Do romance novels have to have a plausible premise?

I ask this because so many don’t, in my experience. Every once in a while I go outside my preferred reader zone and assay one of the genres for which I have little affinity (these would be romance, horror, westerns, and pretty much all nonfiction!), because as a readers’ advisor I need to keep up with what’s current and have some titles ready to suggest, no matter what my personal preferences. So, after finishing the mammoth undertaking that was Demon Copperhead (see previous post), I decided to go for something light and frivolous.

My chosen book was When A Scot Ties the Knot, by Tessa Dare, a part of the “Castles Ever After” trilogy (which isn’t a series but rather a rough grouping of similar stories). I actually looked up a different book on Goodreads, but one reviewer said that in her opinion that one was a rip-off of this novel, and cited Dare’s book as the better read, so I believed her and switched. Ironically, all through this book I kept thinking, Ripoff? Yeah, of Outlander. The Scot in question spent the whole book calling the object of his affection “Mo chridhe,” which is a Jamie-ism if ever I heard one. No, I know Jamie Fraser was not the first to use that expression, but you have to admit that has become a signature phrase for him, along with “Mo nighean donn.” Also, the whole forced marriage thing…whoops!

On to the implausible plot: Madeline Gracechurch is shy. In fact, her introversion goes far beyond that—she suffers panic attacks in crowds. So when her family plans to send her to London for the Season, where she has to mingle with hundreds of people at balls and actually talk to men with a view of marrying one, she panics. She makes up a suitor that she supposedly met while in Brighton on vacay, but not just any suitor: He’s Scottish, he’s a Captain in the army, and he’s away at war. So obviously she has no need to go to London, because once the war is over, her Captain MacKenzie will come for her.

This begins a years-long deception in which Maddie writes letters to Captain MacKenzie and sends them off to the front…and receives letters from him in return, because after all, it would be a bit suspicious if he didn’t write back! There is no explanation of how she manages to arrange for the return letters, especially in someone else’s handwriting other than her own, but this is just the first (although admittedly most egregious) of implausibilities. The next is a much bigger surprise: Captain MacKenzie, the remainder of his men in tow, shows up at her castle in Scotland (she inherited it from her godfather), letters in hand, and informs her that they will be wed forthwith so that his men will have a place to live, their lands having disappeared while they were away fighting for the Brits, and if she won’t marry him, he will expose her deception.

So…how did Logan MacKenzie receive the missives Maddie expected to end up in the dead-letter box? Well, apparently the British mail system within the armed forces is just that good! (Anyone surprised by that?) Even though he wasn’t a Captain but a lowly private when she first began her correspondence with him at the age of 16, the letters somehow found their way to him and yes, actually inspired him to work hard enough over the subsequent years to make the rank of Captain a reality.

All those letters, though, that Maddie received in return—not a one of them was from him. He collected all of hers…but never had the impulse to write back and say, Um, who exactly are you, why are you writing to me, what the hell, young lady? Nope. But he saved all of hers with the plan to confront her and demand her hand in marriage on his return.

Then, however, she makes him mad: She kills him off! Well, it had to come sooner or later, because what would happen should he never show up to claim his bride? So she pretends to have received news of his demise, wears mourning for a year or two, and blithely goes about creating a career for herself as a naturalist’s illustrator, drawing pictures of plants and bugs for prominent researchers and publishers.

Then the big surprise, in a blue and green kilt, shows up on her doorstep.

I suppose that romance is a genre in which you are expected to willingly suspend disbelief in a major way, but there was so much potential for holes in this one that I laughed out loud several times as this farce unfolded. It’s not a bad book, and she’s not a bad writer, especially as regards the steamy scenes when they are working up to consummating their hand-fasting. But Maddie’s subsequent frantic search for the letters—Logan’s tool of blackmail—and Logan’s maintenance of his mad-on because she killed him off became increasingly ridiculous, since it was patently obvious that she had fallen for all of his many charms, and he for hers, pretty early on. The book was basically an exercise in drawing out the anticipation for sex between the two.

One funny note that falls under reader serendipity: After I finished this silly story, I picked up a rather dark and convoluted mystery by Ann Cleeves, only to discover that its protagonist was also a naturalist’s illustrator. How weird is that?

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