by Madeline Hunter, historical (2000)
Bantam, $4.99, ISBN 0-553-58222-4
Now this is a truly impressive debut indeed by Madeline Hunter. It's been awhile since I read a book with such a vivid sense of place and atmosphere. Fourteenth century London sure comes alive through Lady Christiana's eyes. It's just too bad someone forgot to thaw the hero David de Abyndon from the freezer.
Christiana is infatuated with romantic, feckless knight Stephen, but when she is caught in bed with the knight, she is forced to marry wealthy merchant David instead. While she is trying hard to sort out her confusing feelings of attraction to David while trying to wait for Stephen to rescue her, little does she know that she is nothing more than a chess piece between David and the king's political and economic games.
Poor Christiana, really. I haven't read many great heroines in historical romances recently, but this young woman succeeds in moving me with her plight. Women are literally possessions during Christiana's time, and she isn't even allowed any semblance of illusion about her status. Seeing her increasing bewilderment as her daydreams and ideals are ruthless ripped apart one by one is a heartbreaking experience - her first love turned out to be a faithless, fickle man, and her new husband makes no pretense of her as being yet another item in his vast warehouse. Sure, David loves her, I'm told, but poor Christiana is left most of the time in this story bewildered by her surroundings. David, as well as many of the men in her life, deliberately keeps her in the dark in matters concerning her life. I can't help feeling that she is just running down a dark tunnel without any light to guide her way.
Making this romance a more difficult read is David's distance from me. I am not allowed any access into his psyche, therefore I only have his words that he loves her at the last page. All the while he is treating her cold (except in the bedroom) and making Christiana more confused and frightened by withholding information about almost everything. I am confused as well as Christiana too, mind you, since David doesn't tell me either. But I am safe in my living room, and I can close this book anytime. Christiana... poor girl.
This is a woman who is practical and strong, yet she tries so hard to find solace in daydreams and poetry. I emphatize with her, really, and I really care for her. She's real, thanks to the author's impressive ability to give Christiana so much depth. But I can't help feeling that her realization that she loves David - so soon when he is still treating her coldly - may be just another self-preservation mechanism on her part. She has to believe she loves this man, or risk realizing that she is practically worthless to everyone if she isn't rich or beautiful.
If David isn't such a cold, distant, yet infuriatingly high-handed and unlikeable fellow, the romance in By Arrangement would have worked magic. As it is, I see this as more of Christiana's story, a story of a remarkably courageous woman trying to survive in a time of uncertainty while trying to retain her pride and self-worth. I can't help feeling she's shortchanged, however, with David. Christiana, you deserve a laughing man with a great sense of humor, one who will treat you with the respect you deserve. You really do.
No doubt I will be waiting eagerly for the next book by this author. Judging from this book, she will be wonderful, and I, for one, want to be there when she fulfills her great potential.
For now, however, By Arrangement gets an 82.
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