Book Reviews

To Love and To Loathe by Martha Waters

Claudia and Shana both love historical romances, but Shana loves Milan’s prickly heroines and puns, while Claudia’s catnip is the cozy charm of Balogh’s love stories, the fewer puns the better. Shana convinced Claudia that To Love and To Loathe’s “enemies to hookup to lovers” storyline would pull us out of our reading slump.

She now owes Claudia a million lemon bars because this book was a tropeopcalypse. So much potential, but so poorly executed. After starting with some promising ideas, the story made us hate most all the characters. Then the revolting treatment of a queer character near the end nearly made us throw things and made everyone involved seem unredeemable.

Diana, Lady Templeton, is a rich widow at last. Raised by relatives who viewed her as a burden, Diana set out to marry well. She achieved that goal by marrying an older viscount, but in doing so she had to ignore an attraction to Jeremy Overington, her brother’s playboy friend and at that time the impoverished marquess of Willingham. We are not told how Jeremy financially rescued the marquessate, but at the start of the book he leads the comfortable life of a rake until one of his lovers gives him cause to doubt his skills in bed.

When opportunity in the form of a house party arrives, Jeremy decides to act on his own attraction and asks for Diana’s help to rebuild his confidence. The two are flirtatious frenemies within the same close-knit social circle. Neither has any interest in marrying, so when Diana publicly bets Jeremy that she can get him wed in under a year, she knows she’ll need to manipulate him to win.

Diana agrees to offer an unvarnished review of Jeremy’s sexual prowess, as long as they limit their affair to the upcoming house party. She plans to use the party to play matchmaker between Jeremy and their eligible friends, while knowing that Jeremy’s years of experience “evading the parson’s mousetrap” will make him a hard sell. With Diana throwing girls at Jeremy during the day, and educating him in how to give women pleasure at night, it slowly becomes apparent that the best match for Jeremy might be Diana herself.

Shana: “Loathe” is in the book’s title, but this story couldn’t decide if the leads were longtime enemies or friends. Jeremy and Diana regularly express shock at their affair, because they assume that they hate one another. But they recognize their mutual attraction from the first flashback scene, they vaguely like one another, and they surprise none of their friends with their pairing. These two may enjoy tussling over Diana’s matchmaking attempts, but they aren’t actually enemies. There was very little of the will-they-or-won’t-they tension that I associate with falling for someone you dislike. At the same time, Jeremy and Diana don’t get to know each other well until mid-book, so they lacked the wellspring of trust that I need in friends to lovers stories. Do you think this was enemies to lovers?

Claudia: I don’t think their antipathy for each other qualified as hate, and they were also not enemies in the stricter sense of being on separate sides of an issue. The antipathy was more on Diana’s side, too, perhaps because she had to suppress her early feelings for Jeremy to be able to marry her first husband. And it felt Jeremy liked to rile up Diana more out of habit than anything remotely like hate.

Shana: Diana is annoyed by everyone, so I didn’t feel like her teasing vibe with Jeremy was unique.

Diana and Jeremy both say they’ll never marry, because they like the independence of their respective widow and bachelor lifestyles. That’s the only conflict, and they barely mention it. I needed a stronger obstacle to stay interested.

Claudia: I finished this book without really knowing why those two hadn’t started their relationship sooner, or at least in more transparent terms, especially as Diana is supposedly famously direct and not worried too much about her reputation. And once they get it going, they are never truly honest with each other. They exchange the same barbs, and nitpick the same issues. That was when the ride started to feel… less fun. Mostly because their sparring felt like plain old bickering after a while.

Shana: What did you think of Diana agreeing to Jeremy’s plan to have her critique his lovemaking skills? It felt like a stretch for me. I agreed with her initial reaction to Jeremy’s argument that this would help her.

“My point is, you seem not to know how to make men understand that you are, er . . .” The first phrase that sprang to mind was open for business, but he was fairly certain that even he, with his legendary charm, wouldn’t be able to recover from that one. “Open to a liaison,” he settled upon instead. “But a brief, discreet affair with me would send all the right signals.”

Diana looked skeptical. “I’m not certain that the signal I’m looking to send is that I’ve joined the legion of women who’ve lifted their skirts for the Marquess of Willingham. I’m surprised they haven’t formed a society. With matching hats.”

Claudia: Agreed, it definitely felt contrived to me. Obviously they both knew, at least on some level, that the reasons for the arrangement were a stretch, but they both latched on to flimsy excuses to act on their long-repressed desires. I’d much rather see them discuss these desires as adults, without any subterfuge, but at that point I was still willing to go along for the ride even if I was seriously put off by Jeremy’s thinking he’s god’s gift to women.

Shana: This is the second book in the author’s Regency Vows series, and I haven’t read the first. Diana likes to gossip with her closest friends, and I thought these conversations were insipid, and occasionally cruel. Did it help to have read the first book?

Claudia: Not really. We got some of the love-you/hate-you antics between Jeremy and Diana in the first book, To Have and to Hoax, but nothing crucial. Diana was a great secondary character in the first book, and I was disappointed that the girl-gang stuff in this book didn’t work for me either. Mostly because the secondary characters here seemed to exist to forward the plot, or to serve as sequel bait.

Shana: The best part of the book was Diana’s pithy misandry. I also liked that after they decide to have an affair early on, the couple deliciously drags out the consummation of their relationship.

Claudia: The dragging out was indeed delicious. The writing really shone for me at that point because it does a great job amping up the sexual tension.

And it all takes place at a house party! I love house parties in historical romance because usually it gives characters a chance to interact more meaningfully and develop their relationship in close proximity.

For Diana and Jeremy, though, the house party seemed like an opportunity for yet more machinations and mental calisthenics to justify their boning. At some point I began to worry that they would never grow up and own up to their true feelings for each other.

Shana: Yes. I started to hate these two people even as I was increasingly invested in when they were going to bone.

Claudia: The longer the bickering went on, the less I cared. They continued to be mostly at odds with each other for no apparent reason. It felt very juvenile. That’s when I went from somewhat invested to really not caring much about either of them.

And, speaking of juvenile, we must talk about how one of the secondary characters was treated, mostly by Diana.

Shana: Yes. This is where the book became unredeemable.

Jeremy and Diana independently find out that one of the characters is in a queer relationship, and their responses are deeply cruel.

First, the person outs themselves to Diana in an extremely unlikely manner, blabbing everything after misunderstanding Diana’s innuendo. Diana agrees to keep it a secret, but immediately tells ALL her friends. Not only was this icky because she knows how desperate and afraid the queer character is, but her behavior endangers this person acutely. These scenes were excruciating, and made me hate her.

Claudia: Yes, that was definitely when the book went from “oh maybe it’s just me and my pandemic brain” to “nope.”

Diana and friends seemed very callous and happy to gossip about the queer person without a second thought about the implications. They don’t bat an eye about outing and talking about the queer character behind her back. That was when I asked whether you had thrown your copy against the wall because I surely felt the urge then.

That was in keeping with their behavior through most of the book, though, and even with each other. We are told that they are supportive of each other and open minded, but all we see is Diana and friends poking at each other’s sensitive spots and at other people’s perceived shortcomings.

And, tellingly, other than the coerced confession you mentioned above, we never hear directly from the queer character.

Shana: I nearly threw my e-reader once I got to Jeremy’s ridiculous plan to build a long-term relationship with Diana by using the queer character.

Show Spoiler

Jeremy sees Lady Helen, who has been throwing herself at him throughout the book, having sex with her lady’s maid. He’s amused that she’s a “sapphist,” and surmises that her clumsy pursuit of him was designed to allow her to remain safely unmarried. Yet, even though Jeremy believes Helen isn’t interested in him, or in any man, he decides the best way to woo Diana is to marry Helen.

Jeremy’s WTF rationale is that since he loves Diana, and wants to be with her after the house party, he will ask Helen to marry him, explain that he knows about her lesbian lover, and then convince (or trap?) her into marriage so he can have an heir, and keep Diana as his mistress.

Or he could have told Diana that he loves her, and ask if she wants to extend their relationship, but why would he do that when his idea is SO smart?

Diana was not impressed by this plan, and we were even angrier than she was. These people are terrible. Diana outs Helen to Jeremy, again betraying Helen’s trust, unaware that he already knows about Helen’s relationship. When Diana asks how sex would work in this marriage, Jeremy assures her that even though Helen “doesn’t like men,” they would “grit our teeth and do the necessary until she was with child.” How charming.

Ultimately, Diana is appalled, not because it would trap Helen, but because she thinks marrying another woman is a stupid romantic gesture.

Is Helen consulted about any of this, or treated like a person? Of course not. She’s a device to be used by Diana and Jeremy for their own ridiculous, petty machinations and cruel, gossipy conversations.

Shana: This might be the worst plan a hero has ever had in a romance. And yet, Diana’s terrible friends convince her that he meant well. By this point in the book, I was done. I hated everyone, and there was no coming back from this mess.

Claudia: I was ready to give the book a C until the last two thirds or so. The bickering, mean-girl atmosphere, and the poor treatment of a queer secondary character took it from “meh” to appalling very fast. I’ll go with a D.

Shana: My trajectory was similar. Diana’s commentary on the uselessness of men made me laugh, and the sexual tension sucked me into the story, but the characters ultimately felt shallow. Treating a queer character this poorly is unforgivable, so I can’t stomach giving this higher than a D.

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