Four In Hand
by Stephanie Laurens, historical (2002, 1999 reissue)
Harlequin, $6.99, ISBN 0-373-83539-6

I love it when authors abuse the word "classic". Stephanie Laurens calls Four In Hand "probably the most classic Regency romp I've created thus far." So, the concept of four identical clone girls running around dark shadowy corners and falling in love with four identical clone men after one night of heavy gropings - unaccompanied, unchaperoned (the chaperone is busy running around with the guardian) is now a classic Regency one?

Although I have to admit that I kinda like Four In Hand as much as I can like an irony-free exercise in bad plotting and bad characterization. Stephanie Laurens isn't being tongue-in-cheek when she has the hero Max Rotherbridge, purportedly a rake who has seduced millions of virgins before moving on to married women and skanky widows, calling a widow who comes on to him a woman of loose morals. Apparently an available woman trying to snare an available man is "loose", while a rake trying to seduce the woman under his wardship is okay, and the sad thing is, Ms Laurens is Dead Serious about this. No irony, no cheeky humor, just shockingly oblivious sobriety. Yes, that's me laughing at Ms Laurens' expense. Does she even reread her books before publishing it, or do these authors really believe at the nonsensical double standards they are shooting out of their bungholes in their books?

And even funnier is the idea that the main heroine, Caroline Twinning, knows that her guardian is a rake and spoiler of womenhood, but she has no problem letting his rakish brother and friends run around with his sisters. Neither does he, by the way, apart from lip service, even when he knows that his bro and friends have joined him long ago in his fun when he was still the Despoiler of Virtues. Four In Hand is unbelievably stoopid that way.

Max, rake, inherits a title and along with it, Caroline and her sisters Caroline, Caroline, and Caroline. Okay, the sisters are Arabella, Lizzie, and Sarah, one is "innocent", one is "practical", and one is... uh, trying to tell the sisters apart is giving me a severe case of crossed-eyed befuddlement, so I decide to assume that the four countrified women are one amorphous female being called Plot Device: Heroine. Likewise, Max sees Caroline and immediately plots to seduce her - no guilty conscience, nothing - while his brother and friends plot to seduce the other three with Max's blessings. Or something. Frankly, I can't tell the men apart too. There's Darcy, or is it Percy? Ah, I'll just pretend that they are all one man too. Plot Device: Hero.

The women are strikingly beautiful, and all run along dark corners with men, and then are outraged when the men try to cop a feel.

But I like Caroline. She's a smart one, and practical too. No "No pretty dresses, I'm independent that way, I'll pay you back, no diamonds, no, no, no - oh, do I protest too much or what?" dingbat behavior from her, and the way she plots her sisters' coming out is akin to a skilled general's planning for war. She's the main heroine, so naturally, unlike her sisters who are basically one-word/one-note characters, she is the most well-rounded one. Compare Caroline to the author's recent mentally bullimic heroines and it's a tragic story of crash and burn.

Max is a standard Laurens hero - he sees, he wants, and that's it, uh, what character development? But with the short format of this reissued Regency novel, with little useless subplot of lost diamonds or other rot, he's bearable. Actually, this story is even shorter than it seems, because basically it's like four novellas featuring four identical couples crammed into one single story.

The fact that I actually can reread this book without wincing or crying for anesthesia and that I actually like Uber-Caroline (all four women combined as one entity) and think that Uber-Max's (all four men combined as one entity) okay makes Four In Hand probably the best Stephanie Laurens book I've read.

It's just kinda sad that most of my fun also comes from the unintentional comedy that results from bad plotting, shoddy characterization of the other three couples, and lazy use of superlatives (perfect, beautiful, gorgeous, nauseous). Unlike some overenthusiastic readers, I absolutely refuse to put this author in the same sentence as "Georgette Heyer" - unless it's a sentence of this nature - but I have to admit, Four In Hand is fabulous comedy, albeit one more so than the author initially intended. She may have planned the route of this train of hers, but the train derails halfway, but what the heck, I'm evil that way to see find the whole train wreck hilarious enough.

Rating: 83

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