by Alissa Baxter, regency (2002)
Belgrave House, $5.00, ISBN N/A
Alissa Baxter's debut traditional Regency novel The Dashing Debutante is well-written and enjoyable to read despite having a clichéd premise.
The nineteen-year old heroine Alexandra Grantham, for example, is a familiar heroine who wants to do Good Deeds but goes about doing them in such a harebrained manner that she is just begging to be rescued from herself by the hero. In this story, she decides to pretend to be a lad and rob coaches during the night with the help of her groom Ben so that she can pass off the loot to the poor in the parish. She's inspired by the stories of the real life highwayman Dick Turpin. I don't know what to say other than I suppose I should take comfort that her heart is in the right place even if her common sense is... well, who knows where it is.
One night she and her trembling fingers barely holding her gun steady fail to rob Mr Robert Chanderly. She and Ben manage to get away and are comfortably in their getaway guise as a proper young lady in a carriage driven by her groom when Mr Chanderly's coach catches up with him and he insists that he has to escort her back to Grantham Place. After all, there are highwaymen lurking in the shadows and he understandably doesn't want to see them bother a proper young lady on her way home. Along the way, Mr Chanderly learns that Alexandra is a cliché who doesn't want to be saddled with a man - ever! - and is naturally charmed even as he tells her that she is such an immature and impertinent lass. She bristles at his remarks.
However, even if she's happy never to see him again, Mr Chanderly is here in the neighborhood to stay for a while longer so there's no avoiding him even if she tries to. In fact, he turns out to be a Duke. Even when she heads off to London for her Season, there's no escaping Mr Chanderly. He is, after all, the Duke of Stanford and being a rather typical hero in this kind of stories, London is his playground. Poor Alexandra.
This book is fun to read because it's an amusing comedic romp. I especially like the fact that Alexandra often behaves like a stereotypical hoyden "bluestocking, won't marry, hoyden" cliché but Ms Baxter never depicts Alexandra as stupid. Posing as a highwayman is foolish no matter how one looks at it and Ms Baxter doesn't even pretend that what Alexandra is doing is something smart. Instead, she shows me that Alexandra can actually be intelligent as well. Alexandra's plan may be harebrained but she goes about carrying out the plan in a pretty smart way. Alexandra can also see through the schemes of some secondary characters. She wants to help people, but she doesn't play the martyr in the process. Alexandra actually has a sense of humor and she doesn't tolerate fools. I like her. On the other hand, I am given no insight into what goes on in Mr Chanderly's head so he comes off as an inscrutable character. I wish I know more about him, but then again, most traditional Regency stories don't let me glimpse into the hero's head so this isn't an issue exclusive to The Dashing Debutante.
When the story moves to London, Robert starts acting like a jealous suitor when Alexandra strikes up a friendship with the dashing man about town, Sir Charles. Meanwhile, a petty enemy will try to strike out at Alexandra by helping another woman snare Robert while Alexandra also manages to get a pesky unwanted suitor of her own. How will this soap opera play out towards the inevitable smooching of Alexandra and Robert?
Even when The Dashing Debutante is at its most predictable - which is pretty much most of the time since Ms Baxter stays true to the formula - I have a fun time reading this story because the heroine is a vibrant and feitsy character that doesn't go too far and become irritating. She has her moments of impulsive recklessness but she on the whole is one smart cookie who can read people well and hold her own when it comes to dealing with fools. The secondary characters can be cookie-cutter but they contribute plenty of fine and humorous moments in this story.
On the whole, this is a noteworthy debut to me since even when it is at its most predictable, The Dashing Debutante manages to keep things interesting. I've read this story many times before but Ms Baxter makes her story fresh and interesting nonetheless with her buoyant prose and sense of humor. Since I normally find traditional Regency stories too formulaic and the heroines too prone to making themselves out to be huge martyrs for the smallest of reasons, The Dashing Debutante is a pleasant surprise as much as an entertaining read. The title refers to Alexandra, of course, but in this case, it could easily apply to the author as well.
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