by Loretta Chase, historical (2005)
Berkley, $6.99, ISBN 0-425-20150-3
It comes as quite a disconcerting surprise to me when I realize that the heroine of this book, Daphne Pembroke, is pursued by several men in the story, including the hero Rupert Carsington, for her brain. Wow, someone actually values a heroine for what she thinks?
"But it isn't simply your looks," he went on, his gaze elsewhere, reflective. "It's the enthusiasm. The love of what you do. You make it interesting because you love it. You may talk of the driest stuff, yet I feel like Whatshisname, listening to Scheherazade."
Actually, it takes me about a hundred pages to warm up to Mr. Impossible. A big reason is because the writing for the first hundred pages is dry and uninspired, composed mostly of short sentences reminiscent of Robin Schone's prose. I can't help wondering whether Ms Chase is trying to overcome some lack of enthusiasm or mental block when she is trying to kick start her story. But once the story gets moving into high gear, I get a splendid romantic adventure of the finest kind set in Egypt.
Daphne is a widow who is living in Cairo for three months and counting. When her husband croaked and left her with plenty of money, she decides to pursue what she couldn't do when she was married: to revel in Egyptology, her passion, and to spend a wonderful life studying papyrii and maybe even becoming a pioneer in the art of deciphering hieroglyphics. Because she is a woman living in the early nineteenth century and there weren't any opportunity for a woman to freely become a scholar, she passes off her research as that of her brother Miles'. Unfortunately, when Miles purchases a scroll for Daphne, several parties believe that the scroll holds a key to a lost tomb filled with treasures and one of these parties kidnaps Miles.
Daphne turns the British consul for help. The officer, believing that Miles has probably gone off to some orgiastic trip in a brothel or an opium den, sees an opportunity to get rid of a troublesome new staff member. The youngest son of a nobleman, Rupert Carrington, has been in and out of jail so often since his arrival after he has been exiled from England (it was that or debtor's prison for him). In fact, he is in jail when Daphne goes to look for him. Daphne is hoping for a sturdy and reliable hero. What she finds is a brawny guy with what seems like very little upstairs in the intellectual department. Still, her brother is missing and she has no time to waste. She'd just be the brain and he'd be the brawn to carry out her every instruction. This will work out fine for everyone... right?
It is a given that as Daphne and Rupert, along with a ragtag motley crew of unlikely misfits, pursue the trail left by Miles' kidnappers, these two will fall in love. Rupert is an example of what seems be an archetype for Ms Chase's heroes: he won't be the smartest guy around, he is a rake, but when he falls for the heroine, he falls hard and fast. He may not know what he is undergoing when he falls in love, but egads, he's in love nonetheless. Daphne is intelligent in every sense of that word: she's really a scholarly type of person but she is free from the absent-mindedness that most of these bluestocking heroines tend to have in romance novels. She's actually the one with the more baggage among the two - the years of experiencing male condescension and disdain towards her intelligence have left in her some insecurities about herself and even some mild case of self-loathing, although she doesn't dwell too much on his blues and is smart enough to get over herself when it's time for her to do so.
A part of me doesn't feel that this book deserves a keeper grade because the story takes too long, in my opinion, to come alive. Also, Rupert and Daphne come off as variations of the author's characters in her last few books. Rupert is part of Dain, part of Vere in terms of psychology and personality, only with no tiresome mental baggage to justify his being what he is, a playboy who'd rather play the field than to shackle himself into a relationship, or over-the-top solicitation of prostitutes. A more human Dain or Vere, if you will. Likewise, Daphne is a character that, while incorporates the recognizable traits of intelligence and willpower of previous heroines like Jessica Trent, is also more clear-headed and less reckless than these previous heroines. In a way, Rupert and Daphne are more recognizably human variations of Dain and Jessica or Lydia and Vere.
But it probably is callous of me to get all nitpicky because I laugh and sigh with these two as the story moves along. The kidnap plot has a farcical feel to it, although it doesn't become slapstick silly, which provides some chuckles. But oh, Rupert is a keeper. He makes two words - "Like that?" - come off like the sexiest catchphrase ever invented by human tongue. Ms Chase has displayed in the past that she can create some of the most romantic, funniest, and heartrending falling-in-love journeys for her obstinate heroes and she is at her top form here. There is no question that this is just a case of lust or misplaced need to become a helpless heroine's father figure (not that Daphne is ever helpless at any point in this story). Sure, it is hilarious when he can't stop lusting after her, much to his exasperation, but at the end of the day, it's clear as day that he falls for her personality as well as her luscious curves.
But what pushes this book towards keeper territory is the sheer romanticism of so many of its scenes. Be they tender, naughty, sensual, or deceptively casual, these scenes have me sighing at their romanticism. Some of these scenes are cute but packs a punch, like when Daphne finally tells Rupert her name late into the story (he's been calling her Mrs Pembroke all the while) and he blurts without thinking that Daphne is a "lovely" name. Some scenes can be spectacularly cheesy but I find myself being reeled in hook, line, and sinker nonetheless:
"Nothing works for me," he said. "It was stupid to come in here and close the door. Everything in her is yours. The goddess scent of incense. The scent of your skin. The smell of books and parchment and ink." He stroked his hand over the few inches of divan between them. "This is where you sleep. I sleep all the world away. That's how it feels. I miss you."
What follows is a scene that is pure cheese, complete with people outside who just "happen" to be singing some love song that, by sheer coincidence (really) reflects and expresses exactly how the two lovebirds are feeling. The cynical part of me wants to ask Ms Chase where the violins are. And shouldn't it be raining? These scenes are always drenched in rainwater. But the love scene, the whole Miss you thing, that I sleep all the world away line, all four pages of beautifully rendered drama that is simultaneously overwrought and corny while so beautifully melodramatic and hitting all the right spots in me - I really can't resist, can I? Since we're all cheesy and corny, I may as well say that Ms Chase has had me at... well, not at hello, but at I sleep all the world away.
Because I've such a great time with Mr. Impossible, there is no way I cannot consider this book a keeper. By coming up with a fabulous hero who charms his way under my skin with ease, a wonderful heroine that is smart and likable, and a story that becomes more evocative and romantic as it progresses, Ms Chase makes it impossible for me not to open the door and let Mr. Impossible in.
This book at Amazon.com
This book at Amazon UK
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