by Victoria Alexander, historical (2003)
Avon, $6.99, ISBN 0-06-051761-1
Victoria Alexander's The Lady In Question starts out good but it doesn't waste any time mutating into yet another The Lady Wants Some Excitement But Doesn't Want To Marry story. The hero and the heroine start out mildly interesting but they too become very familiar characters soon. All in all, this book is content to be just another one of those books. Isn't that a pity?
Delia Effington is a widow living in genteel near-exile: she happily gets in bed with Charles Wilmont and they are compromised. He married her and then died soon after. Now, six months later, she lives with the usual guilt and other familiar baggages Regency heroines love to dwell endlessly in their limited mental capabilities. What she does not know is that Charles was a spy and his death was under suspicious circumstances. Another of the Blah Spy Miscellany that overrun England, our hero Anthony Artemis Gordon St Stephens, is Charles' buddy and he seeks to find answers to the mystery of Charles' death. Believing that the villains that struck at Charles will soon sniff around his estates, Tony powders his hair, puts on a fake mustache, a pair of fake eyebrows, and a pair of glasses and voila! He's the elderly butler of the Wilmont household. And I tell you, the heroine doesn't suspect a thing. Then again, she is a romance novel heroine after all.
Delia is, of course, the happy selfless woman with lots of social conscience and it doesn't take long for her to treat the butler like her best friend ever (not in a Lady Chatterley way, so don't worry). Tony soon reverses his opinion of her - what a wonderful woman! Soon he is taking off his disguise to dance with Delia in the ballrooms of town and Delia wonders who this wonderful man is. She wants love and more with Tony, but alas, how can she?
I like Delia when she gave that speech earlier on in the book where she speaks aloud to the Charles in her mind that she's moving on with life and she's not beating herself up over could-have-beens. Unfortunately, the author seems to forget about this scene as Delia is soon reverting back to her "I made a mistake and I paid for it, oh, how can I let myself love Tony?" persona. When the book begins, Delia seems to be a more human heroine as opposed to the plethora of selfless martyr innocents overrunning London, but soon she joins the ranks of brown cows of the ball. Tony is the familiar secret agent aristocrat gentleman hero. The plot and the characters' psychology become more and more predictable with the turning of the pages, so much so that I expect the phrase "Pedestrian Ever After" to be stamped below the last paragraph of the last page, because by then what little freshness the book has have been wrung dry as the author passes this story through the bestseller formula grind mill.
The book is a well-written formulaic story, I'd concede to that. But with lacklustre characters that undergo their usual (and predictable) behaviors and thought processes as if they are just clockwork machines in the bestseller factory, it is hard for me to keep up my initial enthusiasm for this book. The plot promises something fresh at least, if not original, and the heroine seems intelligent at first, but soon the story falls into a very familiar rut. Maybe if I'm not near-saturation point when it comes to the same old Spy Duke/Earl/whatever Hero and Selfless Egalitarian Woman In Need Of Love And Passion While Caring For The World stories, I'd be more appreciative of what The Lady In Question has to offer. It offers some great moments of comedy and two likeable characters, but I have encountered these moments of comedy and likeable characters too many times already.
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