Delilah Marvelle’s THE PERFECT SCANDAL, a historical romance novel set in 1824, was a frustrating book from beginning to end.
First off, I really liked Polish Countess Zosia Urszula Kwiatkowska’s character; here was a strong, smart woman, an amputee with a good mind, a great wit, and a kind heart. I liked her a lot.
But I never really bought into English Marquis Tristan Adam Hargrove, Lord of Moreland, partly because of the way his problems are discussed. Moreland, you see, is twenty-eight years old, regularly cuts himself, and has fetishes regarding whips, knives, and swords. Moreland is also the author of the best-selling book How to Avoid a Scandal — he wrote this because he identifies with people who don’t have great control over their own lives due to his own personal issues and wants to help them, which is probably his most laudable quality. But this tendency to put words over actions is something that gets at the heart of why Moreland is an extremely frustrating character to write a book around.
If you think the way Moreland looks at things is a bit off-putting for a period romance, the way he meets Zosia is really out there — at least, for 1824. She waves at him from a window in the late evening, and Moreland stops to converse despite the fact she’s several floors up and it’s not a “decent” hour. He stays there “talking” with her (really, he’s shouting at her, and she’s shouting back, and both are entertaining the neighborhood no end). He says whatever he can manage until he realizes what he’s doing, then he leaves — but all that time, he hasn’t a clue who Zosia is, not that she’s an amputee, not anything at all about her whatsoever. He only knows that he’s sexually attracted.
Now, is the last realistic? The attraction, sure — similar things have been known to happen the world over. But does the man in question then start to fantasize this way?
From pages 30 and 31:
Her eyes would never leave his as her hand gripped the thick handle of a whip he’d given her to play with. She would then smile ever so softly, ever so charmingly, while delicately smacking the braided leather end against his thigh or back, causing him to suck in breaths of anticipation.
I’m sorry; this is horrible writing. Not because of the nature of Moreland’s fantasy — fantasies are in the eye of the beholder — but because of the fact that later on in the story Moreland admits that most young women would never, but never, be able to handle the nature of his whip fixation. Zosia is only twenty-three, a maiden, and has absolutely zero sexual experience so she’d definitely fall into this category. Mind, if this fantasy had been later on in the story, along with Moreland’s own wry take that Zosia would never go for this, but wouldn’t it be lovely for him if she did, I’d buy it — but in the second chapter? With three adverbs in one sentence (softly, charmingly, delicately)? Why do this, Ms. Marvelle?
Anyway, Zosia and Moreland’s romance is only part of the story. We’re also told about Poland and how it wants its independence through the way Zosia acts; about Russia, Poland’s overlord (which has a strange hold over Zosia that must be read to be believed); about King George and his cousin, Dowager Lady Moreland, and the secrets they’ve been keeping from all concerned. Most of this reads well even if doesn’t quite scan — many romances are based on stuff much thinner than this, and a cross-cultural romance between the Polish nationalist Zosia and believer-in-religious-freedom Moreland isn’t at all strange.
What bothers me is that while there’s some life in this writing, and the love scenes — not just the sex itself, but the intimacy and the conversation between the pair — are excellent, the underlying nature of Moreland’s character just does not work. (Please, do not get me started regarding Moreland’s insistence on becoming a “changed man,” someone Zosia can love, someone without his odd sexual quirks, or I’ll bend your ears ’til the cows come home — because every woman worth her salt, in or out of a romance novel, knows this very basic maxim: men do not change easily, or quickly, even if the man in question desperately wants to change.)
I’m sorry, but I just didn’t understand why Moreland, who’s an outcast due to his sexual proclivities, thinks he’ll be able to change “just like that” because of “love, sweet love.” Maybe he really wants to change, in theory, but in practice, we know he’s fantasizing about whips and getting so caught up in the fantasy that he’s insisting on using three adverbs where really only one should do. That makes me think that Moreland’s sexual issues are much more deeply rooted than we’ve been led to believe — meaning there’s no way he’d be able to jettison them so quickly, even for Zosia.
Because of all of this, THE PERFECT SCANDAL is an uneven, frustrating read. Despite my initial high hopes, based off the first chapter’s banter between Moreland and the “unknown foreign woman” Zosia, the story never measured up to Ms. Marvelle’s obvious talent for dialogue and characterization (Zosia’s character is spot-on). What’s there is not enough to make up for the poorly-thought-out characterization with regards to Moreland — his faults, his fixations, and his fetishes. I remained convinced from beginning to end that everything Moreland felt and thought was because Ms. Marvelle told him to say and do and act this way, not because it intrinsically flowed from his character. That’s a huge flaw in any book, but most especially in a romance novel where we must believe the two people could exist in real life in order to care about them.
My advice is to read something else by Ms. Marvelle rather than this; she has talent, but this book simply did not measure up.
Grade: a generous C-
— reviewed by Barb