The Beautiful Stranger
by Julia London, historical (2001)
Dell, $5.99, ISBN 0-440-23690-8

I have my reservations about this book when I first start on it, as I am not too impressed with the previous two books in this author's The Rogues Of Regent Street trilogy (of which The Beautiful Stranger is the third in the series). Like many authors who got carried away with their heroes, Julia London tends to forget that drinking, whoring, and gambling are not virtues of a hero, and that a rake is best redeemed, not elevated to sainthood by the end of a novel. TBS is slightly better than the author's previously best work (in my opinion), Wicked Angel.

The story starts with Arthur Christian looking on as his friend Phillip is buried into the ground. What is happening here? Adrian, the hero of the first book, The Dangerous Gentleman, has shot Phillip in a drunken haze of stupidity, but since Phillip was ungentlemanly and shot at Adrian's back first, Phillip was the one to blame, et cetera. Note that the author doesn't seem to believe that it is wrong to shoot your friend in a drunken stupor caused by one's lack of self-control in the first place. Instead, it's just wrong to shoot at someone's back, not the act of - oh, never mind. Forget it. But to give Ms London some credit however, Adrian remains a complete jerk in this story (he has a secondary role), so that's okay - he's at least in character.

So, where am I? Ah yes, Arthur, feeling so guilty as Phillip the Treacherous gets buried into the ground. He should have held Phillip back! He should have... he should have... At this point, I confess I go "This is so sweet, a tragic tale of forbidden gay love!" as Arthur imagines poor Phillip in a way more appropriate to imagining one's true love gone away. I half expect him to burst into some overwrought love song, the anthem of Oscar Wildes all over England or something.

But no, this is a romance novel, after all. Anyway, Arthur casts off his homoerotic tendencies and decides to make reparations to Phillip's father. The father accused Arthur and friends of leading Phillip astray, and while the other men (and scarily enough, heroes of their own romance novels) pooh-poohed off their roles in Phillip' death, Arthur feels the sting of conscience. He was an asshole, but no longer. Now, he'll do the right thing.

Easier said than done.

Arthur's first task is to evict the people of a land Phillip stupidly bought before his death (and now costing his father money in the form of a pile of bad debts due to unproductiveness of the land). I understand stupid people take time to learn to be a bit smarter, so I guess I can accept that Arthur has no thought to the fate of the people he is evicting.

Meanwhile, one of the to-be-evicteds, Kerry McKinnon, is stunned when she receives the eviction notice. Where would she go? Her husband died leaving nothing but debts, and the greedy neighbor wants her to marry his slow-witted 13-year old son as a form of payment of her husband's debts. But when she accidentally shoots Arthur, whom she doesn't know is her evictor-to-be, well, after the usual, overused Bedside Nursing rubbish that every other fricking author should bloody well stop using because this plot device gets very annoying after the 10,000th consecutive read - ahem, after the usual Bedside Nursing, Kerry shows Arthur how it means to love Free and Wild, Scots-style, and as they hold hands and sing "What A Wonderful World" before making perfect love, they know this is it - Love in all its poetic, true, pure form.

What happens when she finds out who Arthur really is? Heh heh heh.

On her own, Kerry is a great heroine - strong, intelligent, and definitely capable on holding her own. With Arthur, she turns into a giggling, clumsy buffoon that shoots people accidentally, falls on her tush (cute, hee-hee... gag), and becomes a complete twit. Arthur whines and complains about everything and anything from the weather to the food and the dirt (those wenches in plaids are hot though, and Arthur, do mind the syphilis), but in Kerry's presence, he becomes a charming, winning Mr Right with a tendency for overblown Byronesque declarations. Obviously our hero is some alien charisma-sucking creature, I tell you. But that's okay. While Arthur's Scotland Vacation can get too sweet at times, I kinda like the Byronesque operatic declarations that come out of Arthur's mouth.

They love each other! He loves her! She loves him! But Kerry is a poor, untitled widow from - eeeuw, Scotland. Adrian, who is a hero of his own romance, tells Arthur just that: why marry a pariah, Arthur my-true-love-but-let's-not-tell-as-we-are-supposed-to-be-romance-heroes? Why not marry one of those women whom Arthur happily despises while sleeps with?

I admit I am torn between admiring Ms London's blunt honesty when it comes to her rake heroes or going all puritannical about the heroes' attitude towards women and people in general. I don't know whether this is deliberate or an oversight - I like to think it's deliberate on the author's part, so that I can give her some credit for being different from other authors - but Arthur makes no apologies about his behavior. He doesn't even understand the reason that his callous eviction of Kerry's friends and family is wrong in Kerry's eyes. He just tells her, in an admittedly charming "Don't leave me, I'll die without you, NOOOO!!!" bombastic style, that he doesn't want to fall in love with her, but now that he has, he loves her, so she must love him back.

He's selfish, he's spoiled, but he does have a way with a self-absorbed style of charm that is almost an artform. I'm embarrassed to admit that I am charmed despite myself at that "NOOOO!" declaration, or how Arthur just can't eat, sleep, or think sober ("She was gone. She might as well be dead.") without Kerry. He just falls apart. Tragic. I like.

But I have to put a warning also: the author has a bombastic way of writing overwrought passion, and she pulls no stop at the grand finale, a court case reminiscent of Alexandra Ripley's $carlett (you know, that bad Gone With The Wind sequel) finale. If "Ooh!" and "Ah!" and "Aww!" court cases filled with Surprise Revelations and Unexpected Declarations Of Love and Hatred are not your cup of tea, be prepared with the insulin shots. If you think $carlett is bad in that soap opera finale, you have another thing coming in TBS.

I can't help being charmed by the overblown emotional dramatics. And I'm okay with Arthur's self-absorbed behavior because the author doesn't make Kerry a victim of the hero's egomania (she just loses her spine, but thankfully Ms London doesn't make Kerry apologize for whatever attempts the latter did in standing up to the hero). But TBS is also too sweet too often for my liking, and the final court case just make my skin crawl because it is so, er, let's just say another possibility of what TBS stands for comes to mind. (Hint: total male moooo smelly stuff.)

Verdict? TBS is pretty good. It has emotions, albeit wild, uncontrollable ones, and that's something I appreciate in a romance novel. I feel something, you know. Now, if I didn't feel some Eeeeuw, so mushy, so corny as well as That's so melodramatic... and sweet, I may have a clear winner here. Oh well, nothing's perfect, I guess.

Rating: 82

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