No Man's Mistress
by Mary Balogh, historical (2002)
Dell, $6.50, ISBN 0-440-23657-6

Mary Balogh delivers a very well-written tale of stupid people. Stupid people who have read too much Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer to the point that they confuse those books with the Bible. Stupid people who talk and act in oh so predictable ways to predictable dramas in their lives, even Pavlov's dogs will go green with envy. I bet if I dangle a piece of martyrhood (just imagine that martyrhood is something solid, like a piece of meat) high, Viola Thornhill will bark and pant in excitement.

It doesn't help that Viola acts like a stereotypical bluestocking at the first half of the book, and then the author pulls the rugs from under me and tells me that Viola is not who she seems to be. I can't reconcile these two characters as the same person at all, as a result, No Man's Mistress reads like a chimera Pavlov Frankensteinian dog with the head of a St Bernard's stuck to the body of a chinhuahua.

Maybe this is a spoiler, but Viola is actually a woman with a past. She comes to inherit a country house from an, er, "old friend", so to speak, and wishes to start life anew as a country bluestocking dingbat. Unfortunately, the house isn't really hers - the son of her old friend wagers it and loses the house in a card game. The new owner, Ferdinand Dudley, shows up, and now both of them are in a stand-off over the house.

To appreciate this story, I must accept that Viola must have the house, because she must support her family without accepting any help or charity even when she's all but begging with her tongue lolling out on the floor. She will even whore herself for the house in the name of pride. No doubt some readers will be impressed with Viola's courage, independence, and willpower, but me, I have to ask: What courage? What independence? What willpower?

Viola makes so many choices that cause her to suffer more, all in the name of pride and some weird notion of independence. Freddie practically offers her many ways out of her dilemma from the get go, but she must not succumb! She must not give in! No, she'll whore herself instead and then weeps and whines that she's doing it for love, house, and womankind. Give me a break.

And Freddie? Go suck lemons. What do you call a man who lusts after a woman, but upon discovering that said woman is one of experience, starts calling her whore and all? What, is he a virginal dingbat to cast stones in a glasshouse like that? Go suck lemons, Freddie you pig, no, go fellate a live grenade, you sanctimonious pig.

Things really go downhill when Viola's past is revealed. Before that, Viola is a masochistic martyr but at least she and Freddie seem to have a budding friendship forming and they do have sexual tension. But the revelation only causes those two to jump through hoops and perform weird acrobatic contortions to make martyrs out of themselves. There's really nothing here that compromise and communication can't fix, but Viola and Freddie prefer to whip themselves bloody in some pretentious Byronesque sense of martyrhood. They - and Mary Balogh - mistake ridiculous pride and bloated sense of self-importance for nobility and virtue, and the roadkill just has to be me. Those evil bastards.

Rating: 68

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