The Secret Gift
by Jaclyn Reding, contemporary (2003)
Signet, $6.99, ISBN 0-451-20956-7


When authors like Jaclyn Reding hop from the historical to the contemporary subgenre, they tend to create books that are neither historical nor contemporary but a bizarre amalgamation of both. The Secret Gift is set in present day, but the whole story seems so out of touch with the contemporary setting. Factor in the supremely irritating heroine that weeps at the drop of a hat and I get a book that resonates like nails scratching on blackboard.

Our heroine Isabella Elizabeth Mackay Hutchinson, or Libby, is in mourning. Her mother passed away and our Manhatten-based arty-farty bookseller is now beating herself up for not visiting her mother in Ipswich-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts more often. She discovers the ever-handy last missive from Momma Dearest that leads her to finding Momma's last bequest: a magical stone, only that Libby isn't aware that it is magical. Yet. Libby decides that she must fly down to Scotland to discover her mother's roots. Wrath Village, Scotland, here she comes.

Our hero Graeme Mackenzie has inherited not one but two British titles and now women are stalking him. Tabloids are stalking him. They invade his castle - apparently our twenty-first century rich guy is too cheap to spring for security measures - and hide naked in his bathroom with a bow around their - let's see what word the author uses - "packages". Angry Horny Transvestites On A Rampage has a nice ring to it, don't you think? So much so that when our heroine, disorientated and not used to British cars that talk, end up at his doorstep, he pushes a gun at her.

Libby soon realizes that Graeme's castle holds the key to her mother's past, but our hero won't let her through, suspecting her of being another one of those women after his skin. Yes, Ms Reding, everyone wants a British aristocrat nowadays instead of looking at him and his manservant and the silver polish suspiciously. Of course, Libby's car breaks down, forcing him to take her in. Then his hoarde of predictably kind and warm servants descend on her. At night she has this urge to wander around the house, and yes, she stumbles upon him doing his thing - no, not with his manservant, thank goodness - and so this story goes. The author's constant use of transparent plot contrivances in this story provides some silly moments of entertainment when I begin playing spot-the-contrivance, but I get bored of it soon enough.

So what else is there? A one-note hero believing that every woman is after him isn't my idea of an interesting guy. There's the heroine, of course, and ugh, what a grotesque creature. Libby is that overly sweet, ethereal girl-child heroine that sheds tears whenever she thinks of her mother - which is too often - or whenever she imagines people being in love or being hurt by love - which is most of what's left when she's not weeping over Mommy. She's like a flowing beer keg with a broken tap, only this time it's pure glucose water and not beer that is leaking from the tap. Be it weeping or sighing melodramatically over any emotion that crosses her heart or mind, Libby is like a walking "I'm Fragile, Kiss Me" greeting card gone berserk. I really cannot stand her at all.

The author excels in describing the idyllic Scottish countryside or the bookstores in London, but whatever use this book has as a travelogue is ruined whenever Libby decides that she's happy or sad and brings on the overwrought waterworks and other hysterical theatrics. Other than the talking car, some tabloid headlines, and the mention of airplanes, there is very little in this book that suggests that this book is set in present day. The values of the people are decidedly anti-big-city and pro-countryside, their concept of marriage and sex have an ultra-conservative smalltown ring to them, the whole titled hero being the catch of the day thing seems like a throwback to the old days, and to top it off, this book's overromanticization of Princess Diana and her death only adds to the unbearably surreal girlishness of the story. Even the gratuitous namedropping of the author's own book in this story fails to amuse.

The unbearable girlishness of the heroine and the "aristocracy is cool even the hero acts like a one-note grouch" story is too much for me. And me being the strange reader that likes my contemporary stories to be a little bit contemporary at least doesn't help this book much either. For me, The Secret Gift is a confection that makes me fear for my blood sugar levels.

Rating: 48


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