Book Review

Dearly Beloved by Mary Jo Putney


Title: Dearly Beloved
Author: Mary Jo Putney
Publication Info: Signet (copyright Mary Jo Putney, 1990) 2004
ISBN: 045120851X
Genre: Historical: European

Usually by the time I get two-thirds of the way through a book, I’m churning through it, desperate to see how it ends. With this one, I am having a hard time finding the energy with which to give a crap. I mean, how many repetitive misunderstandings and angsty moments can you have in one novel?

If you’re Mary Jo Putney and you’re writing “Dearly Beloved,” there’s no such thing as too many.

I have lost my patience with this book. It’s like the same conversations between the characters, with Ominous Foreshadowing.

He: You are a ho! I cannot trust you!
She: I am  a noble ho! You can trust me because I looooove you! But I have secrets I cannot share with you!
He: You are a ho! You love me! Yet you have secrets! And so do I but that’s different! And I should be emotionally healed but I am not! I still don’t trust you!
She: Let’s have lots of sex!
He: Yes! Let’s!
She: There is a man! He is scary!
He: I am a spy! After the same man!
Narrator: And she wished she had told him of her past, but she would live to regret bitterly that she had not shared her secrets with him, because they rose up and bit her square on her ass!

Candy tells me this is one of her most famous and widely considered to be her best, but I am not in accord with that assessment. The hero is tortured and scarred, and throught the storyline he’s emotionally healed by her luuuuuuve. Usually I’m a sucker for that, but woo damn, her eternal perfection and serene courtesan routine is starting to bother me.

The story opens with a violent, drunken rape scene between the hero and a young woman, and seriously, I almost tossed the book back in the BooksFree bag and sent it back unread. Yet I knew this book was supposed to be so highly rated that I had to at least try to finish it. I do have to say, if rape scenes are not your thing, you won’t get past page 25 of this book.

The heroine, Diana Lindsay, is a calm and collected country mother, raising her son with another woman, Edith, when they come upon a woman, Madeline, sick and dying in the snow. The miracle of country living cures her, and slowly she reveals that she is a courtesan who fled London after falling in love with her protector. Diana, whose past, including how she came to be living as a single mother in the countryside, remains a complete mystery, asks Madeline to teach her to be a courtesan, knowing on some personally metaphysical level that This Is Her Destiny.

When she arrives at her first Cyprian’s ball, Diana sees the hero, Gervase, Lord St. Aubyn, across the room, and they immediately begin a long, hot and sweaty affair born out of mutual white hot attraction. I don’t think I can reveal much more than that without spoiling the book, but the questions of St. Aubyn’s rape of a young woman, the father of Diana’s son, how Diana came to live on her own in the country, and why on earth she thought being a ho was her destiny are revealed as the book progresses.

It seems to me that Putney takes too many conventions of romance, such as the virginal heroine or the tortured hero, turns them over, then shuffles them together to make you think it’s original. To me, Dearly Beloved reads like a runaway train. I want to stage an intervention with the characters:

Lookee here, Hero: Shut up, listen, and get the hell over yourself.

And you, too, Heroine: You are not perfect. Do something stupid, fart, burp, get mad, raise your voice, get mad in the face of the hero being an assmonkey. But for GOD’S sake quit realizing you’ll regret not speaking up. Fool.

The problem is, subverted conventions are great- but only if they actually develop as characters, and don’t spin their wheels in the mud of their own habits. The hero says he’s realized his emotional paralysis, then goes right back to the same behavior of distrust and accusations. He constantly doubts the heroine without her giving reason to do so, and then excuses his own conduct when those same accusations lead to her to do something he doesn’t like. It’s all her fault – everything, her fault. His emotional wounds: the fault of women, and she’s a woman so lay that at her doorstep. His inability to love and be loved? Caused by his upbringing, and one of his parents was a woman, so see above. This would be bearable if she stood up every once in awhile and told him he was being an asshat, but she just takes it, and remains serene in the face of his derision and nastiness. Only at the very end does she lose her shit with him, and as the reader, I was all, “Thank GOD.” Remaining calm to try to throw off balance someone who is angry can be effective, but after awhile her behavior started to come across to me as manipulative.

Neither of them is a prize, if you ask me. Usually I can read to the end of a novel based on my interest in one of the two protagonists, if the other is something of a butt. But in this case I was disinterested in both of them equally, and repulsed by the end, even. The hero’s temper and the heroine’s serenity just get old after awhile. And no one is that perfect all the freaking time.

Case in point, the following conversation between the hero’s brother, who is confiding in the heroine while the hero is off risking life and limb on some mission.

Heroine: “Why did you choose to talk to me? You hardly know me.”

Hero’s brother: “Because it is a convenient plot device!”

Just kidding.

Hero’s brother: “…you remind me of a Madonna, all warmth and understanding.”

And that is pretty much all you need to know about the heroine. As I said, I’m a sucker for stories in which the hero is rescued from emotional torment by the love and guidance of a caring partner. But I also demand that the heroine realize something about herself, as well. She also must learn, or grow, or change, or develop in a traceable fashion that makes her character worth knowing for 350+ pages.

In “Dearly Beloved,” the hero progresses from someone I would dearly love to bean with a tire iron to someone who I’d dearly love to smack around with a frozen salmon. The heroine starts irritating and ends irritating. And the course of the story is angsty and repetitive, and irritating as all get out. There’s no end to the unpleasant subject matter, and any taboos or things that might potentially make you go squick are probably in the plotline somewhere.

I realize that there is a loving following behind this book of readers who adored it, so I am hesitant to throw my own review in their faces, but I have to say, I did not enjoy this book. Too much angst, too much drama, to much anger, and no resolution that effectively and sufficiently diffused all that negativity. It’s one thing for the hero to be a butthead and then say, “I’m sorry.” It’s another entirely for the hero to spend an entire novel being a butthead and then have him deliver words of purple-flowered love and adoration at the end. The latter scenario does not entirely relieve the bitter taste in my mouth.

However, this won’t turn me off of Putney forever. I’m moving on to Angel Rogue, which my partner in crime Candy assures me is a wonderful novel.

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