants a monogamous relationship. That's the sort of man he is, and that part of his character is very well-established in the story. He wants a contented married life with a wife he's fond of, not a cold marriage and a string of mistresses. But it becomes very clear very quickly that he won't get what he would like with Portia. Portia fully expects and even wants a marriage where any sex will be about her doing her duty and they will each lead independent lives. When Joseph tries to kiss her, she makes it clear she thinks kisses unnecessary and silly, and love and affection between husband and wife quite vulgar. She's also a snob and cruel with it. Joseph is well aware before long that a marriage between the two would be miserable for him.

Now, at this point, Joseph hasn't proposed to the Portia. The understanding between their families is still private, and while other people kind of suspect a marriage is in the offing, nothing's been announced and stopping the courtship would not create any real trouble for anyone. Joseph's father wants the marriage, but the pressure is pretty superficial. He can't disinherit Joseph, and although the man's being a dick about this, he and Joseph actually have a pretty loving relationship. Joseph knows very well that saying to his father that this particular intended bride doesn't suit him won't be a massive problem.

So why the FUCK does he propose to Portia? Even ignoring the fact he's falling in love with Claudia, it makes no sense. It's very clearly plot-driven, meant to create conflict, and it makes him look like a weak-willed idiot. There's going with the flow, and there's letting yourself be steamrolled (and by a papier-mache steamroll, too!). I lost so much respect for him then.

There is a HEA ending, of course, but it's very much a deus ex machina kind of thing, where Joseph behaves in a very passive-aggressive way and all depends on what Portia wants. Yes, it's gentlemanly and kind of him to not want to ruin Portia's future, but a) he brought the situation on himself, the absolute tit, and b) by his actions, he's basically saying that he thinks Portia's future is more important than that of the woman he loves (and that of this other person in his life I'm being so cryptic about). So if Portia hadn't behaved in a way that was ridiculously and preposterously out of character, he'd have married her? Balls to that!

So yeah, that kind of ruined a lot of the story. Also, the book suffers from acute seriesitis. Every single character in the previous 10 or so Balogh novels shows up, just to visit. I've read all these books, even liked them, but sorry, I couldn't remember some of these characters (all of whom are referred to sometimes by their given names, sometimes by their titles, just to make it even more confusing). Worse, apart from a couple of exceptions, their roles in this story are mostly pointless and annoying. They were just parading around showing they were happy.

MY GRADE: I actually started out this review with a B- in mind, because even feeling really annoyed by what I've ranted about at length before, Balogh's writing did carry me right along and I mostly enjoyed the experience. But after writing this out, I've kind of soured. It's actually more like a C+.


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