Gillian Marley has just discovered that her uncle in America has died, leaving her the sole heir to his entire, very sizable fortune. The only catch is that she must be married by her thirtieth birthday, which is only two months away. Gillian is a widow who loved her first husband dearly and was devastated when he died. She hasn't been interested in any other man since her husband's passing, but she longs for the independence the inheritance would afford her. With the help of her two male best friends, she puts together a list of potential husbands. She wants someone who is biddable enough to accept a marriage in name only, as well as just desperate enough for money that he will go along with her proposal of splitting the inheritance. He should also be not too old and pleasant enough to look at. The only name on the list who comes close to meeting her requirements is Richard Shelton, Earl of Shelbrooke.
Richard's father was a profligate gambler, who frittered away most of their family fortune. He died, leaving Richard a manor house in disrepair along with four sisters and an elderly aunt to support. Before his father's death, Richard had been heading down the same rakish road, but since then, he's turned over a new leaf, taking full responsibility for rebuilding the title and caring for his family's needs. Unfortunately, he couldn't do that without a steady income. Having a love and talent for painting, he took on the secret guise of Etienne-Louis Toussaint, a French artist whose work is now lauded by many, including Gillian. When he is invited to one of her famous salons, he is rather taken by the pretty widow. When she makes her surprise proposal of marriage, he knows it could be a boon for him and his family, but he refuses to accept unless she agrees to share his bed. Gillian isn't certain if she can comply with Richard's wishes, so he decides to attempt a seduction as Toussaint. Soon he finds his plans backfiring horribly, as the lady begins to fall for both him and his alter-ego. The only way to extricate himself from the mess he's made is to tell her the truth. But what would she think of an Earl earning a living as an artist?
Like it's predecessor in the Effington Family & Friends series, The Husband List is a light-hearted Regency romance. It didn't tickle my funny bone quite as well, but it did have it's moments. It basically takes place concurrently with the first book of the series, with the same family gathering for the Roxborough Ride coming into play. In this one, we have Gillian, cousin to Pandora from the previous book, who is a widow. She loved her husband dearly and hasn't been with any man since his death. She finds herself named heiress to a large fortune, but it comes with the condition that she must marry before her thirtieth birthday. In order to claim it, she enlists the help of her two best guy friends to make a list of potential husbands. The only one who appeals and seems suitable is Richard, Earl of Shelbrooke. His father frittered away all their money at the gaming tables, so ever since the man died, Richard has been struggling to get by. His family estate is in disrepair and he has four younger sisters to clothe, feed, and come up with dowries for. Gillian wants a marriage in name only, planning to split the inheritance with her groom to be, but when Gillian proposes to Richard, he surprises her by saying that he'll only go along with it if she agrees to share his bed. From there much back and forth ensues as she tries to figure out whether she can comply with his terms. Also unbeknownst to her, he's living a double life as a reclusive French artist to pay the bills and fears what she might think if she discovers the truth.
I would say that for the most part I liked Richard, although he did a couple of things that kind of irritated me. I admired him for wanting more from Gillian than a marriage in name only. Even though he was pretty desperate for money, I felt like that showed from the start that he was genuinely interested in her and not just the inheritance. I also like that he was willing to seduce Gillian to convince her it would work between them. However, using his French artist alter ego in an attempt to accomplish that seemed like a poorly thought out plan right from the beginning. It simply didn't make much sense from a logical standpoint and my assessment was born out in spades as the ruse continued. The other thing that I greatly admired about Richard is that he could have taken the easy road by selling his sisters out, when his father died. After all, he already had a reputation close to matching his father's and his father had already arranged a betrothal of the oldest sister to a man old enough to be her grandfather. Instead though, Richard was willing to do whatever it took, including manual labor, to take care of his sisters and keep the manor house from falling down around their ears, as well as to see them married to suitable matches. However, on the downside, I didn't really care much for Richard's high-handed, chauvinistic manner toward female artists. In this way, he did follow in his father's footsteps by refusing to even entertain the notion of his oldest sister becoming a serious artist, simply because she was a woman. Now granted that may have been how things were back then and he could simply be said to be a product of the times, but as someone who also wouldn't have been taken seriously if his true identity was known, I felt like he should have had more empathy. So, overall, I'd say that Richard definitely had his good points, but he also had a few not so good points too.
IMHO, Gillian's characterization was somewhat underdeveloped. We know that she's a widow who loved her husband and hasn't really been interested in any other men since is death. We also know that her two best friends are male, but they're only friends, childhood acquaintances of both Gillian and her husband. She's a lover of the arts, who enjoys throwing salon parties to promote art and artists. The one thing I really liked about Gillian is that she prefers deep conversation to inane chit-chat, and for that reason, she engineers her salons to encourage this type of discussion. However, it's little more than a mention, and we don't really get to see this side of her in action much. I can't recall any particularly deep discussions she had with anyone, except maybe one with Richard's sister, Emma, about how the work of a certain painter really called out to her when she was in the depths of despair, following the death of her husband. Other than that, her conversation pretty much seemed the opposite of what she purportedly preferred, just light-hearted banalities. Gillian was also a creature who didn't seem to know her own mind to a near frustrating degree, although I suppose the same could be said of Richard. I did like her innovative idea of helping female artists by giving them a place to practice their craft and helping them make a name for themselves. I also liked that she was smart enough to figure out Richard's secret identity and the way she got back at him was pretty cute, although I felt maybe she took the ruse a bit too far. In general, Gillian was sweet and likable, but I felt like there were opportunities to build her character a little more fully that weren't realized.
One of the main reasons I marked this book down one and a half stars is that I felt the connection between Richard and Gillian was rather shaky most of the time. His masquerade as the French painter muddied the waters quite a bit, because it only served to confuse Gillian when she experienced feelings for both men. What really bothered me though, is that neither character even knows their own mind. Them constantly questioning their own feelings or how the other person feels or what their actions might mean diluted their connection. It made me feel like their emotions weren't strong enough to know anything for certain until very late in the story. Not to mention, the roundabout reasoning which passes for most of the conflict in the story seemed rather forced and overblown. It was just flat-out confusing to me most of the time and made my head hurt. The secrets, game playing, uncertainties, and inability to face or admit their feelings for one another drug on a little too long, also dampening that all-important emotional connection.
From a technical standpoint, I found a few additional issues. First of all, Gillian's proposed inheritance of 600,000 pounds, plus land in America, plus a fleet of eight ships (more or less - ugh! I could have played a drinking game with that phrase.;-)) seemed like overkill for the Regency era. The money alone would be worth more than 20 million dollars in today's economy, and while it's not outside the realm of possibility for someone to be that wealthy back then, it did seem a bit unbelievable, especially for a male relative to leave that much to a woman, particularly one he barely knew. The author does give a brief explanation for this, but I felt like it was a rather weak one. If the author had left out the land and ships and made the amount more reasonable, perhaps $50,000 pounds, which still would have been a veritable fortune and more than enough for them to live on comfortably and still have plenty left over for charitable causes, especially if invested wisely, then this part of the story would have been more palatable for me. Outside of that, the story seemed a little dialogue heavy at times. As I demonstrated above, the author uses some repetition and some rather meandering discussions that I think were meant to be funny and/or cute, but mostly just annoyed me. However, nothing grated more than the plethora of questions these two constantly ask themselves in their introspections regarding their doubts, fears, insecurities, and simply what's going on in the other person's head. For the most part, it boiled down to passive narration (telling), when it would have been much more effective to "show" their emotions in a more active way.
Overall, The Husband List was a readable enough book that wasn't a chore to finish. I mostly liked the characters, and it had some cute and sweet moments. However, I felt the narrative and the emotional connection were both sufficiently bogged down by all the questioning of feelings, as to take something away from the story, while also making me do a lot of eye-rolling. Therefore, it didn't quite make it over the hump to reach that four-star mark for me. I still plan to continue on with the series though. Richard's sisters were pretty adorable, and two of them, Marianne and Jocelyn, become the heroines of the next two books in the series. Marianne is a bookish sort and Jocelyn dreams of a Cinderella-style romance, both things that I can relate to, so that appeals. Also Gillian's brother and Richard's best friend, Thomas, who was a fairly likable guy as well, is paired with Marianne in the next book, The Marriage Lesson. I think these two could make an interesting pairing, so I look forward to giving their book a try.
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