The Matchmaker
by Rexanne Becnel, historical (2001)
St Martin's Press, $6.50, ISBN 0-312-97699-2


After this author's sadistic trilogy of sexual subjugation of powerless heroines that is her Wales medieval saga, I am actually scared to even touch this book when I see it at the New Arrivals shelf. But I can never resist the siren call of a romance with a dark, bad hero, and what's $6.50 when I'm already half-way to bankruptcy after my weekly book binge? The Matchmaker goes into my book bag.

To my great relief, the hero in The Matchmaker isn't a grade AAA+ a-hole. The heroine still can't stand up to him, and it's one of those cases where the her ability to keep him is questionable as he dominates her personality entirely when she's with him. If one day this author actually creates a heroine who isn't the stereotypical goody-woody guileless sort, I suspect the result will be magic.

Until then, I'll have to be content with half-way magic stories like The Matchmaker. Olivia Byrde is the typical 21-year old "on the shelf" heroine who spends her time matchmaking her friends and acquaintances to pass the time. Her mother has survived three lousy marriages, and Olivia is not sure whether she wants to be married herself, since the right man hasn't shown up yet. All the men in her life seems better suited to her female acquaintances instead, dang. But hey, she and her lil' black book of men and their quirks help these women get their men where she can't.

Even her own mother asks her advice on nabbing the man Momma has her eyes set on.

But one day, Lord Neville Hawke mistakes her for a housemaid and comes on to her stronger than a Mack truck on full speed collision. She drops her book, and he thinks, okay, she's not a maid, she must be a demirep. Who else will keep note of men's traits and quirks ("too cheap, momma's boy, ill-mannered," etc)? But as he toys, baits, and dangles that ripe carrot of his virility before our flummoxed and virtuous heroine, he realizes too late that he may just end up paying more than he expected. Olivia's owlish eyes and her bluestocking ways may just be his salvation.

You see, Hawke is suffering from post-war trauma as well as this persistent guilt (he sees himself as a coward). He drinks, he whores, and generally, he becomes another stereotypical dark rake. But oh, when he realizes he needs Olivia, his desperate attempt to hold on to her just takes my breath away. There's something very twistedly romantic in reading about a man who has the woman twisted in knots around his finger yet he feels unworthy of her and tries to hide his darkness from her. In short, the predator ends up the one with the paw in the trap. And Hawke is a man who will do anything to keep her rather than walk away quietly into the night like a misguided martyr.

The main flaw here is the heroine. I just don't see why she loves Hawke. Frankly, to be blunt, the way Hawke paws and manhandles her is no different from the way a few odious suitors paw and manhandle her. The only difference here is Hawke being a good kisser and all. Olivia just cannot stand up to the hero at all. At one point, her idea of rebuffing him is to barricade herself in a room. A heroine who lets herself be cowed and thoroughly intimidated by the hero just cannot hold her own in the romance. The romance in this story has all its strings pulled by the hero. If the author hasn't shown how much the hero need the heroine, I would have felt very uneasy at the whole unbalanced sexual tug-of-war.

The Matchmaker is one of those romances that show how rakes should be done - dark, roguish, unrepentant, yet loving their women with singular respect and devotion once they are snared. No denial, no hurting her for her own good, or other rubbish jerk behavior passed off as "arrogance". Now, if only Olivia has shown more steel when it comes to the hero.

Rating: 85


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