by Karen Hawkins, historical (2003)
Avon, $5.99, ISBN 0-06-051405-1
Despite being so fundamentally flawed that this book has more holes than the post-iceberg Titanic, How To Treat A Lady actually sparkles. This light-hearted romp has lots of bounce in the prose and the depiction of the secondary characters that I actually close one eye to the horribly inconsistent plot, hero, and heroine and enjoy myself reading this book.
Chase St John has had enough with dealing with his inner demons. A debauched rake, he however has been nursing lots of guilt when a recent night of debauchery ended with him running down a passerby while carriage-driving under the influence. His "friend" Harry Annesley is blackmailing him and his conscience is tormenting him, so he's decided to leave England for Italy or some other country in Europe. While he's passing Sticklye-By-The-River, however, he gets mugged and falls from his horse. He is found by the Ward clan, taken in, and ends up helping the family in an unusual way.
The eldest sibling Harriet Ward has been the head of the family since her father died and left them with nothing but bills and debts. The Wards were once minor members of the Ton, but for some reason never made entirely clear, Harriet's uncle inherits the title after her father's death despite Harriet having two brothers (along with two sisters). I am also puzzled by why this new titled lord doesn't send the Wards any money, but since I am led to believe that this is a bankrupt title, maybe the new titled fellow doesn't have any money either. Either way, the Wards are now living in genteel poverty and raising sheep for wool to sell at the markets. Harriet's mother Elviria has concocted a fictitious beau for Harriet, "Captain John Frakenham", telling the bank people that John is very rich and he will marry Harriet and pay the last of the mortgage on the family house soon. In the meantime, Harriet will get the sheep ready for the shearing and with the proceeds from the wool sale, they'll pay off the last of the mortgage. They just need two weeks.
This is where Chase comes in. Chase doesn't want his brothers to know that he's leaving England without their knowledge, so he feigns amnesia. When the bank people start pounding on their door because the banker Mr Gower is trying to manipulate Harriet's financial situation so that she will marry him, Elviria tells Chase that he is Captain John Frakenham and he must now go shoo the bankers in the living room. Chase ends up playing the role of Harriet's betrothed, helps around the farm shearing sheep and making enemies out of those bitter creatures, and learns the meaning of true love and other rot in the process.
There are many things about this book that can drive readers that put a major emphasis on historical accuracy crazy. Harriet's beau staying with her in the same house is a sticky situation enough, even if I guess we can say that her family members act as chaperones, but the Wards joke about catching Harriet and "John" in the hay in the stables as breakfast conversation. Chase goes on and on about guilt and remorse, but he doesn't think twice about sleeping with a proper virginal miss like Harriet while plotting to leave her behind soon at the same time. Harriet, needless to say, doesn't even think twice about letting "John" have her pastries for free, but she has the "I am a romance heroine - I don't need to think" excuse. What does Chase have to say about himself? Also, the plot can be pretty inconsistent - Chase wants to flee his life as a St John behind, but ironically, in the end he will not get his happy ending if he isn't a St John. The author also wipes clean Chase's slate by the epilogue, another sore point with me. It feels like a cop-out that after all of Chase's blues and woes and martyred act of running away to spare the family their shame nonsense, his problems turn out to be just a nefarious scheme on the villain's part.
There are some aspects about Harriet that I like: she is the head of the family, but she also has dreams of dancing and living in comfort of luxury. She is also honest in that she feels a realistic and healthy amount of anger at her late father for being so stupid and leaving behind a mountain of debts to the rest of the family as his bye-bye gift. She is more real than many of the responsible and selfless heroines that populate the Regency historical romance subgenre. Unfortunately, Harriet becomes progressively more irritating as the story progresses, everything from her mouth reduced to mere baseless judgments and criticisms of Chase (for example, Chase is a rich man with servants so that means he must be an irresponsible lout according to Harriet here). By the last page I feel that Chase is more patient and courageous than anyone should be to declare his love to this judgmental and shrill shrew.
On his own, Chase is a decent lightweight tormented hero, his inconsistent morals when it comes to bedding Harriet while whining about his lack of nobility aside, and he displays charming chemistry with the rest of the Ward clan. It is telling that he probably has more chemistry with the angry sheep than with Harriet.
It's the chemistry of Chase with the Ward clan that is main reason behind this book's sparkle. I find the Ward clan really delightful, from the spoiled Sophy to the bookish Ophelia to the silly lovestruck Stephen to the ditzy but cunning Elviria. These characters are pretty well-written as they display depths that make them more memorable than the one-note hot-air windbag that is Harriet. Ophelia, for example, is bookish but she often displays some charming antics that suggest that she can give Sophy a run for her money when it comes to acting like a primadonna. Sophy, for all her faults, loves her family and it shows. With her family and away from Chase, Harriet becomes a more likable head of the family who is more practical than the rest of them and hence the boss of everyone. When Harriet and Chase are surrounded by the Ward clan, How To Treat A Lady becomes a really fun comedic romp. Luckily for this book, there are many of these moments.
While I enjoy reading this book, I can't in good conscience overlook the problems it has. If the author has tightened the plot and characterization much more or maybe set this story in a late 19th century Americana setting so that inconsistencies to the Regency behavioral rules won't intrude too much on the story, this book would be a winner. As it is, Julia Quinn can still breathe easy - Karen Hawkins still has some catching up to do, for now.
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