Review: A Widow’s Guide to Scandal by Hallie Alexander (2020)

Sons of Neptune, Book 1

Heat Factor: Sometimes you gotta bang on the kitchen floor

Character Chemistry: They are really mean to each other, but they seem to like it

Plot: Marcus breaks his ankle fixing Henrietta’s roof, and is stuck in her house while he heals. Plus there’s some light espionage action. 

Overall: I had some problems with the writing style

Henrietta is in a tough spot. She’s a widow, but her late husband’s terrible uncle owns her home and holds the threat of eviction over her head whenever she thinks about stepping out of line. Her roof leaks. She has been manipulated into encoding messages for the British and quartering a sadistic British Sergeant. And her childhood crush is currently sleeping in her attic with a broken leg and a bottle of brandy. She may not deal with all of this nonsense with grace and aplomb, but Henrietta manages. 

Marcus, said childhood crush with the broken leg, seems to be one of those guys who leads a charmed life. I’m not saying he hasn’t struggled or doesn’t work hard, but he’s pretty happy-go-lucky and secure in himself. When he sees Henrietta for the first time in ten years, he doesn’t miss a beat before calling her by her childhood nickname and starting to tease her. He’s that guy. 

I thought Henrietta was a great character. She is definitely in need of counseling, but it’s the 18th century, so I’ll let that slide here. I thought her struggles with her terrible uncle-by-marriage were especially well done; it’s clear that she feels really trapped by her circumstances and doesn’t have a lot of options for resistance, but does what she can to maintain her integrity. 

I was less sold on Marcus for two reasons. First, he teases Henrietta a lot, and it seems like she doesn’t really like it, but maybe kind of does? I don’t know, sometimes their dynamic made me uncomfortable, because he would tease her in moments when it was clear that she just wasn’t in the mood. Second, he has a lot of angst about not being a worthy partner, and I was like, but why? 

This second problem is, I think, a direct result of the writing style, which was often opaque. Sometimes crucial bits of information were left out, to the extent that I didn’t always understand what was actually happening. And sometimes the opacity seemed like a literary device, but it meant that the author missed some opportunities to develop emotional tension between the characters. Since the writing style was, in my opinion, the biggest shortcoming of this book, I’ll give some examples. 

Example the First: In which Marcus reveals to Henrietta that he can’t read. 

She speared him a look and rose from the cot. “How about this passage?” She read on, beginning to pace. “You would destroy this?”

He shifted his attention to Shrupp’s haversack, away from her. The soldier’s things were laid out with military precision. A pile of shirts, a stack of breeches, a line of rolled-up smalls. Anything than to look at Henrietta Smith, the smartest girl he knew. He could sweep away all thoughts, and yet it would do nothing to hide the truth from her. 

He turned to her then and allowed himself to be revealed. Maybe because she shared her daughter with him. Or because he liked her. He liked most people, and yet most people had no idea. He wore the veil of privilege against a society that would rebuke him if they knew the truth. 

“Oh.”It was a soft sound, a small sound, heavy with meaning. “Oh, Marcus.”

The first time I read this passage, I was like, oh there’s some flowery nonsense, blah blah blah, WAIT A MINUTE. And I assumed that Marcus explained things to Henrietta, but that the author didn’t want to include all of that detail again because the reader already had the information. It is only on rereading this passage that it occurs to me that maybe Marcus “allowed himself to be revealed” by gazing soulfully at Henrietta and not saying anything at all. 

Either way, the fact that I was unclear of the actual mechanics of how Henrietta learned of Marcus’ illiteracy is a problem. I talked to Erin and Ingrid about it to try to put my finger on why this passage was such an issue for me, and they very intelligently pointed out two things. First, when we read romance, we’re looking for emotional vulnerability – but that we want the actual plot to be clearly defined so that we have the safe space to feel and explore that vulnerability. And second, that because this passage is unclear about what is happening, the emotional resonance of the connection being built between Henrietta and Marcus falls flat. 

Example the second: Apparently Marcus is estranged from his family?

I learned about said estrangement when skimming through the discussion questions at the back of the book. Question 7 includes the nugget of information that Marcus has “nothing to do with” his family. And I was like, Whaaaaaaaaaat? There are hints that he had an unhappy childhood – there is a reference to a beating, for example – but no discussion of a definitive split. His siblings aren’t characters, but I assumed that was more about literal distance or their unimportance to this particular plot rather than estrangement. 

The fact that I learned a crucial fact about Marcus – a fact which, furthermore, may have done some work in helping me buy his inferiority complex – in the additional materials at the end of the book is indicative of the gaps in information throughout the book. 

I am willing to read books where things aren’t always clear. Sometimes this is a literary style that works. Just not (for me) in romances. 

I voluntarily read and reviewed a complimentary copy of this book. All thoughts and opinions are my own. We disclose this in accordance with 16 CFR §255.

Buy Now: Amazon

Looking for something similar?

Reconnecting with my childhood crush

I’ve got the Hamilton bug! Give me all the Revolutionary War romances!

Carpenters and other men who fix things

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s