The Stargazer
by Michele Jaffe, historical (1999)
Pocket, $18.00, ISBN 0-671-02739-5

A debut author whose book is a hardcover. Hmm, I can hear the knives and forks being pulled out from under the critics' tables already. Me, I don't buy hardcovers, they're too expensive, but my friend Liddy does. Liddy wouldn't be caught dead reading a romance novel, but she mistook this book for one of those historical mysteries (must be the cover and the title) one day and bought it. She shoved the book to me the other day, asking me to keep it or give it away to anyone who wants it. Oh dear.

I'm almost afraid to read this book as a result. But hey, I thought, why not? Well, I can now safely say that this book isn't that bad. It's not good, but it's not awful. But take that with a pinch of salt. I didn't pay $18 for this, so I could afford to keep the scalpel and dentist drill safely tucked away while reading this book.

For me, the plot of a story determines whether it sinks or stays afloat. Here, we have surly, one-dimensional Ian Foscani, the Conte d'Aostro, and female doctor and buxom bimbo Bianca Salva thinking the other murdered courtesan Isabella Bellocchio. You see, they stumbled upon each other over poor Isabella's body, with Bianca holding the murder weapon. The story is set in Renaissance Italy, by the way.

Sounds good so far. But then, guess what? For some silly reason Ian demands that they fake an engagement, all the while he believing her a murderer. It must be something in the Venetian water. And Bianca, whom I am convinced is the prototype for Barbie dolls everywhere, wants to perform an autopsy on the dead woman. Seems the only way she can get her hands on that corpse is via an engagement.

Only in books you don't call the law when you stumble upon a dead body. Only in fiction la-la land do you pretend to marry under the most implausible circumstances. This book sinks a hundred feet under Plausibility Quicksand and is never seen reemerging ever again. I find myself going huh almost right away - in Chapter Three actually - and it is by the strongest of will for me not to take up a red pen and start making notes at the sidelines. Lecturers do that, you know. It's our annoying habit.

Ian is a blockhead, a total nincompoop who isn't a very hospitable, much less compelling hero. He alternates between casting aspersions at Bianca or lusting after her Barbie doll measurements. He doesn't trust her, but has no qualms in playing patty cakes with her. Gee, that is so adolescent high school tomcat behavior. Reminds me of the Gigolo Club.

Then there's Bianca, dear Bianca, who wants to be a doctor but can't. The book maintains it's because of her sex, but I say it's because of the fact that she's empty upstairs. That ninny supposedly wants to find the murderer of Isabella, but she gets sidetracked - no, make that skidded off the mountain path and fell right down into a ravine and never seen again - whenever Ian waves his protruding banjo at her. Silly woman. If I'm her, no way will I get all chilly in my erogenous zones whenever that insulting, obnoxious boor even looks at me. What happened to pride? Oh, and dear Bianca is willing to do the wild thing by page 121 (or is it 131?) because she is consumed by intellectual curiosity about Procreation Mechanics 101. This from a woman who has friends among courtesans. Take it from me: if you're consumed by burning curiosity about Jolly Fun Stuff of the bedroom, please pick something worthy of your desire to learn. Not a bad tempered, insulting, cold, and totally unpleasant swine whose only good (if superficial) trait is being handsome and gloriously blond.

Then there is this rather confusing style of writing, where there are many awkward and abrupt changes of point-of-view. There are paragraphs where up to three people are talking, all their conversations thrown into one confusing mess. Sometimes there are two men in the room, and the use of he, him, his becomes totally bewildering. Whose him is getting himmed? All I got from all this analysis was a headache.

But then again, these faults don't hide the fact that Miss Jaffe can write. She clearly is an author that, with tighter editing and proofreading, can clearly go far. This is a first book, after all, and allowances have to be made. So what if historical details are a bit lacking? So what if the heroine's a bimbo and the hero's a Ken doll? There's always the paperback edition.

Hmm, maybe I didn't quite put away my scalpel after all.

Rating: 24

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