by Julia London, historical (2005)
Pocket, $6.99, ISBN 0-7434-6507-5
Julia London's Highlander In Disguise has many fundamental similarities with her previous contemporary romance Miss Fortune. The heroines of both books often behave in ways that, in today's climate in the genre where heroines are pretty much obligated to have no personal desires and to cater to the wishes of everyone around her, will have them accused as being "selfish" and "unlikeable". They don't behave in perfectly agreeable ways most safe and sanitized historical romance heroines do. It comes as a shock to me sometimes when I realize that I am actually sympathizing with or wincing at the heroine's actions. Romance heroines are sometimes so inoffensive and so safe and so predictable in their actions that it is quite disconcerting at first to realize that Anna Addison is different.
Griffin Lockhart sets out to London to do what his brother Liam failed to do: to retrieve the Scottish Lockhart's missing heirloom fondly called the beastie by the Lockharts. Without the beastie, the Scottish Lockharts believe that their failing luck with money and harvest will only worsen. So much so that they barter the sister Mared off to a neighbor in exchange for loans to finance Griff's trip to London. (Using the loan to make improvements on the farm and what-not is, naturally, out of the question.) Mared's story is next, by the way, so don't worry too much about Mared being trapped in white slavery and what not. Griff descends to London as Griffin MacAuley, the laird of Ardencaple. The only clue to the beastie's whereabouts is that it is in the hands of a woman called Amelia so Griff makes the ballroom circuit trying to wine and dine the Amelias, old and young, for more information on the beastie.
In the meantime, he is not above trying to have some easy and meaningless dalliance with the beautiful debutante Lucy Addison. Unfortunately, her sister Anna is getting on his nerves. She drops hints that she knows who he really is. She tries to ruin his cover in public. She's the diabhal! Unfortunately, Anna beats her to locating the beastie. Now she is using it to blackmail him. If he teaches her how to seduce her sister's suitor Drake Lockhart (Grif's cousin from the British Lockhart side - the British and Scot Lockharts have a grudge for a long time now) whom Anna wants for herself, she'll give him the beastie once Drake proposes marriage to her.
I do like Anna, especially for the fact that she is intelligent enough to put two and two together and beat Grif to the beastie. Okay, Grif isn't exactly the brightest bulb in the house and even a lummox will come off as intelligent compared to him, but Anna is smart. Especially nice is how she isn't afraid to look out for number one, number one being, of course, herself. She isn't afraid to flirt, she isn't afraid of seduction, and when she blossoms as a society butterfly, she revels in the role. A beautiful far cry from the typically contrived heroine who is determined to hate everything expensive and pretty just to get readers to "like" her, if I may say so.
Grif isn't the brightest man around, but come on, look at the premise of this story - I don't think the Scottish Lockharts will be winning any spelling bees soon, if you know what I mean. Grif is immature, led by his best buddy between his legs, and delightfully male in the sense that he is shallow and horny and is not afraid to admit that. Grif and Anna's relationship is similar to that of a Loretta Chase couple's, where the hero is often the heroine's intellectual inferior but at the same time he tries so hard to make himself worthy to her in other delightfully enthusiastic and earnest ways.
The main flaw of this book is not its many clichéd subplots, of which there are quite a few, but the author's failure to develop certain key premises that are crucial to my understanding of the main characters, especially Anna. The most obvious of these underdeveloped premises is the basis of Anna's attraction to Drake. If Drake comes off as a genuinely likeable man, that would explain Anna's lengths to get him for herself. But Drake comes off as a wishy-washy playboy for too long in the story and therefore Anna's behavior, especially when she metaphorically pushes the nails into Grif's skull to force him to help her get Drake, often doesn't make sense. Unlike in Material Girl where Rachel Lear's most cringe-inducing behavior still manages to come off as understandable because the author explains Rachel's motivations so well, Anna comes off as being selfish and even self-absorbed in an unreasonable manner. I start to feel sorry for Grif at that point, who is obviously too immature and brash to understand that he has fallen in love without Anna without realizing it.
The author nonetheless manages to hold her story together, even when it threatens to degenerate into farce towards the end, and throughout everything, Anna and Grif manage to remain interesting and entertaining characters to follow. I believe that this is what good characterization should be: not making sure that the characters remain so bland and inoffensive that they make no impact on the reader, but making the characters come complete with flaws and strengths that I can at least understand, if not relate to. While Highlander In Disguise doesn't pack an emotional punch in terms of characters having issues compared to the previous book, it nonetheless manages to become an entertaining story about how love and lust sometimes spin out of control and make people behave in silly ways.
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