by Lynsay Sands, contemporary (1999)
Leisure, $5.50, ISBN 0-8439-4565-6
You know, one of these days I'm going to have a grandmotherly chat with the art department and blurb people at Leisure. We'll sit down, have an amiable chat for about two seconds before I start nagging them silly. The reason is that they're destroying this fabulous book by Lynsay Sands with a really pathetic cover and cringe-inducing blurb.
The cover is a really sleazy scene of a woman disrobing a modern-looking extra-short dressing robe. What is Leisure doing?!! If they're aiming for a male audience looking for 1980s Jackie Collins style bodice ripper, they're going to be disappointed - this book isn't that hot. Me, I wouldn't even touch this book with a pole if I haven't been impressed by Miss Sands' last book The Key. And I wouldn't repeat what my husband, my dear gay friend Nate, and three innocent passers-by exclaimed when they read the wonderfully golden embossed promo phrase at the blurb. To boy or not to boy. Oh boy.
I'm really irritated because I think this book deserves to fly off the shelves. It's fun, very fun, and supremely satisfying to this reader. There are fun cross-dressing hilarity, a wonderful hero, two memorable heroines, and - ooh, how wonderful! - six (count 'em, six) puppies. Add in a memorable cast of house staff and I have one of the best books I'm fortunate to read this year.
Charlotte "Charles" Westerly and her twin sister Elizabeth "Beth" are running away from their Uncle Henry who is marrying them off to rotten, disagreeable scumbags for dowry to sustain his gambling habits. Since two twin sisters on the run would attract notice, Charlie, the more adventurous and tomboyish of the two, would be "Charles", Beth's twin brother. While in the midst of their escape attempt, they are stumbled upon by Lord Jeremy Radcliffe, who knew their late father and takes pity on them. In an impulsive burst of magnanimity, he decides to aid them, escorts them to London and introduces them as his cousins until they can find Beth a suitable husband to ward off her suitor (Charlie wanted a husband too to ward off her suitor, but under the circumstances, Jeremy needn't know that).
Poor Jeremy. He couldn't help feeling red hot attraction to Charlie, it's like a psychic thing, especially after he stumbled upon Charlie nude in the bath. Hence he couldn't explain his bizarre reaction to this "boy". Worse, Beth decides that Charlie is having fun as a boy, so why not they trade places once in a while. Now Jeremy gets really befuddled by his alternating sexual attraction to "Charlie", then "Beth", then "Charlie" again... poor, poor man! I just can't stop laughing.
It doesn't help that Charlie, in her newfound freedom, suddenly gains a reformer's soul and starts bringing back homeless families, prostitutes, and unwanted puppies to Radcliffe. The staff love Charlie and Beth to distraction, and soon Jeremy finds himself not willing to let Charlie - or is it Beth, no wait, it's Charlie... oh God - out of his life.
Jeremy is a wonderful hero. Maybe it's the name, but I keep seeing Jeremy Northam as this Jeremy, and it really heightens my appreciation of the story. He's a true gentleman, never cruel or abusive, but kind and charitable. Underneath his stuffy front is a carefree soul waiting to burst free, and Charlie is just the woman to do it. What a refreshing thing to read of an non-tortured, wonderful, loving man after so many irritatingly flawed heroes! I adore Jeremy. His gruff token protests at presence of the puppies, Bessie the prostitute, and Mrs Hartshair and her children in his house are just hot air - he's too kind to send them packing - and Charlie and I know it, and everyone knows it. He's also an intelligent man who is actually amused when he discovers the twins' charade, and decides that he'd let Charlie wear breeches after the marriage. Charlotte, what a horrible name! he decides, and I can't help chuckling. This man is a true nice guy hero in my book, make no mistake. Simply adorable!
Charlie is a fun character too. She is no hare-brained doormat or impulsive ninny harrying off to adventures unknown. She is actually rational and is not afraid to pull hairs when things are stacked against her. The best scene is when she made Jeremy sign a contract that have him discussing business matters and treating her as an equal after their marriage (and to his credit, Jeremy is intelligent enough to admit that maybe his long-held conventional ideals may be wrong after all - no screaming match here). Charlie and Jeremy are simply delightful as a couple, and I can see them matching barbs and wits for many a years to come.
Then there's Beth, who starts off as the gentle, timid foil to Charlie but ultimately blossoms under her independence. By the end of the book, she has joined her sister in their adventures. She's the one who saves them all from blackmailers and evil uncles at the end of the day. Her triumphant "I did it. Charlie! I saved you. I saved you. And I did it with a candlestick!", right before fainting in excitement, is an inspiration to us all. And the fact that she finds love with a caring, loving gentleman named Tomas is an added bonus.
Have I mention the adorable butler Stokes yet? The funny, feisty Bessie, who at the end of the day, finds herself an accidental Countess? Bessie, I'm sure, will get her own book someday (she'd better - you hear that, Miss Sands?). Then there's a really memorable farce in a brothel (a rather unwise attempt by Jeremy to masculinize Charlie). And in the grand traditions of happy endings, the double wedding at the end has me laughing so hard that I think I've waken the entire neighborhood (it's 2 in the morning, mind you).
When I close this book, it's with a fond farewell and a promise to visit again. Why not? Charlie, Jeremy, Beth, Bessie, Stokes, Mrs Hartshair, these are all wonderful, memorable characters that in a few short hours, somehow become something like dear friends I've shared a few hours of merriment and laughter with.
This book at Amazon.com
This book at Amazon UK
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