by Elizabeth Thornton, historical (2004)
Bantam, $6.50, ISBN 0-553-58490-1
Shady Lady may a good book if the characters are in a different story altogether. The suspense plot is all over the place in Elizabeth Thornton's latest while the romance takes a backseat to the messy plot. The only good reason to read this book is the heroine Jolie "Jo" Chesney being a nice, smart heroine. She may be reckless but at least she can think of a good plan that is workable before rushing into danger. In a genre where one is lucky to find a heroine that doesn't come off like a child-like gnat with big breasts and only a half-functional brain (the part that says "Daddy, LoveU4eva!!!"), Jo Chesney is a rare find. It's really too bad that she and Waldo Bowman are stuck in this story.
After her husband John's passing, Jo takes over the running of his paper Avon's Journal and turns it into a profitable venture, thanks to its selection of glitzy society articles balanced with thought-provoking social commentaries. The society commentaries of Lady Tellall, a pseudonym for Jo's friend ChloŽ, is what brings Waldo to Jo's office in Oxfordshire one day. He is not happy that he's portrayed as a lady's man, which he is but... well, let's just say in his manly blusters he threatens to sue only to be put in his place by Jo. Subsequently, he can't get her out of his mind. He decides to woo her to get the identity of this Lady Tellall out of her, only to fall deeper for her no-nonsense personality. Things come to a boil when he has to bail her out of jail when she single-handedly gets her aunt and an orphan out of a Dickensian Boarding School from Hell and realizes that she is also on a solo mission to discover the whereabouts of a missing ChloŽ. He will stick by her, protect her, and, er... do something, only what this something is he'll figure out in his own time.
The identity of the villain is openly revealed the moment he appears in the scene very early on, so there is very little surprise here. The author further makes the mistake of letting this villain explain his entire strategy in the same scene where he is introduced, thus ruining what little that is left of the suspense. Now I have only the villains' motives to figure out and even those I could deduce correctly soon after. As a result, I am always ten steps ahead of the characters so it is annoying to have to wait for them to take nearly the whole book to catch up. In the meantime, Jo and Waldo spend most of the middle of the story talking about everything but their relationship; therefore, the way their relationship heats up in the late third of the story befuddles me. When Waldo lashes out to Jo for demanding too much perfection from the people around her, I wonder how he comes to that conclusion because he doesn't spend enough time on the romance for him to know her that intimately.
Jo is a conundrum in that while she loves her late husband despite him being the typical less-exciting first hubby stereotype, I know very little about her. I don't know why she persists in thinking the worst of Waldo's licentious nature for so long even as she at the same time thinks that Waldo is too good for his procession of mistresses. Isn't she contradicting herself there? Likewise, she overreacts when a secret of her late husband's is literally out of the box. What happened to the sensible woman that approaches her mystery-solving with methodological precision? Waldo is even more a mystery - his past is barely touched on, with the author leaving more hints than clear images. These two characters are likable is because they are smart, sensible, and they talk to each other, but at the same time, their characterization and relationship development never come off as anything but half-baked.
If Ms Thornton has tackled either the suspense or the romance or, better still, both suspense and romance in a more focused manner, Shady Lady will be a fun and enjoyable read. As it is, both half-baked romance and suspense leaves Shady Lady a rather unfocused story that should have been so much better than it actually is. The fact that it is still very enjoyable to the point that I can't put it down is more of a testament to the author's narrative skill rather than the virtues of the actual storyline.
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