By day, I'm a domestic violence prosecutor. By night, I read romance to restore my faith in love, relationships, and humanity in general.
The first half of this story is inspired by Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, while the second half--or maybe just the last few chapters--is inspired by the Rapunzel story. Gowan is a Scottish duke with immense wealth and responsibilities, inherited when he was just fourteen. (He's all of twenty-two, now.) He meets Edith at her coming out ball and is so taken with her that he meets with her father the very next day to work out the details of their engagement -- without bothering to actually ask Edith for her hand or spend any time getting to know her. For her part, Edith was so sick with a fever at the ball that she could barely see straight and can hardly recall the duke at all.
Despite this inauspicious beginning, however, the couple quickly find that they're actually quite well matched in wit and temperament. They exchange letters and spend enough time together during their brief engagement to begin to fall in love. By the time they marry, less than half-way through the book, they seem well on their way to their happily ever after, and I was wondering what could possibly happen to generate enough conflict to carry the story through another several hundred pages....
... and then came their wedding night. Edie is a blushing but eager virgin, who is better informed about the ways of the flesh than most virgin brides due to her young stepmother's propensity for oversharing. (Layla is wonderfully three-dimensional and relatable; in my opinion, she's the best thing about this book.) Less typically, Gowan also comes undefiled to the marital bed, and is every bit the blushing and eager virgin as his bride. Herein lies the conflict: they are both willing and eager, but wretchedly clumsy and painfully clueless in the sack, and they lack the communication skills to find their way out of the ensuing morass of hurt feelings and wounded pride.
I liked the poignancy of this story. Gowan and Edie are in love, desperate to please each other and make a success of their marriage. Both are also grimly aware of the perils of failure: Gowan's parents, and Edie's father and stepmother, had/have troubled marriages that serve as stark reminders of the embittered misery that awaits Gowan and Edie if they can't get it together. As I read, I was sympathetic to their dilemma and pulling for them as a couple, but after awhile, I wasn't enjoying the read.
Here's the thing: A bad sexual encounter, early on in the relationship, is not necessarily a kiss of death. Jennifer Crusie's Faking It comes to mind as an example of a book where the hero and heroine have a wretched first sexual encounter, but it's comically bad, it doesn't stop them from throwing sparks in other aspects of their relationship, and most importantly, they get over it. By contrast, though, Gowan and Edie have bad sex over and over and over again -- and not comically bad, but tragically bad, painfully bad, soul crushingly bad. -So bad that their inability to connect sexually leaves them unable to connect in any other aspect of their relationship.
And you know what? That's not really all that fun to read about.