The Suitor
by Sandy Hingston, historical (2002)
Berkley, $6.99, ISBN 0-425-18543-5


This is a very difficult book to grade. I have typed and erased and retyped this review three times and agonized over whether to give it a keeper grade or not. In the end, I just decide that a book that fascinates me so, that has me agonizing and laughing and cursing at it even as I throw an imaginary bouquet into the air when the heroine sails into the hero's arms, that book has to be a keeper.

The Suitor does have one fatal flaw - its last 100 pages before the glorious ending. But nonetheless, everything extraordinary and non-formulaic about this story captivates me. Here's your litmus test: if bitchy heroines give you allergies, separations between the hero and heroine annoy you, the lack of a clear cut formula (boy meets girl, girl wails and strips to save Daddy and family house, pity sex, boy saves girl, et cetera) makes you gnash your teeth, you may want to skip this book. But you shouldn't - give The Suitor a try, because this may be one of the more unusual romance novels you'll read this year.

Katherine Deveraux, 19, beautiful, is not very happy to be stuck in a backward rustic area surrounded by braindead debutantes-to-be rattling about Prince Charming. Her father, after the death of her proper mother, had married an infamous actress and poor Katherine now has to suffer the pain of living below the standards she is used to. No one will accept her family in proper circles, and as the daughter of a duke, it pains her that no one is treating her with the respect she knows she is entitled to.

One day, she gets into a spat with a braindead girl, writes a letter to the braindead girl's hubby-to-be insinuating that the braindead one has done the horizontal tango with a local guy, and braindead tries to kill herself. Oops. As a result, the school's sponsor, the infamous Countess Christiane d'Oliveri, decides to ask her old friend Alain Montclair to do a PG-rated Dangerous Liaisons on Katherine as a lesson to her. The flowers come, the love notes, and the heavy petting until Alain learns to his horror that he is way out of his usual league. So does Christiane, when Katherine decides to run off to a post-Revolution France to look for her Alain there.

Don't think that Katherine is a braindead heroine, running off to France like that. The braindead ones are the girls around Katherine, constantly babbling about puppy love and infatuations as if a man is the beginning and the end of their worlds. It's pathetic, really, and Kate knows it. Yet, at 19 and sheltered, she can't help but to fall for the charms of the first man who pays her court.

And oh, what a girl Kate is! She is Superbitch. When Alain fakes an injury and begs for her help, she snaps at him to crawl to the river instead of dying on her. When he poses as a highwayman in what he hopes to result in your typical braindead Stockholm syndrome fantasy story, she pulls out a gun and fires. Bham!

"Have you ever... shot anyone with that before?" Mrs Treadwell asked with trepidation.

"Never. Rather satisfying to have all that practice with Poppa come to use at last, though." Katherine leaned back in her seat. "I'm feeling awfully hungry. It would be just like that wretch to cause us to miss tea."

It is as if Ms Hingston is giving the finger to all the annoyingly stupidly rigidly formulaic romance novels out there. In fact, several of the familiar elements in this story are given a darker twist. Countess d'Oliveri, for example, is not a benevolent matchmaker, in fact this is the second time she abetted the ruination of her student (she did the same in the previous book in this series, How To Kiss A Hero, and her role here is far more thoughtless and even cruel), can I ask to have that woman banned from even coming near a school? What she did - asking a man to "platonically seduce" her charge and then acting shocked when she learned that things have gone past first base - is so at odds with her worldly personality that I hereby declare d'Oliveri a card-carrying member of Braindead Anonymous and request that she dies in a collision with a carriage driven by a reckless tomboy heroine in the next book.

But if d'Oliveri and the other characters in the story conspire to put down Kate only to expose their even more cruel savagery in the process, Kate is no victim. Her fault may be her own delusions: she truly believes in the system of noble birth and all the rights that come with it, and in a way, she is honorable in that she is trying to live to the standards she believes is expected of her. Besides, she's so good at being the bitch, I adore her, especially when she's crapping on all those lachrymose, pallid, dull brown cows I can easily recognize in too many romance novels as them annoying heroines stripping for the sake of Daddy.

And how she get to France? Just ingenuous, and to think, Kate doesn't have to strip naked for duty sex while she's at it. I bow down to the greatness of Diva Kate.

But it is not until Kate finally sees Alain for who he is, a schoolgirl's fantasy, and makes a decision to grow up that this book finally jumps the grade from being an amusing read to something of deeper substance. Her subsequent adventures see her separated from Alain and being courted by Alain's perfect foil, Clayton, but this is Kate's story, really. How she grows up into a more pragmatic if a little less bitchy woman is a wonderful read. So well-done is Kate's thoughts and rationale, in fact, that for a long time I have no idea whom she will marry in the end, to be honest, Clayton or Alain.

If Kate is a magnificent heroine, Alain remains an Eh character. He is like an accessory rather than a character, appearing only to catalyze Kate's growth as a person. In fact, come to think of it, he's a stereotypical French hero: full of Pepe Le Pewisms ("twinsouls" - what on earth?), pretty words and showy gestures and all, but who the heck he is, I have no idea. But that's not as great a problem as the last 100 pages before Kate's Great Decision, when the author, probably with a gun pressed against her temple, held by her editor, performs valiant CPR on her story, trying to turn it into a more "accessible" story. Clayton, initially a marvelous human foil to Alain, turns into a Mr Wrong so obvious that Ms Hingston may as well draw horns on the poor man's head. And Alain is given all the usual fripperies apparently romance readers will just die if their heroes don't have 'em, making me scratch my head in bewilderment. How did... never mind.

See, when Kate finally makes a decision, she does it with so much giddy exuberance that I giggle like a schoolgirl. Yet her decision seems so right, an appropriate ending after the growing up she has to do. This time she is loving without silly stars in her eyes - she loves the imperfect man because he is just that: a man she loves and not some larger-than-life fantasy.

Of course, my enthusiasm is dampened a lot by the author's not too subtle making the decision for me and Kate, heavy-handedly cutting down Clayton in what they call Anvils of Exposition (heavy-handed obvious elements written in a way that the readers cannot miss the message even when they are drunk and sedated full-blown).

But really, Kate had me the moment she says, "If my escapade in France taught me anything, it was that a girl must look out for herself in this world".

Rating: 93


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