by Sharon Pisacreta, historical (1999)
Leisure, $5.50, ISBN 0-8439-4541-9
Nothing makes me madder than reading a book that has me hooked, line and sinker, by page 4 and then lets me down faster than one can scream Punctured parachute! This book has one of the best heroes I've ever encountered in a romance, and that's a generous praise coming from a fusspot like me, but the external conflicts ruin the story totally. And yes, totally. By the last page this book has sunk from a Keeper status to Rewrite or bust.
The story is elegantly original - it's set back against the carnival and magic arena in America at the brink of the 20th century, a time where magicians and circus performers reign supreme as entertainers. Our heroine, Salome Hall is a mousy, bookworm of a schoolmarm who has been in love with Lyndon Whittier for years. Lyndon is the only man who is kind to her when she was an overweight teenager with a chronic case of shyness, and now, she is overjoyed that he has proposed to her. Until on the night he is supposed to announce their engagement, he proposes to flamboyant showgirl Jane Dupree instead! Poor Salome - she is humiliated and worse, she starts to question her prim and properness. In a fit of determination, she decides to win Lyndon back, even if she has to prove to him that she can be exciting and exotic as her namesake. She's going to pack her bags and become a showgirl herself!
She is soon made to realize the silliness of her plans when no one wants to hire her to be a showgirl. Then Julia Dupree, bitter sister of Jane, offers her a nice position: Julia has just had a bitter fight with her boyfriend, the magician Marc Cooper (who's Marco the Magnificent on stage), and has left that guy in some hope that Marc will realize that he couldn't live without Julia. But Julia is worried that the other hussies in the circuit would get their brazen claws into Marc's... er, hands, so would prim and proper and definitely unattractive Salome be so kind as to be Marc's assistant (and kick those hussies away while you're at it?)
Marc too, reluctantly agrees, more for Salome's sake as he realizes that the woman would really get into trouble should she continue to go around the stews asking for jobs. Both of them think it would be a nice safe and professional relationship - he likes brazen, voluptous women, she's determined to get Lyndon back. No problemo.
Only soon Salome learns that Marc can't read and is caught in a really bad fix - the man signed a really bad contract that allows some gangster boss to get half his earnings - so she sics her lawyer friends on the bad guy and teaches Marc to read. And with Marc, she learns to loosen up, let down her hair, and show a bit of leg. You know where they are heading, don't you?
I love Marc. Here is an uneducated man determined to better himself by learning, and who is intelligent enough to realize early on that he doesn't want to let Salome out of his life. I am always a sucker for nerds, and Marc, despite being buff and hunky-wunky beefcake material, is an intelligent, studious man who does his best to learn and be worthy of a woman of Salome's (educated) background. No whining from this man - he actually has a wonderful family and has no hang-ups about women despite having a few bad ex-girlfriends in his life. I am moved to tears when he painstakingly creates a love sonnet to Salome in his shaky, almost childish (and newly mastered) handwriting. Oh, what a wonderful man.
I even emphatized with Salomes's thickheaded insistance on marrying Lyndon. The author does a good job of telling Salome's story. How could she not love and devote all her loyalty to the only man who had respected her and treated her like a princess for ten years, ever since she was a friendless child? If she is a bit slow to see that her devotion to Lyndon is misplaced, well, to me at least, it is understandable. First love always bites deepest, even if it usually is always the most shallow.
Her quiet times with Marc are simply beautiful. I love how she slowly loosens up, realistically - her transformation from prim to carefree isn't always smooth sailing. But in the end, in a truly wonderful scene in a Ferris wheel, when she realizes, why yes, she does love Marc, it is one of the most moving scenes I've ever read. I'm laughing and getting teary-eyed at the same time when she pulls up her skirts and starts searching frantically for a forlorn, heartbroken Marc. This book is truly romantic, make no mistake.
But there's a very big but that destroys my enjoyment of an otherwise superb book. The villians. They keep coming again and again, and when one Bad Guy is out of the picture, the author cooks up a replacement. After a while it seems that every lowlife is after some part of Marc and Salome. And their plans are quite silly too, and it doesn't help that they are as cartoony as the Southpark Kids minus the fun factor. It may sound trivial here, but I really get irritated and tired after so many plots and villians and murder attempts and blackmail attempts and perjury and... just thinking about the hurdles these two people face is exhausting by itself. If there is an excellent book ruined by too much external conflicts, this is it.
Which makes Magic And Moonlight a very disappointing read indeed. Infuriatingly disappointing, because there is so much that I love and enjoy, and these wonderful elements are mired in a really awful plot. Ms Pisacreta writes elegant poetry with her characters. "Blame it on the magic. Magic and moonlight," Salome tells a bewildered Lyndon when she finally realizes her love for Marc. Too bad the magic of this book gets completely snuffed out by an overkill of villians.
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