Review: The Marriage Bargain, by Jennifer Probst

The Marriage Bargain, a contemporary romance, was published by digital first Entangled Publishing in February of this year. It became a runaway hit, selling more than half a million copies in six months. Rights were sold to Simon & Schuster imprint Pocket Books for seven figures. Tomorrow, the print version will be available in mass market paperback for $7.99 and trade paperback for $12.99. A film deal is in the works.

When I was offered a digital copy from the publisher, I accepted, because I was curious about this book which has become so popular. Overall, I found it to be an adequate contemporary romance. I read it and mostly enjoyed it, but I confess to being immune to whatever magic spell it has worked on its half a million readers and counting.

Here’s the blurb:

To save her family home, impulsive bookstore owner, Alexa Maria
McKenzie, casts a love spell. But she never planned on conjuring up her best friend’s older brother—the powerful man who once shattered her heart.

Billionaire Nicholas Ryan doesn’t believe in marriage, but in order to inherit his father’s corporation, he needs a wife and needs one fast. When he discovers his sister’s childhood friend is in dire financial straits, he’s offers Alexa a bold proposition.

A marriage in name only with certain rules: Avoid entanglement. Keep things all business. Do not fall in love. The arrangement is only for a year so the rules shouldn’t be that hard to follow, right?

The arranged marriage set up is very conventional in the genre, if more common in historicals or in contemps with heroes who hail from Greece or Italy. I enjoy this trope, although in The Marriage Bargain, I felt it was undercooked. But I have a thing about going along with the setup, so I plunged ahead.

Nick is very uptight and afraid of getting hurt. Like many romance heroes, he’s Sworn Off Love. I felt that by the end of the book, thanks to a visit from his cold, manipulative father, his attitude was pretty well explained. Alexa is an emotionally open bookshop owner with a big happy family and curly hair. They knew each other as kids, but had lost touch for years, despite the fact that they apparently live in the same town and Alexa is BFFs with Nick’s sister. The sexual attraction is strong when they meet again. As in many such books, it’s the sexual attraction that signals their growing fondness and emotional intimacy. Probst did a nice job with the sexual tension and love scenes.

There seem to be two kinds of families in the romance genre: happy and evil. I appreciated that Alexa’s family had rough times — her father had a drinking problem and abandoned them for a time — but got through them.

Ultimately, I had a several problems that kept me from really getting into this book. First, I felt that Alexa’s decision making was so poor as to be uncredible. She has siblings and parents. Why does she think she, and she alone, is “selfish” if she doesn’t marry in order to get money to save her parents’ home? Alexa recognizes that her parents put a huge value on marriage, having worked so hard to save their own, and that if they knew what she’d done “they’d never forgive her.” So why do it? She knows “she’s always been a sucky liar” yet she manages to pull this off? Then, why does she decide to lie to Nick about the reason she needs the money, letting him believe it’s for her own business? She says it’s because “at least he’ll resent her and keep his distance.” Hm. If you can figure that one out, let me know. Finally, she makes a series of stupid smaller decisions throughout, such as agreeing to shelter eight puppies in her pet-averse compulsively controlling and neat husband’s home, believing he’ll never know. As a reader, I recognize that each of these moves by the heroine propels the romance narrative forward: (1) pushing her into marriage with, and thus forced proximity to, the hero, (2) setting up a large conflict with the hero around trust, and (3) getting the hero to get out of bed at midnight for a heated argument that ends in a kiss. But as a reader, I need to believe that the heroine’s decisions come from her character, not the needs of the genre.

Second, I felt that the tone and style of The Marriage Bargain zigged and zagged across several romance subgenres, not in an exciting, envelope-pushing way, but in an “author can’t decide whether she is writing a Harlequin Presents or a Jennifer Cruise” way. You have the Nick who says misogynistic Presents things like “She’d become jealous and demanding like any normal wife,” and “her ability to pretend she was innocent was dangerous.” He behaves in an irrationally jealous way when his Alexa so much as looks at another man, and his trust and power issues throughout the book are classic alpha hero. But then you have a friends to lovers set up, him bantering and joking with her, a Mets versus Yankees rivalry, he’s cooking for her, and, by the end, doing improv at her bookstore with a mutt sidekick to get her attention. For this reader, it did not gel.

Another way to put this is not in terms of characters but in terms of world building. The book was a mash up of a kind of small town romance and a Presents billionaire setting. I did not feel the book was credible at all on the billionaire side. For example, in describing a posh party, the heroine smells “clouds of Shalimar and Obsession.” I almost laughed out loud at that one. And the description of each of the hero’s amazing architectural feats ended up sounding like a T-Rex or Planet Hollywood chain restaurant. It’s not that I doubt he’s a billionaire at his age or his profession, but “renovating the Hudson Valley waterfront” does not scream “billionaire” to me. I felt the billionaire aspect should have been cut entirely. Why not just make him wealthy enough to be able to give the heroine $150,000, not a huge sum these days. Then again, I’m not selling half a million romance novels, so what do I know?

There were some winning moments in The Marriage Bargain that made reading it overall enjoyable: the scene when Alexa punishes Nick for an indiscretion with his old flame, the scene when Nick realizes that a gift is something the receiver wants (a dog), not something the giver thinks the receiver should have (a car), and even the finale when the hero makes his grand gesture at the book store in a Mets cap. I definitely did get caught up in moments of genuine emotion between these two. But ultimately, I remain mystified by its wild success: the “kitchen sink” feel and the characterization problems I had made The Marriage Bargain just an ok read for me.

8 responses

  1. I’ve wondered (pure speculation) whether the low-prices and free days on independent and small publisher’s books draw in readers who aren’t familiar with genre rules and tropes. Anecdotally, I’ve had a couple of experiences that made me think so, including one reader who didn’t like that my hero and heroine got together at the end. In a romance, ha. (It was sweet, though–he didn’t think the hero was good enough for her.)

    Anyway, I can remember decades ago falling in love with a gothic romance and then discovering the world of gothics — and the first one, whatever it was, didn’t actually compare to the stories that had come before it — but for me, it was a whole new world of story. I think maybe people who wouldn’t be caught dead in the romance section of the bookstore will download a book that’s shown up in the Top 100 Free books and if they enjoy it, recommend it. And so a book sells. It would be interesting to know how many copies she gave away.

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  2. I don’t think this one would be for me. I am not really a big fan of the romance genre, and though people have professed that this one is different, I see a lot of the same stereotypical things in it that you mention in your review. I also wonder how this one got to be so popular!

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  3. You’re so much more thoughtful than I am. I got so annoyed by wondering “how did this one become a romance best-seller and get picked up by a big publisher?” (and was there ever a more fruitless or soul-destroying annoyance than that? It could be a permanent condition) that I couldn’t enjoy the emotional moments, and you’re right, they were there. Really good point that a lot of the characters’ actions were driven by a need to advance the plot rather than consistent or believable characterization. That, too, made it hard for me to be emotionally engaged.

    This book is a good example for me of the problem with the move to low price points. I thought there was potential for a much better book here, but at $2.99, how are the work and time needed to bring that book out going to seem like a worthwhile investment to either the author or the editor? (In this case, of course, it would have turned out to be). And at that price, a lot of readers won’t demand a book with a more logical plot, stronger characterization, or better writing. I can be as guilty of that as the next person, but sometimes I have a vision of a future where every book is “meh” and cheap, and I am filled with dread.

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  4. @Sarah Wynde:

    including one reader who didn’t like that my hero and heroine got together at the end.

    Thanks for the laugh. Wow.

    I think maybe people who wouldn’t be caught dead in the romance section of the bookstore will download a book that’s shown up in the Top 100 Free books and if they enjoy it, recommend it.

    Absolutely. On some blog, Probst’s social media savvy and blog touring are given credit for the book’s success. While I am sure they don’t hurt, I think it has to be more than that.

    @zibilee: If you are curious to try a romance in the contemporary vein, I recommend Jennifer Crusie’s Anyone But You or Manhunting. The Kindle version of Anyone But You is $1.99 as I type this.

    @Liz Mc2: That’s a good point about the effort to price ratio. I honestly never considered that a lower priced book may be so in some cases in part because an author and publisher didn’t put in the time. (If that’s what you meant.)

    I find the phenomenal success of this one a shock, much more so than 50 Shades, which, as I’ve mentioned did really feel fresh to me as a seasoned romance reader, despite its other problems.

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  5. Great review. I think you summed up really well the problems with the book and I have to agree with you except that I found the ending poetry reading with dog bit gratingly STOOPID and not at all amusing. (Personally though I find the grand gesture made public a really mortifying idea, so take that for what it’s worth…)
    I really felt this book was utterly unremarkable and if not for the $2.99 price tag I would have felt ripped off. There is something that makes me more forgiving of a book if I didn’t spend $8 to $12 to be disappointed or underwhelmed. If I’m only out $3 I don’t get that upset about it.
    I also can’t get why this one is so popular. I guess it could be attributable to non-romance reading consumers, but I hate to pin that tail on that donkey since a major part of the FSOG-bashing discussion has been about how the only people who could possibly enjoy it must be non-readers and especially must be women who have never read a “good” erotic romance novel. I think ultimately the sad truth is that there is no way to explain WHY something is popular without getting it wrong for a good portion of the readers.

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  6. I think I meant more the opposite on price–that if your line is priced at $2.99, or you decide to self-publish your novels for 99¢, so your income is predicated on providing a steady flow of cheap content, then spending a lot of time on editing looks like a poor investment.

    Totally agree with pamelia that any speculation about who likes a best-seller and why is bound to be wrong about a lot of readers. It could be that what strikes us as an incoherent mash-up of sub genres is exactly what appeals to some people.

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  7. The 2.99 price tag is an unfortunate reality and I don’t see it going anywhere. Too many aspiring authors want to break through and be heard above all the noise from the already over-crowded field of writers who imagine themselves sitting on their veranda overlooking Lake Como counting their millions as their $1.99 and .99 books flood eReaders the world over 24×7.

    It’s a business model. Is it a good one? I offer my interactive fiction books at 49.95 each so that should make my opinion of the “Happy Meal” approach to selling eBooks clear.

    Why did this one make it? I’m not a romance novel guy (but I am a romantic guy, so I’d like to think) but my guess is the price and the social media success.

    The simple fact is that a $2.99 book with lots of buzz is a difficult proposition to pass up. Consumers make purchasing decisions based on their fear of making a bad buying decision or the confidence of making a good decision.

    There’s little fear of losing $2.99 on a book that so many people are clamoring over.

    Slam dunk.

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