A terrible steamship accident causes Our Hero to wash up onshore at the feet of Our Heroine, who just happens to need a husband. Since he also conveniently has amnesia, she tells him one big whopper: "Can you have forgotten that I'm your wife, Mariah Clarke?" from which many subsequent whoppers follow. If Mariah had had Pinocchio's curse, her proboscis would have been prodigious indeed.
The Good Stuff
It's a little puzzling as to why this story works. There are a fair number of tired elements -- I mean, really, amnesia?? And in some ways, Mariah resembled one of Putney's recent heroines that I found really boring: she's relentlessly pragmatic in a similar way to Abigail from Marriage Spell. It's been awhile since I read that one, so this point is no doubt debatable, but I found this heroine to be more real. Putney did a better job of showing me the internal struggle it cost Mariah to maintain her outward serenity, while Abigail just seemed phlegmatic.
Adam is a wonderfully fresh hero. If you're tired of the cold, aloof rake whose glacial heart must be melted by the spunky heroine, pick this up immediately. Putney uses the amnesia device to provide Adam with a tabula rasa; he literally leaves all his cares behind and puts his well-being in Mariah's hands. Beneath the worry about his memories, he's trusting, playful, and loving. As his memories gradually return, you can vividly see the weight they apply, bit by bit, to his ducal shoulders. And of course the reader sees the looming Revelation of Truth along with Mariah, which adds to the tension.
I think one reason that Putney manages this constellation of elements that could SO easily go SO wrong, and pulls off a truly fabulous story instead, is that in spite of the rather preposterous circumstances, both characters behave in truly believable ways (at least, I thought so). Discounting that first lie, there are no TSTL decisions. Mariah understands the consequences of The Lie and is constantly weighing Adam's best interests in the timing of her reveal -- at no time does she really think she's going to get away with never coming clean. But Adam arrives at her doorstep utterly helpless -- it's far more mortifying to him to think he's at the mercy of total strangers than to feel that he's where he's supposed to be, even if he doesn't remember. And when he does learn the truth, he understandably loses trust, but he doesn't leap to wild conclusions like "she must be a gold-digging slut! I shall hate her forever and ship her off to Barbados!" Big points in that respect -- two grown-ups, acting like grown-ups, in spite of the pain it causes them. Go figure.
Another is simply that these characters sparkle with each other. Chemistry, zing, whatever you want to call it. From the fact that Mariah accidentally hits on Adam's true given name, to the way Adam feels perfectly at home with her, Putney builds an implacable rightness between these two. It is marvelous and impossible to analyze. Here, Adam has asked Mariah if she will sleep with him-- not for sex, as he's still injured, but for comfort and intimacy:
Shyly she took off her robe, then climbed into the bed. He recognized that he was still something of a stranger to her. But she was not a stranger to him. Odd, since he was the one who'd lost his memory.Oh, le sigh....
An interesting theme that Putney plays with here is a duality of nature. There is the obvious: Adam with and without his memories. Once he regains them-- integrates those two men-- he realizes that the foreign side of himself, one he has repressed since inheriting the dukedom can also be acknowledged, at least among friends.
Mariah gets a flip side too. She's had a lonely existence, and an imaginary friend or alter ego named Sarah has been with her since childhood. Sarah helps her remember how to be proper, which is a bit double-edged for Mariah. Sometimes those reminders are helpful, but sometimes they only make Mariah feel inferior or like a poseur. At first this seemed a little odd to me for a grown woman, but hey, you sometimes just go with things. And I like where Putney took it in the end.
Besides the amnesia and secret-marriage-that-isn't-really, there seems to be a plot afoot to harm the Duke. While there weren't any big surprises here, the plotting and pacing are meticulous and serve as a perfectly adequate foil for the emotional story.
I don't know if Putney was the first, but if not, she was certainly a very early adopter of the setup of a group of men, linked from childhood, as the glue for a series of full-length romances. And good lord, she's good at it. I really loved how she shows us bits of the Duke's friends: through his troubled memory-dreams, and Mariah's interactions with them, we learn a lot in a way that whets the appetite without being too obvious. As an example:
She wondered if any of his friends would be as willing to admit vulnerability. Masterson possibly. Kirkland... she wasn't sure. Randall would probably rather be torn apart by wild horses than admit weakness.
And then Mariah is back into dialog with Adam. Just a small aside, not heavy-handed. An amuse-bouche. (And, any guesses as to who the next Lost Lord might be? Heh.)
The Happily Ever After
Putney goes completely wild on this, into real fairy-tale territory. Obviously, I can't say more without spoilering, but I enjoyed it, even if it took an extra dollop of suspension of disbelief-- it was worth it.