by Diane Farr, historical (2003)
Signet, $6.50, ISBN 0-451-21023-9
Diane Farr's Under The Wishing Star is a cute read as long as the hero Lord Malcolm Chase is in the scene. Left on her own, Natalie Whittaker embodies all the reasons why a traditional Regency heroine can drive me to chew on broken glass out of frustration. She's not just a brown cow, she's browner than brown. Or brown to the point of barbecued crispness. I don't know. All I know is when the hero is chasing the heroine, I am charmed. When the heroine is alone trying to Spread the Word on Being Spinelessly Virtuous, it takes all my willpower not to gnaw at the book with my teeth out of frustration.
Natalie is a sad heroine. Her half-brother has inherited the house she lives in, and he and his uncouth wife are making Nat so sad and blue. When Nat happens to see a governess starting to punish a lil' girl, Nat's Save The World inspirations surge forth, earning her the admiration of the girl's father Malcolm. Will she be lil' Sarah's governess? Nat will love to, of course! She will love to do that passive-aggressive spiteful thing, you know, becoming a governess and making other people talk and hopefully embarrass the people that tormented her. (This is like taking up a job of cleaning toilets just to humiliate a sibling - but I've given up trying to make sense of Regency heroines' logic a long time ago.)
Then she learns that Malcolm is a neighbor, oh no, this cannot be! She cannot be the governess now, because how horrible it is to work for a neighbor instead of working in a faraway place from here! People will talk! Then, the bad brother shoots her plans down by threatening to cut off her good brother's stipend if she becomes a governess. And predictably, Nat crumbles like a house made out of toilet paper caught in a torrential downpour. But she will keep visiting Sarah and of course that fascinating Malcolm. Then, brother decides to cause more problems. Nat's resolve crumbles again.
Nat drives me nuts. There is an easy way out of her dilemma. Malcolm wants to marry her. Not for love, of course, as he doesn't believe in love (bad dead first wife and all that *eye roll*), but for her to be a good mother to Sarah. Nat, however, refuses. Of course not, as how can a woman marry without love, right? Never mind that marrying Lord Malcolm will give her the social leverage to kick her nasty relatives' hinds all the way to Newcastle, never mind that she genuinely likes Malcolm and she is already Sarah's unpaid mommy, she cannot marry just because the hero doesn't say the three words. And I suspect, even if he does, Nat with her low sense of self-worth will probably take the excuse just to ramp up the "hah hah, I'm a 24-year old spinster, I can't be attractive to anybody!" act she's already pouring quite thickly in this story. In the end, I guess having fun while being a martyr makes the whole point of martyrdom irrelevant, so for a virtuous dingbat like Nat, marrying Malcolm will not do. At least, for the next two hundred or so pages.
Nat also has no spine, despite the author's assertions otherwise. Her resolution crumbles whenever her stupid brother threatens a loved one, and she doesn't even stop to think or call his bluff, just running away to Malcolm because oh, oh, how can she now make everyone in her life happy?
So basically this is a story about Nat acting all angsty and blue because she is too "virtuous" to help herself. What she can do, like most Regency heroines do best, is to keep everyone happy. The perfect mother, the perfect caregiver, the selfless antidote to Malcolm's selfish and maniac late wife. But neither polar extremes - the psycho bitch wife and the selfless doormat heroine - come off as real characters to me, making Under The Wishing Star another starchy romanticizing of irritating countrified doormat ingenues at large.
Malcolm is a nice hero. He's cynical, but unknowingly to him, most of his actions here, like putting on a party just so that he can dance with Nat, are the epitome of romantic gallantry. This makes Nat's blindness to see what a great decision marrying Malcolm will be even more frustrating.
A horrifically lopsided story where it is only readable and even very good when Malcolm is in the scene, Under The Wishing Star is simultaneously a testament to Ms Farr's ability to write great heroes as well as horrifically irritating heroines. Fans of the traditional Regency genre - in which impractically "virtuous" heroines like Nat thrive like bad pennies that just won't die - will no doubt embrace this book with exuberance, but readers looking for heroines with some spirit, sense of humor, and attitude instead of bowling pins with breasts, well, these readers should try looking elsewhere.
Malcolm and the way he behaves around Nat tempt me to give this book a higher grade, but I can't in all clear conscience do that, not when the heroine is so annoying. A nice hero and a heroine that makes brown cows moo in embarrassment cancel each other out, leaving behind a well-written but typical Regency romance that demonstrates why me and that subgenre will probably never ever get along.
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