Joe Denton ventured west to the Washington Territory more than a decade ago leaving behind his home state of Maine and a new bride. The government was offering grants of 640 acres of free timberland to any married man, and once Joe set foot in the Territory, he knew he wanted to stay. After creating the beginnings of a logging company, Joe sent for his wife, but he received word that she had passed away before she was able to come. Now Joe's claim is being challenged by a man who wants to take half of the successful business that Joe has worked so long and hard to build, and if he cannot produce either proof that he was married at the time the claim was made or a new wife, he stands to loose his livelihood. The records of the death of Joe's wife were destroyed in a fire, and single women are almost non-existent in Washington. Joe is in quite a predicament until prominent townsman Asa Mercer, offers to travel to the East coast and bring back a shipload of eligible brides for the men of the Territory. Joe reluctantly pays the fee Asa is requesting to secure him a bride, and then waits patiently for months for his return.
Anna Ivey lost her entire family to the Civil War, and has been scraping by on her own ever since. When she reads Asa Mercer's ad in the newspaper, guaranteeing jobs as domestic help to any lady willing to travel to Washington, she sees it as an opportunity to start over. Anna is an excellent cook, and Asa promises her job placement, upon her arrival, with a man who needs a cook. After an arduous journey, Anna's ship docks in Seattle, where she soon discovers that instead of this man she had never met merely being her employer, she was intended to be his bride. Although Joe is handsome and seems kind, Anna has no intention of ever marrying because of the guilt she feels over her family member's deaths. Without Anna's cooperation, Joe still stands to loose his land in a matter of weeks, so he hires her as his cook anyway, and sets about trying to covertly convince her that they would be a good match. Somewhere along the way, they both fall for each other, but Joe is keeping a secret. When Anna finds out the truth it may cause Joe to loose not only his land, but also the woman he has come to love.
I received an ARC copy of A Bride in the Bargain from the LibraryThing early reviewers program. It contains a plot device I usually enjoy, that of the mail-order bride, except with the twist that the bride doesn't know that she's bound for the altar. Once she finds out, of course she's none too happy about it, leaving her groom in the lurch, with seemingly no viable way to save half of his land grant that he has poured hard work into for more than a decade. A Bride in the Bargain sounded like a really fascinating story, and based on the synopsis, I thought I would thoroughly enjoy it. While there were some things that I did like about it, there were several other things that I did not.
For the second time in a row now, I've read a story that has multiple plot lines, none of which were explored quite to my satisfaction. The primary plot which I outlined above was my favorite and the most interesting, but there were at least three other secondary plots as well. First, Anna is adamantly against marriage, because she feels that she was responsible for the deaths of her entire family (father, mother, and younger brother), and doesn't believe that she is capable of handling the responsibilities of a wife without causing bad things to happen to anyone she loves. I've read similar story lines in which a hero or heroine has survivor's guilt, but in this case there were a lot of things about it that seemed rather forced. Anna claims that before her father left to fight in the Civil War, they were a happy family, but the mere act of her father enlisting and going away seemed to cause the family to disintegrate. Mom fell into some sort of clinical depression; Anna and her brother started fighting with each other (even physically); somewhere along the line Dad started sending nasty letters telling Anna that she and her brother's arguing brought the rebel bullets closer to him and that God would protect him if they would just get along (this part of the story made me extremely angry); then little brother runs off to join the war too after a particularly bad fight with Anna, which leads to Mom saying some horrible things to her as well. I realize that a husband and father going off to war can be exceedingly stressful, but there are plenty of families who manage without falling to pieces like this. I just had a hard time believing that they were a strong, happy family to begin with. On the contrary, they seemed pretty dysfunctional to me. The other thing that bothered me about this part of the story is that Anna was obviously quite wounded by all of these things, but then later has an instant epiphany after the town doctor counsels her for just a few minutes. This was something that was not believable to me at all. I know it's rather cliché and an often overused plot, but I think this whole story line would have been better is Anna had simply been afraid to love Joe because of loosing everyone she had ever loved. Instead the plot itself was overly convoluted and the denouement over-simplified, in my opinion.
Another plotline involved Joe needing to convince Anna that he wanted to marry her, because he had fallen in love with her and not just because he wanted to save his land. I think this part could have been very romantic, but it seemed to me that the author made Joe into one of those clueless alphas who barely has a romantic bone in his body. Strangely, he did a decent job of being somewhat romantic while Anna was staying at his house as a cook for the logging camp, and I even liked their picnic on the huge tree stump. Later though, that all changed for me. I guess he managed a few gestures during the actual courting phase that some readers may find romantic (Anna certainly did), but they didn't do a whole lot for me, at least not as written. Another thing that bothered me about Joe was his intense love of the land. I understand how the land gets into the blood of the men who work it especially back in the days when so much of the country was undeveloped, but Joe just seemed to love it almost to the exclusion of anyone or anything else. Even near the end of the book when Joe has to make a choice between Anna and the land, he still briefly waffles. I appreciated Joe's hardworking nature and ambition that made it possible for him to build a successful logging outfit from the ground up, and I can understand how it would be a difficult choice to leave all that. Still, I really prefer my heroes to be so utterly in love with the heroine that she, without a doubt, always comes first and absolutely nothing will ever stand in the way of their love. I think the final plot twist in the book, which then twisted on itself again, was intended to show Joe's commitment to Anna, but if Joe had been made into a more romantic hero in the first place, I don't think that part would have even been necessary. A man can certainly wear his heart on his sleeve when it comes to his woman without jeopardizing his manhood (I've seen it done numerous times in other novels), but from what I could tell that didn't seem to be something Joe was capable of.
For the most part, I liked the characters in the story, but I felt that the characterizations were pretty uneven. I've already discussed Joe quite a bit, and although he could have his more tender, gentle moments, they just weren't frequent enough or long enough to suit me. It's not that I disliked him, but he probably would be the type of guy who would drive me batty in real life. I admired Anna as a strong young woman who had lived through the deaths of her family members with dignity and had managed to eke out a meager living for herself. Most of the time she seemed like a very gentle, kind person, but her occasional spates of temper, especially in the flashback with her brother, made her seem rather shrewish. What in other heroines I have found to be an endearing spitfire quality, I think came off rather badly in Anna, because she was always arguing with someone she loved instead of defending herself against a villain or bucking the system like most spitfire heroines would be doing. In fact, almost all the characters had some temper issues. Joe sent some of Anna's seashells sailing across the room and then foolishly chopped down a tree in the dark in a fit of anger, the lumberjacks often smacked each other around and brutishly threatened to "talk with their hands," and Joe's best friend, Red, kicked a hole in the side of the barn when he got upset. Even Red was contradictory, because he initially was encouraging Joe to woo Anna in every way he could think of, but then when it seemed that Joe would have to give up everything for her, Red did an about face and essentially said she wasn't worth it. All in all, I think I would have enjoyed these characters quite a bit if I had just been able to get a better lock on their personalities. As it was written, I felt like they were all over the place, and I was being constantly jerked back and forth between liking them and not being very certain about their motives.
A Bride in the Bargain had several plot cliches that I'm not particularly fond of too. Joe ended up keeping a secret from Anna, but I thought his reasons for it were pretty weak. Of course, when the secret comes out, it leads to "the big misunderstanding" and then a lack of communication about their feelings for one another only compounds it all. Another thing that I thought the author could have done a much better job with is the descriptive details. I truly felt that this story had a lot of potential and in spite of my other issues with it, could have been great if there had just been more richness in the details. The first thing that comes to mind is that I would have liked to know more about what the lead characters were feeling for each other. Instead their feelings seemed rather stunted at times, and in my opinion, the author was doing more telling than showing. Also, I found their dialog was sometimes stilted, with them seeming to say only what was necessary, rather than their words having the more poetic quality of many other romances I've read. Finally, even though the setting was the beautiful, majestic forests of Washington Territory against the gorgeous backdrop of Mt. Ranier, I just couldn't seem to picture all of it in my mind's eye, because there simply wasn't enough detail. I have read other books that were set in the same area of Washington, and the depictions were so vivid, I felt like I was in the heart of the forest and could almost smell the pine. Sadly, this was not so with A Bride in the Bargain. I will definitely give Ms. Gist credit for the one thing I thought she did describe fairly well, and that was how a lumberjack went about his work of felling trees. I found this to be pretty interesting and different, since I haven't really read any other lumberjack heroes. I also thought that for an inspirational romance, there was a surprising amount of sexual tension (which of course was only consummated off canvas), but with the story lacking that all-important emotional connection, I certainly wouldn't go so far as to call it sensual. Additionally, in my opinion, the religious content was fairly low-key and non-preachy, so except for readers who are seriously averse to any religious depictions at all, I would say that almost anyone, including those who aren't typically readers of inspirationals, could potentially enjoy this story.
I realize I've spent a large part of my review criticizing this book, and I always dislike it when I have to do that. I go into reading every book with a desire to not just like it, but to come away from reading it, thinking that it was fabulous. Unfortunately, A Bride in the Bargain fell short of that mark. I can say that it moved along at a fairly quick pace and kept me reading. Even though I had several frustrations with the book, I was never bored with it, which is always a positive. I also liked that the author interjected a bit of the real history of Seattle into the story, as well as a couple of real personages as characters. I'm sure there are many romance readers who will find A Bride in the Bargain to be a worthwhile read, and in spite of my criticisms, I actually did too. It's simply that I thought it could have been so much more than just worthwhile. Ultimately, I think that seeing so much potential in the story, but not having it live up to that potential, is what made me so frustrated with it. Since this was my first read by Deeanne Gist, I can't say if the issues I had with the book are inherent in her writing style or if it was a peculiarity of this particular book, but as I have another of her books on my TBR pile, I will likely be giving her another chance to wow me in the future.
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