Heartless, by Mary Balogh

>> Saturday, March 14, 2015

TITLE: Heartless
AUTHOR: Mary Balogh

PAGES: 400

SETTING: Late 18th century England
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: There's a later related book, Silent Melody.

Life has taught Lucas Kendrick, Duke of Harndon, that a heart is a decided liability. Betrayed by his elder brother, rejected by his fiancée, banished by his father, and shunned by his mother, Luke fled to Paris, where he became the most sought-after bachelor in fashionable society.

Ten years later, fate has brought him back home to England as head of the family who rejected him. Unwilling as he is to be involved with them, he must assume responsibility for his younger siblings, the family estate he once loved—and the succession. He faces the prospect of marrying with the greatest reluctance—until he sees beguiling Lady Anna Marlowe across a ballroom one night.

Anna, far from being the bright-eyed innocent Luke takes her for, is no more a stranger to the shadows of a painful past than he is. But for her, marriage cannot so easily solve what is wrong in her life—not when a tormentor stalks her to the very doors of Bowden Abbey, where Luke and Anna must learn to trust in each other or risk any chance they may have for a happy future.

Heartless was my biggest disappointment so far this year. It's a book I've kind of been hoarding, since it's a favourite for many Balogh fans and I really love some of the books she was writing round that time (for instance, the quartet that starts with Dark Angel). Unfortunately, 20 years after its release it felt very dated and old-fashioned, and I thought it highlighted what I always thought was Balogh's worst tendency: her heroines who seem much too determined to be martyrs and victims (see my favourite entry in All About Romance's much-missed Purple Prose Parody - this is not quite the book that inspired the parody, I don't think, but the heroine is very much in that vein).

This DNF review will include SPOILERS, so please proceed with caution!

Lady Anna Marlow has a Big Secret in her past. It's not really a huge spoiler, because you kind of get most of the story close to the beginning, if not all the details, but here goes. Anna's late father had got into trouble gambling and the debts were mounting. She confided in this kindly neighbour, a man about her father's age, and this guy pounced. He bought up the debts and used them to coerce Anna into helping him with illegal activities... distract people while playing at cards so that he could cheat, create a distraction so that he could steal jewellery, that sort of thing. There was also a possessive, sexual element, but instead of making her his mistress, he kidnapped her and had his servants tie her to the bed and remove her hymen. That way she would be "unmarriageable" (because no 18th century woman ever had her hymen broken while horseriding. Bah!). Then he told her he needed to go to America to do... something, and he'd claim her on his return. She would wait for him, otherwise he'd reveal that she helped with his criminal activities (although how he would do that without giving himself away Balogh doesn't explain) and even worse, "the truth": that he has "witnesses" that she pushed her father off the roof of their house.

While waiting for that sword of Damocles to fall on her head, Anna accompanies her younger sister to London so that she can have a Season. Anna considers herself unmarriageable, but her godmother, who's sponsoring them, doesn't. She and her lover conspire to throw her together with the lover's nephew: Lucas Kendrick, the new Duke of Harndon. Luke is newly returned to England after being exiled there for years as a result of almost killing his elder brother in a duel, and his uncle thinks he needs to get married an settle down.

Luke doesn't initially think so but he's quite taken by Anna's warm, cheerful disposition (which is this mask she can't help but adopt, even as she's terrified and upset), and thinks that if he needs to get married, she'll do. Anna accepts Luke's marriage proposal against her better judgment, all the while telling herself that she shouldn't, that when the weirdo comes back he will cause trouble, but goes ahead with the marriage anyway. And obviously, Luke realises she's not a virgin on the wedding night and asks her about it (in a really insulting way). She refuses to say anything and he assumes that she loves whoever it was she had sex with, after which the bloody hypocrite (who's been sleeping around in Paris like there's no tomorrow) is angry and hurt and has punishing sex with her.

And of course, Anna was right about her tormentor coming back. Pretty much right after the wedding he's writing her threatening letters, telling her she's merely "on loan" to her husband and that he'll be claiming her soon, and following her to the duke's country estate and tormenting her there with the help of the Evil Other Woman, who's Lucas' brother's widow.

I got to about 60% and couldn't stand the idea of continuing to read about Anna doing all she possibly could not to solve her problem, worrying herself sick and drowning in self-pity. She has chance after chance after chance to tell her husband what is wrong (he even keeps asking what's wrong when she's upset), but she doesn't take them. This makes very little sense. The man is a powerful duke who can fix her problems (a pesky baronet like the weirdo against the might of one of the richest dukes in England? Please!). Luke also already knows "the worst" (i.e. that she wasn't a virgin). Anna is just determined not to communicate with him and to cause a Big Misunderstanding. And all the while she's wearing this weird cheerful mask, pretending to be warm and happy, except for when she goes all upset and Luke realises something wrong, but she'll refuse to say anything. I found her incredibly frustrating.

The whole thing is a mess. The villain is just unbelievable. This is an area where Balogh usually excels. Her villains tend to be more like antagonists, people who cause trouble/conflict for the protagonists in understandable ways and for understandable, nuanced reasons that are completely believable. This guy simply didn't make sense. The whole thing about him coercing Anna into helping him with his cheating and stealing was kind of preposterous, and the sexual element was squicky and seemed rooted not in any sort of psychologically realistic motivation, but in Balogh needing to have her hymen-less heroine still be technically untouched by any man. And same thing for this whole thing about him letting Luke have her "on loan" and him not simply showing up before the wedding and pressuring Anna not to get married (she would have folded, easily). That made no sense whatever and seemed purely driven by Balogh's plot requiring it.

The other villain, Luke's sister-in-law, was just as frustrating as a character. Basically, she and Luke had grown up together and were in love. And then she turned up pregnant by his elder brother, the heir to the dukedom, and told Luke his brother had raped her. So Luke called out his brother and in the duel he accidentally almost killed him (he was a terrible shot back then), leading to his exile from his family. Now he's back, and she thought she could have him back and continue to, in effect, be the Duchess, plans which were frustrated by his wedding to Anna. Anyway, the sister-in-law was this really retrograde Evil Other Woman, and her sort of villainy was of the kind that I find most insulting and mysoginistic. She was manipulative, falsely accused Luke's brother of rape (I'm assuming here, as the truth hadn't been revealed when I stopped reading, but it was pretty obvious that she had seduced the brother, rather than being raped), and helps Anna's stalker stalk her just to cause trouble. And of course, they have skanky villain sex. Of course. We can't miss out on the slut-shaming.

What else? Oh, there's also Anna's little sister who's deaf-mute and whose role in the story seems to be "magical disabled girl who heals all those around her". Great.

I also found Luke's character arc predictable and clichéd. He was betrayed by his family so now he lacks a heart and cannot love. Oh, spare me. The only thing interesting about him was that the book is set in the late-18th century and he is a dandy in the French style: powdered wig, heels, peacock clothes, fans, make-up. That was fine by me, but make-up does not an interesting character make.



Barb in Maryland 14 March 2015 at 15:21  

So, tell us what you REALLY thought...
I have the most conflicted relationship with Balogh's books. I keep trying them (why?--because they get a lot of rave reviews)and for everyone I like there are another 10 that are DNFs.
I can't recall this particular one, so you have saved me from picking it up. Thanks

Darlynne,  14 March 2015 at 20:19  

I've not read any Balogh books, but picked up something that was offered for free a while ago. Most everyone else seems to really like her books so I'll have to try, but, sheesh, not this one. Thanks for saving us all.

Rosario 16 March 2015 at 06:54  

Barb: LOL, I really did let it rip, didn't I? I have to agree, her older books can be really hit or miss. I've had better luck with her Trad Regencies, but even within those there are some stinkers. But when she's good, she's very good.

Darlynne: Yes, definitely not this one. Others of hers, even some written before it, are much less dated. Which one was the one you picked up?

Sun,  16 March 2015 at 07:36  

Do NOT read Silent Melody. It put me off Mary Balogh for a while.

Darlynne,  16 March 2015 at 17:49  

Rosario, I think it had "Christmas" in the title. Don't quote me, though.

Rosario 16 March 2015 at 19:23  

Sun: Given how the heroine of Silent Melody was written in this book, I'm really not surprised!

Darlynne: If it's A Christmas Bride, read it now. She's got a couple of other ones with Christmas in the title, but I don't think I've read those.

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