While the premise of The Engagement Bargain by Sherri Shackelford is compelling and the plot has several exciting and/or amusing moments, the author fails to deliver a cohesive novel. It starts out strong, opening with Caleb McCoy and his sister JoBeth Garrett visiting Kansas City in 1884, specifically to see Anna (daughter of famed Suffragist Leader Victoria Bishop) speak on Women’s Rights. Caleb, a veterinarian, finds himself in the right place at the right time when he hears a gun shot and sees Anna collapse in a growing pool of blood. When the doctor can’t be found, Caleb is the one to clean the wound and stitch the woman up. Caleb now feels a responsibility to protect Anna from further harm, so he doesn’t complain when the desk clerk lists the invalid as his fiancé on the hotel register so she can maintain a low profile while the shooter is sought. Anna, despite her wound, is a capable, resourceful woman, while Caleb is portrayed as a shy man. Both are passionate about their life’s work so it is not surprising that they feel a connection towards one another. However, Caleb is used to small town life, while Anna was brought up surrounded by wealth and trained to be independent. The two lifestyles would never mesh, yet each carries a growing bit of love within their hearts, despite their dissimilar backgrounds.
Anna starts out as a strong, fearless woman but as the story progresses her personality becomes more domestic. Caleb, although handsome, is introverted and inexperienced with women, but as the plot develops he becomes more daring and heroic. Caleb is surprisingly enlightened, supporting the idea of women’s rights, based on his veterinary experiences with abused animals.
The main problem is that too much of the book is taken up with rueful thoughts of “I think I love you, but we aren’t right for each other” from both parties. There is just too much introspection and not enough action. Shackelford also has a problem with pacing. The set up takes a third of the book while the climax is over in a couple of pages. This is the fourth book in the Prairie Courtship series, so some of the characters have been previously introduced, but when Caleb brings Anna to his hometown of Cimarron Springs, there are too many townspeople interacting without enough background to easily assimilate the information. Hopefully these characters were rounded out in one of the other books, since the villains responsible for all the strife in this story are thrown at the reader without much explanation, making the resolution of the plot confusing.
While it was admirable to focus on the topic of Woman’s Suffrage, the portrayal of Anna’s mother, did the cause no favors. If anything, it promoted the idea that the leaders of the suffragists were self centered, arrogant, and pig headed. By making Victoria Bishop insufferable, it took away from our sympathies towards the movement. However, real life leaders, such as Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were extolled and the first elected female mayor in the United States (Susanna Salter from Argonia, Kansas in 1887) was eluded to when in the epilogue Anna becomes mayor of Cimarron Springs. Sherri has a brief note at the end of the book covering some information on the history of the vote for women encouraging the reader to do more research on the topic.
Perhaps the most glaring error is the misleading title. Anna never actually agrees to pose as Caleb’s fiancé, it’s just assumed by the townsfolk after a series of misadventures (including the actions of a playful goat). It’s over two thirds of the way through the book before Anna graciously accepts the situation.
All in all a disappointment, especially since all the elements were present to create a great story.
2 and a half stars. A thank you to Netgalley and Love Inspired Books for sending me this ARC in exchange for an honest review.