Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Short-Straw Bride - Karen Witemeyer


PROS: Original twist on a well-worn storyline; confident and quirky heroine; endearing romance between a newly married couple that contains just a pinch of edginess

CONS: None!

No one has stepped on Archer land in years – no one, that is, except Meredith Hayes. Having stumbled on to forbidden territory in search of her lunch pail as a child, Meredith met the mysterious Travis Archer when he had to rescue her foot from a bear trap. She’s never forgotten that day, and not just because of the limp she was left with following her accident. Travis remained her idealised hero even after she entered womanhood, and when she overhears a plot to burn the Archers off their property, Meredith knows that she has to warn Travis and his brothers. But her good deed isn’t appreciated by her uncle and aunt, who insist that Meredith marry one of the Archers when the fire forces her to remain overnight on their property. To Meredith, the possibility of being forever united with her hero, Travis, is a dream come true. But does Travis view their union in such a positive light? Or is he merely marrying Meredith out of feelings of duty and responsibility? Meredith is determined to make their marriage one worth fighting for, and to convince Travis that picking the short-straw wasn’t a mistake.

I’ve yet to discover a Karen Witemeyer novel that I’ve not loved, but I approached Short-Straw Bride with a little bit of trepidation. Could Karen really keep up her previous standards? Will she run out of original plots? Thankfully, my fears were unfounded and Short-Straw Bride not only met but far exceeded my expectations. I’d have to say that it rivals Head in the Clouds for its place as my favourite of Karen’s novels. Although I think Karen’s books may a slight formula to them – perhaps in the pacing or the number of action scenes – this really wasn’t evident when I was reading Short-Straw Bride. While I could definitely see some similarities to her earlier works, the plot of the novel was entirely original and Meredith was a refreshing new heroine. The romance between Meredith and Travis reminded me of those written by some of my favourite romance writers – Kelly Long and Mary Connealy in particular – and while it was different from some of Karen’s earlier romances, it definitely took her writing in a positive direction.

I love marriage of convenience stories, and you’d think that considering their prevalence in the historical romance genre that authors would eventually run out of ways to twist this plot into something new. While Meredith and Travis’s arrangement – borne out of Meredith spending the night with a man while unchaperoned – is one I’ve come across before in this genre, I loved the spin that Karen put on this story. The concept of the four brothers living on a ranch and barely having any contact with women made Meredith’s presence all the more interesting, especially as all the brothers were jumping at the chance to marry her. The brothers definitely made the story more interesting, especially in the early days of Meredith and Travis’s marriage when neither of them knew how to treat each other. Short-Straw Bride had more to it than just the romance between the hero and heroine. Meredith, an outsider, had a thing or two to teach Travis about the image he was projecting of the Archer brothers and their land, and it was particularly touching to see him breaking down the walls – both physical and emotional – he’d put up to protect his family from the outside world. Each of the brothers had their own personality and I enjoyed seeing how Meredith’s presence on the ranch helped them to understand their own strengths and get the courage to pursue friendships and work arrangements outside the bounds of their property. 

The romance was still a big element in Short-Straw Bride, so there’s no need to worry that secondary characters might encroach on what is an incredibly touching and romantic love story. While I wasn’t always entirely convinced by Meredith’s childhood adoration of Travis and the idea that Travis fell for Meredith as soon as she reappeared on the ranch, their relationship was built on so much more than these initial moments. I enjoyed witnessing them coming from the awkward early days of their marriage into a relationship based on trust and commitment. Meredith’s worries about whether Travis was rejecting her by not sleeping in the same room once they were married were very real and heart-felt, and I could completely understand her pain over this aspect of their relationship. Likewise, Travis being torn over whether he should be a gentleman and court his new wife or pursue the more physical aspects of their relationship was very well presented. A lot of marriage of convenience stories skip over the transition from a chaste romance to a couple engaging in their “marital privileges”, so it was a nice change to see Karen exploring this aspect of a couple’s relationship. The awkwardness over how to discuss such things with your new husband and trying to seek womanly advice on a ranch full of men also created some amusing moments, which made the romance a well-rounded mixture of humour, emotion and a little bit of edginess. The conclusion to the novel and the romance was very satisfying, and while some readers may find themselves blushing a little, I’m sure plenty of married readers will be pleased to see Meredith and Travis endorsing those aspects of marriage that God intended married couples to enjoy. 

Even if I did speed through Short-Straw Bride at a record-breaking pace, I think I’d still struggle to find any faults with it on a slower, second read – which may happen, as this book is definitely worth reading again. It pushed all the right buttons, from the twist on a well-worn plot to the engaging secondary characters to the touching and realistic romance. While Short-Straw Bride is quite different from Karen’s previous novels, it contains many of the trademark elements that readers are familiar with, particularly Meredith, the confident and slightly quirky heroine. Short-Straw Bride will satisfy many historical romance readers, and I imagine that those who have yet to discover Karen Witemeyer will be hunting down her backlist as soon as they turn the final page in this endearing love story. 

Review title provided by Bethany House.

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