by Loretta Chase, historical (2006)
Berkley, $7.99, ISBN 0-425-20888-5
Loretta Chase's Lord Perfect is a very hard book to review. You see, by the last page I am utterly in love with the hero, Benedict Carsington, but I am so confused by the heroine Bathsheba Wingate to the point that I am even actively disliking her by the time the book ends. Also, this book has a sagging middle that is just hideous in how difficult that portion of the book is to muddle through. All in all, this feels like a book written under duress or other conditions where the author's heart doesn't feel like it's really into the task of finishing the book.
Benedict, the eldest Carsington brother (his brothers Alistair and Rupert have their own books, Miss Wonderful and Mr. Impossible respectively), is always proper. His actions, like his hair, are never out of place. But his control unravels, at first subtly, when his nephew, the thirteen-year old Peregrine with a keen interest in history and treasures, ends up in a public display of bad kiddie behavior with Olivia Wingate, the twelve-year old daughter of Bathsheba, in the Egyptian Hall of Picadilly one day in September 1821. He is attracted to Bathsheba at first sight but unfortunately, Bathsheba is one of the disgraceful branch of the Wingate family infamous for their notorious penchance for swindling and other bad behaviors that Just Won't Do At All.
But when Peregrine wants an art teacher - or more specifically, Peregrine wants Mrs Wingate to teach him art - so that he can improve in his sketching, it seems like Benedict and Bathsheba aren't going to stop seeing each other anytime soon. When Peregrine and Olivia disappear, ah, that's when those two adults have to go search after the naughty children and... interesting things happen.
The children are vexingly annoying, I am afraid - they don't sound like their age as much as they come off as eerie kiddie versions of Benedict and Bathsheba. Still, they aren't too annoying apart from their constant grown-up speechs and too-insightful ways at looking at things around them. It is Bathsheba who ends up really cheesing me off. But first, let's talk about Benedict. Sigh. I love reading about a man having his defenses lowered by love but Ms Chase doesn't just give me that, she gives me such beautiful scenes of Benedict's sometimes almost child-like sense of wonder as he realizes that not just is he falling in love with Bathsheba, he is finally coming alive and even managing to put to rest his few personal demons regarding his brothers, his father, and his buried sense of frustration and even envy at always having to be the responsible one while his brothers ran free and did things that responsibility and his father forbade Benedict from doing. I can reread that scene where he just laughs and laughs after realizing that he has gotten into a brawl for Bathsheba. I sigh at his subsequent sense of wonder that someone - Bathsheba - actually dares to fight for him by his side rather than expecting him to take care of everything. There is an infectious, likeable, and even breathtakingly romantic quality to Benedict's going crazy (or is that coming to his senses) from being seized by love, as nicely examplified by this scene:
He'd have the rest of his life to dwell on might-have-beens.
God. The rest of his life.
Years. Decades. His family was horribly long-lived.
The Dowager Countess of Hargate was fourscore and five. Her spouse, the previous earl, had lived into his seventies, and many of his siblings were still alive. Mama's family was equally tenacious of life. Her parents were in their eighties.
Benedict might live for another half century!
"You're right," he said. "I want nothing to do with them. I want nothing to do with anybody who'd ridicule or pity me because I love you."
She went suddenly still. "You-"
"I love you," he said. "They may all go to blazes. If no one will take the trouble to see what you really are like, if they will drive you out of England, then I will go with you."
Which brings me to a good point: what exactly is Bathsheba really like? At first I like her because she seems like a nice heroine who, while clinging on to virtue and all, also is smart at the same time and can take care of herself. But as the story progresses, Bathsheba seems to have pure ice flowing in her veins. She doesn't seem so smart when she starts going about how she doesn't want her penniless self to become Benedict's charity chase. But she sinks lower in my estimation when she stops feeling angry at what she believes to be Benedict's asking her to be his mistress to being tad disappointed when she learns that he is just introducing her to a landlady who would charge a reasonable rent at a place away from the slums that Bathsheba and Olivia are currently living in, because he doesn't find her attractive enough to want her that way. Bathsheba is getting very close to Typically Stupid British Historical Heroine territory here, but she happily hops into that territory later in the story when she just won't stop insisting that she and Olivia must run away from England for Benedict's own good.
The problem I have is this: Bathsheba always claims that everything she does that smack of even a little deviation from pure all-around goody-goody saintliness is motivated by her wanting Olivia to have a better life. Ah, but when she could have married Benedict - or at least be his mistress - and allow him to finance a better life for herself and her daughter, she'd rather run off to Germany so that they can continue living the life they have, with Olivia getting into trouble and Bathsheba creating a starring role for herself as the long-suffering mother in her own melodrama. Apparently pride is more valuable to Bathsheba despite her constant lipservice to the contrary, which is still fine with me if not for the fact that Bathsheba, while claiming to love her daughter and what-not, is more than happy to ditch a chance to give Olivia a better life so that Bathsheba can star as the martyr in this love story. Bathsheba becomes truly unlikeable when she not only starts assuming that she is right - she has to flee - she also starts actively trying to escape Benedict (a grown-up of thirty-seven surely can't think for his own). When she starts wailing that she wants to take Olivia to some hovel in Germany because she can't bear to be separated from Olivia (she fears that her wealthy estranged grandfather may want to gain custody of Olivia), that's when I really lose it and want to sink my heel right between Bathsheba's eyes. Since she loves to be a martyr, why doesn't she just disappear on her own then and let Olivia stay behind with her rich relatives? I certainly won't be sorry to see Bathsheba go, for one.
Bathsheba is also a cold character, constantly telling Benedict about how her twelve-year old daughter will never get into trouble with the riffraffs that the kiddies may meet on the road - I don't know whether Bathsheba is truly convinced that Olivia has 666 tattooed on her forehead or Bathsheba is just being uncharacteristically naive here - and, by the later quarter of the book, acting like Bathsheba's way is the only way. Benedict is also pretty callous in the middle portions of the book when he would waste time shagging Bathsheba when they should be combing the countryside for the two kids, but I blame that on Ms Chase seeming to lose all focus as to what she wants to do with her story during the sagging middle. This story goes downhill very fast the moment those two characters sleep together - which also coincides with the moment when Bathsheba starts acting like the martyr-bitch from hell, come to think of it - and it is only redeemed by the last few chapters with Benedict's confusion and emotional turmoil when it comes to Bathsheba have him saying and doing some really romantic things. Also, his father as well as Bathsheba's father steal the scene every time those coots show up.
I am also confused by Bathsheba's background. I understand that her marriage to Jack Wingate was not a happy one because he was an irresponsible man who craves adventures and infamy like the rest of her family members, but from all accounts Jack was also a pretty good father to Olivia. I never get any insight into how Bathsheba really felt about her life with Jack. I only get this impression that Bathsheba is so obsessed about being a martyr to Society's concept of honor and virtue that she is even willing to sacrifice her daughter's well-being to play that role - ironically, something that Bathsheba claims her not-so-loving mother was. How typical that the heroine doesn't know that she has turned into her not-so-adored Mommy Dearest, really.
But Benedict, oh Benedict, he has all the best lines in this story. The eventual crumbling of his control is too wonderful for words, especially when he seems to bloom and come alive with every turn of the story without compromising who he was before. Benedict doesn't change completely as much as he now learns to accept and sometimes embrace life when it goes out of his control where in the past he clung to his control without letting anything dent his facade. He makes me laugh and cry at the same time at a number of points in this story. Naturally, he is too good for this story and its muddling, annoying, perplexing, and exasperatingly half-baked plot and characters.
So, how do I rate a book when I love the hero to bits but at the same time I find many other things about this book that don't cut it with me? Simply put, Lord Perfect is a terrible Loretta Chase book that feels rushed and ill-developed, but I suspect that like me, Ms Chase probably cares too much for Benedict by the last page. It shows: Benedict is the only well-written complex character here. In fact, he's the only character with a semblance of two-dimensionality. Unfortunately, perhaps like me as well, Ms Chase most likely doesn't care for everything else about this book.
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