B-

A Beastly Kind of Earl

by Mia Vincy
November 26, 2019 · Inner Ballad Press
Historical: EuropeanRomance

This is a joint review by Aarya and Claudia. Sometimes reviews here are in the form of a dialogue, and sometimes they are rather longform; this one is both, and we hope you enjoy our discussion.

CW/TW warnings inside

CW/TW: discussion of deceased character with bipolar I disorder and psychosis (specific terminology is not named in text but explained in the author’s note)

Claudia: I have a confession to make: I was today years old when I discovered what is really my favorite romance trope.

Oh, for years I was pretty sure it was marriage-of-convenience. For me, a reader of (mainly) historical romance, it gets the job done with minimal fuss and maximum enjoyment. Lately, though, some of the marriage-of-convenience books I was reading had started to look a lot alike, and I could feel my enthusiasm for the trope ebbing.

Enter my new thing, the fake marriage of convenience. Call it a variant: All that on-page interaction, with an added layer of shenanigans. And I have A Beastly Kind of Earl to thank for that realization — for that and for breathing new life into a trope that, in truth, remains my favorite.

Aarya: I’m not sure what my #1 favorite trope is, but marriage-of-convenience is definitely up there. If you think about it, marriage-of-convenience is related to forced proximity. You have two people who aren’t in love with each other, but need to get married for Urgent Reasons (finances, status, parental dictates, etc). They’re usually living in the same house and can’t avoid each other (and not for lack of trying!).

While A Beastly Kind of Earl puts a new spin on faking, there are inherent aspects of deception in the trope already. Sometimes they have to lie to society and pretend that it’s a love match. Sometimes one of them is keeping a large secret from the other. Lying is usually present, but I agree that it’s an entirely new execution in this book. I was really, really surprised at how well the lying worked here. I don’t love deception books where they’re keeping secrets from each other.

Claudia: I think it worked here because it was not unilateral, and it injected some humor at the start of what could have been an overly dramatic situation.

Aarya: Plus, they both feel guilty! It’s hard to stay mad when both parties feel shitty about their deception. It’s a balancing act.

Claudia, do you want to summarize the premise before we start our discussion?

Claudia: Yes, let’s get that out of the way: Dorothea (Thea) and Rafe entered an invalid marriage of convenience, because it’s Thea’s sister’s name on the license. Thea thinks Rafe doesn’t know about that little detail, but he has her number.

Rafe is an earl, but he needs a cash infusion to launch a business that involves his passion for botany. If he marries, he can access funds left by his late mother. Rafe is a reclusive widower (the strings-attached inheritance came about after his wife died), and he most definitely does not need or want a second wife. A fake marriage, supposed to last a few days or a few weeks at the most, suits him just fine.

The arrangement suits Thea, too, because in truth she’s helping her sister elope. Thea is a bit in limbo as the book begins. A few years back, two rich young men spread malicious rumors about her, and she became an outcast. She has hatched a revenge plan, though, and needs to lie low for a brief period of time.

This is a somewhat convoluted setup that I didn’t mind one bit because it was so deftly done. Besides, if historical romance taught me anything it’s that the past seems to be teeming with moneyed, scheming relatives intent on promoting marriage at all costs. Here, the stakes are not as high as tying yourself forever to a charming stranger, so it worked better for me and it could work better as well for those readers who are not big fans of marriage-of-convenience stories.

Aarya: It also worked because it wasn’t permanent. Since it couldn’t be a real marriage due to the wrong name in the license, I had no worries that Rafe planned to force Thea into staying with him forever.

I talked about the balance of deception earlier, but I do think the power is still on Rafe’s side. Thea thinks that she’s lying to Rafe about her identity. Rafe knows about Thea’s deception and has his own deception (which he concocted before he even met her!). Thea doesn’t know about Rafe’s deception.

Basically, we have an asymmetry of information. They’re both lying, but Rafe knows more than Thea here. Normally this wouldn’t make me feel great as a reader, but I was won over after Rafe talks to Thea’s dad and makes arrangements to procure her dowry (Rafe plans to give Thea the money once this fake marriage is over). This is yet another layer of deception, but Rafe goes out of his way to make sure Thea will financially benefit from the farce. All these things make Rafe’s position of power palatable.

Claudia: Yes, it definitely did.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about the other trope elements in the book: There’s a bit of a Beauty and the Beast aspect, as Rafe is the eponymous beastly earl not just because he’s a total curmudgeon (he most definitely is that). He was mauled by a jaguar in one of his botany exploits overseas and has a badly scarred face. There are also some Gothic elements, including the description of Rafe’s wife’s descent into madness.

Thea is Little Miss Sunshine, but thankfully I didn’t feel she came across as a walking bubbly annoyance.

Aarya: Talk about a Slytherin/Hufflepuff pairing. I could read it a million times in a row and never tire of it.

Claudia: Rafe is your typical introvert, of course, and people generally drain him; Thea is energized by people. Despite the differences, though, I felt they were well suited to each other because in the end they just wanted the same things from life: to find companionship, love, and to be heard.

Aarya: I’d agree with that, but let’s not forget how terribly Thea has been treated by the people in her life. She’s an extrovert who’s been forced into seclusion because of horrible lies and rumors. She yearns for companionship and sees a kindred spirit in Rafe. They’re both outcasts from society and false rumors have ruined their lives.

Claudia: Yes, absolutely, they were both outcasts in a way. I really felt for Thea and her quest to be heard, to be seen as her own person rather than a pawn of her family’s ambitions or as a plaything for certain men in her past.

Aarya: Ohhh. Claudia, is this when we can talk about the Tavern Scene?

Claudia: Oh my god, that scene.

Aarya: RIGHT?!

Claudia: Thea tells the story of her being cast off in such a novel way that it alone would be a reason to give the book high marks and praise for originality beyond the twisty marriage of convenience plot. I won’t ruin it, because readers deserve to arrive at it fresh, except to say that it involved what I imagine would be a fairly common form of entertainment of the times, rather than a conventional “here’s my story, hear me out” heart-to-heart between the two main characters. It was a marvelous way to show Thea’s backstory, and her own realization that her family should have stood by her at that crucial moment.

Aarya: What’s that literary device called? A play-within-a-play? This isn’t quite that but it constructs a similar feel. And, my goodness, THE FORESHADOWING. Let’s not say more, but that scene is even more impressive in retrospect.

This is my favorite scene. I read it and thought, “Okay, if this book keeps up, this may be an A.”

Claudia: Exactly! If I remember correctly, that’s when I mentioned to you that the book was knocking my socks off.

The book loses some steam after the hasty wedding and as the couple arrives at Rafe’s home. Thea, of course, starts to poke at the mystery of his previous life with his first wife and his dreams for his business.

Rafe has been blamed and blames himself for the death of his wife, and, as we said, like Thea he has been maligned by society at large. Unlike Thea, though, he is not really interested in clearing his name, and he has internalized the criticism and bottled up his emotions.

Aarya:

She was a survivor. When people talked of survivors, they meant battle-scarred soldiers and shipwrecked sailors, people like Rafe, who wore his trauma on his face. But how many other survivors walked through the crowd? Unmarked, unnoticed, keeping their scars hidden as they went about their daily lives. Pasting on a brave face, putting others at their ease, hiding their pain beneath a smile. Of course: Life treated most people roughly, once in a while. Who didn’t, at some point, feel like they had been mauled by an indifferent beast?

I completely agree with what you just said; it reminded me of this quote I highlighted!

Claudia: Oh wow, I highlighted that very same quote.

Aarya: JINX.

Claudia: It’s beautiful.

Aarya: You know, the title refers to Rafe. He’s the beastly earl. But I often felt that Thea —  epitome of sunshine Thea — is a beast, too. She doesn’t take out her beastliness on others. It’s inside her and prickling little thorns constantly. Just because she doesn’t growl at people doesn’t mean she’s safe. Her revenge plans are mean (in a good way!) and ruthless. She’s not someone who forgives and forgets. No, she waits in silence and waits for the optimal moment to strike and ruin her enemies.

Claudia: Good point. She does know how to hold a grudge!

Her openness to the world made him ache and yearn. That openness was the source of her miracle, the source of her pain. He wanted to capture that life, that verve, keep it close, shield it from hurt. Something stirred in him, like a long-buried bulb that sensed the warmth of spring.

“Source of her pain” is very apt here.

Aarya: All these quotes are reminding me what a talented writer Mia Vincy is. She has one of my favorite voices in romance right now.

I never know how to explain what I like in a voice. All I know is that she has it. It’s funny and tender and endearing and just… good. Well. There’s a reason why they’re not paying me the big bucks for author publicity. LOL. My description capabilities extend to “X is good.”

Claudia: She’s quickly becoming one of my favorites, too. She is never overly florid, and manages to keep things fresh.

Okay, so there’s a villain, of course, but he receives the full treatment: He is indeed vile, but most of his dastardly deeds are geared toward protecting the family name and coddling his male offspring, and I was able to hate him and at the same time understand where he was coming from.

I think we got to the point where we are going to diverge a bit.

Aarya: I have almost no problems within the romance in this book. I have problems with almost everything outside the romance.

My first issue is the character of Martha Flores, a Black woman from Peru who came to England in order to grow/develop medicines with Rafe. Like we said, that’s one of the reasons that Rafe needs money. He needs capital to start his business.

Claudia: It is true that, unlike other characters, we don’t get to see Martha’s backstory. We are just told she needed to leave Peru.

But she was THE key person in the business. In fact, it wouldn’t exist without her. So her knowledge is valued. That went a long way for me.

Aarya: I like a lot about Martha and her importance to the business is wonderful. Even though I don’t think the depiction of the character is egregiously wrong, it still frustrates me.

Whenever I feel a niggling sense of “I don’t love this but I can’t identify why,” I usually take a step back and switch over to an eagle-eyed perspective. One of my favorite questions to ask is, “How does X serve/function in the narrative?”

For me, the character of Martha is linked to Sally (the housekeeper). They’re introduced at the same time and seem to be of equal importance. They occupy similar roles: both tease and nag Rafe constantly about his relationship with Thea. Both are integral to his household and we don’t initially know a ton about their backstories.

Then suddenly, Sally eclipses Martha in importance by a million percent. Her backstory, her feelings, her importance to the central conflict are tantamount. The story couldn’t exist without Sally. I wouldn’t say the same about Martha. At one point, we are told that Martha left her family in Peru and crossed the Atlantic Ocean to work for Rafe.

But… why? We get zero backstory or motivations. We find out SO MUCH about Sally, the other secondary character in Rafe’s life. It feels weird that they’re initially equally important, and then one character is abandoned to the sidelines by the end.

It also doesn’t help that Martha constantly makes jokes at Rafe’s expense. Why isn’t he sleeping with Thea? Doesn’t he know that he’ll need to sleep with his wife to make babies? Does Rafe have medical issues that inhibit sexual intercourse (and if so, Martha can make a medicine for him)? What person can she jokingly threaten to experiment on for medicinal research (Thea, Thea’s hypothetical children, attendees at a party, etc)? And so on.

Yes, she’s talented in medicines and integral to the business. But she’s also the comic relief in a way that made me profoundly uncomfortable and is difficult to articulate. All this coupled with the lack of backstory is… Not Great. And I haven’t even discussed the Spanish yet.

Claudia: I think that since Sally played a part in Rafe’s first wife’s death, knew the couple and the families from before, etc., it didn’t bother me as much that she eclipsed Martha.

But by all that is holy — what definitely worked less well was the random words in Spanish in Martha’s speech. Here I can claim some level of expertise, from being a non native English speaker and from being around people of many nationalities for big chunks of my professional life.

Aarya: THE SPANISH. CAN WE YELL ABOUT THAT NOW?

Claudia: NO ONE EVER speaks like that.

I mean, occasionally you might forget how to say X, Y or Z in English, and might resort to whatever language that word comes to your mind first.

But you do not keep saying the same word in your native language over and over again, when your command of English seems to be excellent!

Aarya: I don’t know, Claudia. Entonces, some people really like certain words.

(This is sarcasm, y’all.)

Claudia: Yes, you’d get drunk as a skunk if you had a shot for every time Martha said “entonces.” It was grating!

Aarya: She isn’t even on-page for that long. She speaks remarkably complex English. The italicized Spanish interjections (basic words that non-Spanish speakers would understand) in conversation with English speakers are so weird. Let me find an example.

Claudia: I thought this was common knowledge but apparently it isn’t. If you speak a language other than English, you are not going to keep saying that one word in your native language mixed with English. It just doesn’t happen. I hope you find a good example because I feel there were times she managed to say “entonces” and “claro” in the same sentence.

Aarya:

#1: “Not marvelous for her, claro, but marvelous for me. No importa. She can test the bhang anyway.”

#2: “Claro, that is what intoxicants do,” Martha added.

#3: “You do like her,” Martha said. “Entonces, why not sleep with her?”

#4: “Entonces, we talk to plants now?” Martha asked in her Spanish-accented English.

Here are a few examples (emphasis in above passages shows italicized text in book). I think we’ve beaten this complaint to death. We both agree it’s ridiculous.

Claudia: Yes, moving on. Let’s get to the first wife’s mental illness, and how it was handled.

The author’s note explains that the wife Katherine would likely be diagnosed as bipolar nowadays. I believe it was portrayed with some sensitivity. Rafe corresponds with doctors who at the time were the first to consider treating mental illnesses with some kindness (vs. institutionalizing the person).

Aarya: Okay. This is really hard to explain. I feel like I’m not going to articulate my discomfort well.

Do you know that feeling of “EVEN IF something is portrayed well and with compassion, you still don’t like it because you inherently don’t like the thing?”

Claudia: I hear you.

Aarya: I want to be clear that I have zero authority to declare this rep as “good” or “bad” or “problematic” or whatever. I really don’t, and it’s possible other readers may spot things we didn’t see.

That being said, I think that Katherine is treated with compassion. I think her mental illness is treated with compassion.

Claudia: Yes, we agree on that. I also cannot profess any expertise. I do question the direction the story took from there.

Aarya: I just really hate any variation of the “deceased person with mental illness.” I had no idea this was in the book, and I wish I received a content warning so I could prep myself. It was a shock and the discussion of mental illness is SO CENTRAL. I cannot emphasize this enough. Katherine, her death, and even the aftermath of her death are crucial to the plot. This storyline is inescapable.

The only depiction of the rep is through the memories of everyone alive (people who don’t have the mental illness). Katherine’s experiences are filtered through the recollections of everyone but Katherine (Rafe, Sally, Martha, Katherine’s father, etc). The lens seems to feature the wrong perspectives, if that makes any sense. That’s why I don’t love stories that prominently feature a deceased person with a mental illness. So much of the plot hinges on bringing justice to Katherine post-death, and yet we never have the opportunity to hear her voice.

This is one of those “I feel the way I feel, and perhaps it’s unfair to blame the book.” Ultimately, it significantly decreased my overall enjoyment.

What problems did you have with the direction?

Claudia: Rafe blames himself for the crisis that precipitated Katherine’s death. Then, towards the last 20% or so of the book on my e-reader app, that blame gets shifted to another character because Rafe needed an external reason to forgive himself. There’s a lot of plot getting crammed in the last few pages. I feel I’d have liked to see him forgive himself, full stop, and understand that ultimately her mental illness was not something in his power to change. After all, he did what he could to ameliorate her suffering.

Aarya: I agree with you.

Okay, so I would divide the book into thirds. The first third is brilliant. The second third is good even with the occasional irritating aspect (e.g., Martha). The last third goes completely off the rails for me.

Claudia: A thousand times yes. Toward the end, I felt that it was past time Thea and Rafe talked to each other more openly rather than past each other. I was given reasons to understand why they were acting that way, but the reasons fell flat to me and felt as an unnecessary stretching of the story. When they did talk, it felt a bit rushed and contrived.

Aarya: There is a scene where we get a Grand Revelation that’s supposed to explain everything and propel the conflict to the climax. It is extremely convoluted. It took awhile to figure out the backstory timeline. I still don’t understand certain Important Motivations that occurred in the backstory. I’m trying to avoid spoilers but you know what I’m talking about. I understand that X Character did certain things, but I’m still not sure WHY.

Claudia: Absolutely, and it was a damn shame the last third of the book was marred in this way.

Aarya: I agree with your assessment of Thea and Rafe’s resolution, even if I thought the end party scene is incredibly satisfying.

Claudia: Despite these issues, though, the book gave me ridiculous amounts of enjoyment. You and I talked about a final grade, but I am sticking with my B+. I’m still awed by the way that the story put a different spin on my tired, if beloved, trope. A Beastly Kind of Earl is a book I have no qualms in recommending to the Bitchery for its originality, tenderness, top-notch banter, and the always timely reminder that our stories are ours to tell.

The book’s dedication speaks to that truth: “For anyone who ever believed a story about themself that turned out to be untrue.”

Aarya: Grading is difficult. The parts that worked really worked. We have similar issues, but they affected my enjoyment far more than they affected yours. The last third, particularly the uneven pacing and the confusing revelations, really bothered me. My inherent dislike of the Katherine storyline also marred my overall impressions of the book. Again, that’s not really the book’s fault as it can’t control my preferences.

It’s a C- for me. I suspect most readers would lean toward Claudia’s opinions and not mine, simply because my issues are less about the book’s execution and more about the existence of a certain plot point.

Despite my litany of complaints, I look forward to the next book. That’s a sign of how much I love Vincy’s voice. It’s magical.

Claudia: I am very much looking forward to the third book as well, which likely will pair Thea’s friend and the man that friend has been promised since birth. I’m seeing it as another marriage-of-convenience story, with elements of enemies-to-lovers.

Aarya: I’m curious if anyone in the Bitchery has read the book. I’d love to hear your takes in the comments.

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