RITA Reader Challenge Review

RITA Reader Challenge: A Marriage Worth Fighting For by Lilian Darcy

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Title: A Marriage Worth Fighting For
Author: Lilian Darcy
Publication Info: Harlequin 2012
ISBN: 9780373656820
Genre: Contemporary Romance

Book A Marriage Worth Fighting For This RITA® Reader Challenge 2013 review was written by Robin. This story was nominated for the RITA® in the Short Contemporary Series Romance category.

The summary:     

I DO…AGAIN? When Alicia McKinley agreed to a whirlwind Las Vegas wedding, she'd been swept away by the sheer romance of it all. How could she not say “I do” to Michael James McKinley, the gorgeous doctor who offered her everything she'd ever dreamed of?

Still, after years of coming in second to MJ's career, it was time to say “I don't” to the workaholic husband who took her totally for granted. But MJ is not a man who gives up without a fight.

He and Alicia might not have a perfect marriage, but now that he knows what is on the line, he is determined to risk everything-including his heart-for a second chance with his wife!

And here is Robin's review:

As a fan of both category Romance and the marriage and trouble trope, I was really looking forward to reading Lilian Darcy’s A Marriage Worth Fighting For. Having never read any of Darcy’s books, I did not know what to expect, and after finishing the book, I’m still not completely sure how to process the story, in large part because it felt less like a novel and more like an ongoing therapy session for a troubled couple.

The couple in question–Alica and Dr. MJ (Michael James) McKinley–have been married seven years, have two small children (a boy and a girl), and what appears to be a picture-perfect life. Married in Vegas on a whim, both have approached their relationship much like a business partnership, with MJ the designated earner and Alicia the socially and philanthropically active wife and SAHM (with a nanny, of course). At no point during their marriage, however, have either Alicia or MJ ever said, “I love you.” This does not seem to bother MJ, at least not until he arrives home one night, following a long day of orthopedic surgeries, to find an empty New York apartment and a note from Alicia, announcing her lack of faith in the relationship and the news that she had taken their two kids to Vermont (MJ’s brother lives there, and I assume readers of the McKinley Medic series would quickly understand the significance of all this better than I did). Not only did MJ never see it coming, but he also didn’t seem to think it could ever happen, giving the reader a quick understanding of how grave the trouble in this marriage is.

MJ and Alicia each had clear reasons for wanting to be with the other. Alicia was a beautiful young woman who was living in almost overwhelming poverty (cue eye roll at tired genre cliché), while MJ loved the feeling he got being with such a lovely, socially enviable woman. The book initially flashes back and forth between MJ and Alicia’s courtship and their break-up. It is an interesting strategy that allows us to see clearly that the very thing that brought these two together is now (a seven-year itch?) busting them apart, because the lack of an overt emotional commitment (“I love you”) has given the marriage a habituated emptiness that Alicia, as the stay-at-home parent who hardly ever sees her husband, is no longer willing to endure.

MJ, by contrast, does not want a divorce, and he rushes up to Vermont to confront Alicia and try to talk her out of leaving him:

She never fought him. On anything. It drove him crazy sometimes. He wanted to tell her, “I’m not asking for that from you. I don’t need such perfect agreement and acquiescence with everything I say and everything I want. That’s not why I married you. You are allowed to be a person, Alicia. An independent person, not just my wife. Your total obedience was never part of the bargain.”

So why didn’t he say it?

Standing here right now, in the hallway of the rental apartment attached to his younger brother’s house, looking at his beautiful blonde wife, the question reared up at him like a snake and made him paralyzed.

Why didn’t he ever say it?

Because he was scared, he realized. He was bloody terrified that if he pulled their marital bargain out into the bright light of day— or rather the bright light of words— the things they said to each other would shatter any possibility of keeping the life they had.

The life he wanted.

Really, MJ?

Hell, yes, he wanted what he had! Stellar career, beautiful, capable wife, happy children, well-organized home life.

I really enjoyed the context in which Alicia and MJ’s relationship was conceptualized. She has everything in material terms, including a nanny, which she feels somewhat guilty for but also somewhat overwhelmed by the task of taking care of her two kids on a daily basis. He has an incredibly successful career that truly fulfills him, and a family that he takes for granted in behavior but values in the somewhat abstract way of a man used to being able to count on getting what he needs out of life. And although the dissatisfaction hits Alicia first, it is quickly evident that neither she nor MJ has really been satisfied in the marriage in any deep, bonded way. It is also clear that both truly love each other but have been afraid the feeling was not returned, thus keeping both of them from breaking the terms of the “partnership” (they both actually use this term to describe their marriage). Still, it is clear that each wants more, because each feels more, and whatever the circumstances that brought them together, there were substantive, persuasive reasons they should stay that way.

In many ways, this is a very interesting and promising set-up. Although both Alicia and MJ have failed each other in various ways, neither is a villain. MJ has been too preoccupied with work and inattentive to the way the family functions at home in his absence. Alicia has been a wonderful mother and an organized manager of their home life, but she has allowed her resentment to grow without putting herself out there emotionally to make it better. So she ended up “faking”  a lot of things in their shared life. And because we get the story from both sides, so to speak, it is not difficult to understand and sympathize with both MJ and Alicia.

However, in the same way the relationship suffered from a lack of passionate engagement, so, for me, did the book. MJ and Alicia talk about (and thought about) their anger, frustration, fear, and detachment, but it hardly ever (if ever) breaks through the almost unbearably reasonable tone of the narrative, a tone that felt more like that of an impartial observer than a steward of two very unhappy and discontent people. Take this passage, for example:

The trouble with being married for seven years and having two kids together was that it all got so complicated. You could find evidence in their shared past for anything you wanted. That their marriage was doomed from the beginning. That they had a great partnership. That they’d married each other for the worst reasons. And for the best.

This is supposed to be from MJ’s POV, but he uses that odd phrase “their shared past” when talking about his own marriage, instead of the more personal, intimate “our.” At first, I was frustrated by MJ’s reasonable approach to the problems between him and Alicia, although I quickly realized that this was indicative of his personality – he approaches everything as a problem to be solved. Still, there were many moments in the text where I was being told he was afraid, or, perhaps for the first time in his life, cluing in to the intensity of his own emotions, and yet I still felt like I was getting that from a distance, and not from a place of emotional urgency.

And because this is a Romance, and the reunion a foregone conclusion, I needed to feel that sense of urgency, that sense of ‘what if these two can’t work it out?’ – if only for the crucial moment where, instead of suspending disbelief, I could suspend belief in the inevitable happy ending and suffer along with Alicia and MJ (and their children). Precisely because so much was talked out and worked through in the novel – and I did appreciate that they did not work things out in a straight line, because so much about relationships is circling around the same issues over and over and over and over – it suffered even more from that sense of distancing, because there was little beyond the refreshing honesty of the two to engage me in the story. As it was, I had to resist the urge to skim, because I knew I was going to review it, and I felt I owed it to the book to read it all.

So would I recommend this book? I assume it would be an essential read to fans of the McKinley Medic series, and perhaps for fans of Darcy’s books in general. But for me, it turned out to be an uninspiring read, despite the rich and appealing premise.


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  1. 1

    I know this is fiction, and I know that motherhood hits everyone differently, and I know that some mothers really do have trouble coping, but as a single mother of five kids I could never sympathise with a woman who ‘feels overwhelmed’ looking after two kids on a daily basis – with a nanny!

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