Review: The Arranged Marriage by Tori Summers
An opening line like "Santa Rosa, California, 1888" in a novel—even a romance novel—has the power to thrill me. Since this novel begins its action in Santa Rosa, then continues in pre-1906-quake San Francisco, the promise of local flavor grabbed me from the beginning.
The story is pleasant, centered around a pretty, popular farm girl, Olivia Reynolds, whose father pledged her hand to his best friend's son, Sebastion Hollingsworth, when they were infants. The friends are estranged, though only by distance and social standing. Hollingsworth resides in San Francisco, and is a wealthy member of the city's elite. His son is a rogue with a mistress and a love of gaming and drinking (in short, a 19th-century party animal). The requirement to marry Olivia in order to inherit infuriates him.
Reynolds is a farmer struggling to build a good life for his two daughters in the rural community that was Santa Rosa in that era. His strong-willed eldest daughter, Olivia, is determined to marry for love. The 18-year-old has declined multiple offers of marriage, even fighting off an attempted rape by the older brother of her best friend. (Gustav reasoned that if he managed to rape her, she would have to change her mind and marry him.) To be informed that she must marry Sebastian, whom she has never met, is a devastating blow.
The rest of the story is the inevitable romance that blossoms between these two reluctant young people once they are married. It is set against the backdrop of frontier California in a time when it took three days hard travel by horseback and ferry to get from Santa Rosa to San Francisco; when casinos on barges floated in San Francisco Bay; and the new technology—the telephone—was just beginning to be adopted by the city's business leaders.
I was disappointed by the truncated story of Gustav, the ardent rapist from the novel's opening chapters. Summers built admirable tension by having Gustav stalk Olivia in Santa Rosa, even follow the newlywed couple to San Francisco—but then she let it leak away into the Bay. (And the fact that Gustav's sister Clarissa later appears to know what happened to her brother after he arrived in San Francisco is another puzzling element.)
To replace that lost tension, the author has Sebastian's jilted mistress, Evangeline, plot to rid herself of her rival with the help of a newly-introduced villain who only appears in the closing chapters of the book.
Another jarring note was the continual reference to "the phone". In a story set in the late 1880s, this is a serious anachronism. While San Francisco did have one of the country's earliest telephone directories—the 1888 directory boasted names like Crocker, Ghiradelli, and Quong Lee, as well as "Engine House" (the Fire Department) and the "Mining & Scientific Press"—the device was still being called "telephone" when I was a child in the 1950s. The monosyllable we use today only began to replace the more formal "telephone" a few years before the Seattle World's Fair in 1962, leading the Bell System to advertise its new "touch-tone phones" (introduced at the Fair) in order to capitalize on the friendlier terminology.
Despite these few inconsistent notes, I enjoyed the pace of the novel and its storyline. It has all the essential qualities of a good historical romance novel: likeable protagonists, a developing romantic relationship between them, conflict and misunderstandings, and a strong sense of the place and time in which it is set.
I will be watching for more from Tori Summers' pen!