by Jacquie D'Alessandro, historical (2003)
Avon, $6.99, ISBN 0-06-053670-5
Jacquie D'Alessandro's debut as a Superleader from Avon is potentially a good read. The character interaction sparkles with wit and charm, and despite the rather rushed "lust at first sight" premise, I find myself buying the whole romance because the main characters feel so right together. Unfortunately, the author has the heroine behaving in a very clichéd manner that ruined my mood. Also, the overall plot doesn't come together as well as it should have.
Picture this, if you will. The Viscount Greybourne, Phillip Whitmore, is Cursed. As an archeologist, he tinkered around with an ancient Egyptian tablet written by a lover scorned and now any woman he is going to marry will undergo a three-step trip: first she will have a non-fatal fall, then she will have a headache, and then, wham, she's dead. His friend and fellow archeologist also read the tablet and next thing you know, that fellow's wife died after experiencing the fall and the headache. Phillip's father is dying and he is not aware of the Curse. As a result, he has hired Meredith Chilton-Grizedale, professional matchmaker, to find Phillip a wife.
Meredith thinks she has found the perfect wife for Phillip. Okay, so that chit falls while trying on a dress in the modiste. Oh dear, a headache? Best take a rest. Phillip however warns this bride-to-be of her impending death and the bride calls off the engagement. Phillip tells his father and Meredith about the Curse, but apparently now the main thing they must all do is to first find a new bride for Phillip and then break the Curse. Along the way, Meredith and Phillip are attracted to each other.
I wish the author has used something more down-to-earth than the Curse for her plot, because the characters behave in a manner that is quite perplexing. I'm never certain whether Meredith believes Phillip or not, so her finding a wife for Phillip when it could mean the death of an innocent woman even as she helps Phillip find a way to break the curse - well, I'm not sure what Meredith is doing or thinking here, to be honest. The characters' main priority seem to be finding a bride for Phillip. Only Phillip seems halfway concerned in breaking the Curse first, and even then, when he starts lusting after Meredith, the curse seems like an afterthought in his priorities. Which is odd, because Phillip clearly intends to marry Meredith and not make her his mistress. Shouldn't there be a greater urgency to find a way to break the Curse?
There are also some bizarre inconsistencies in Meredith. For a professional matchmaker who should be sensitive to the way Society works, she seems unusually shocked when word of the Curse breaks out and nobody wants to marry Phillip. Then again, Meredith is the weakest link in this story. A woman of less-than-stellar past and dubious pedigree, she starts out a somewhat weak but nonetheless resourceful woman. But by the last page, the author has transformed Meredith into a nitwit that just keeps saying no to Phillip's proposal, not because she doesn't want to die (which will be a valid reason to ditch a man if you ask me) but because she's not good enough for him. It gets to a truly irritating point where Phillip declares his love to Meredith only to have Meredith insists that he really doesn't love her because she says so. Because she says that nobody can love her because of her shameful past, so there! Which will be fine if she also does not, in the same breath, whines in a self-pity party about how miserable her life is. I don't know if Meredith is a victim to Avon's Stephanie "Just Say No To Marriage Stuff But Say Yes To Monkey Sex" Laurens Charter policy or it's just a misstep on the author's part, but the relationship in this story suffers greatly when Meredith starts acting like a dingbat pity-party for one.
Phillip fares much better as the beta hero that isn't afraid to go after the woman he loves, although his passivity regarding the Curse and his tendency to blame himself for too many things can be as frustrating as Meredith's pity party. One thing I cannot find fault in is that when Phillip and Meredith are working together in the early and middle portions of this book, these two are really good together. The dialogs sparkle, the chemistry is there, and there is an easy camaraderie between these two that suggests that these two will be great friends as well as lovers. That's good. What's not good is the characters' engaging in clichéd behavior in the late third of the story.
I'm not too keen on the secondary characters. Meredith's secret admirer has potential, but at the end of the day, the secondary characters aren't as fully fleshed as they could have been. The sequel baits, though, can be seen coming a mile away.
The fine writing, the easy humor, and the chemistry between the lead characters make Who Will Take This Man? a cut above the formulaic Regency-era historical romances in the market. But it's still a formulaic book in that the hero and especially the heroine eventually become stock characters with dubious intelligence. If Jacquie D'Alessandro has tried a little more to make her story more refreshing and tightened her plot a little, this book will be fine. As it is, Who Will Take This Man? is merely an entertaining kind of ordinary.
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