by Katie Rose, historical (2000)
Bantam, $5.99, ISBN 0-553-58139-2
Courting Trouble is a book that is very difficult not to like. It's charming. Sure, there are flaws as big as the Grand Canyon in the plot and character motivations, but the whole story is just filled with pure sweetness and good nature that it is oh so hard not to succumb.
The heroine in CT is Winifred Appleton, the eldest sister of the heroine of the much more superior A Hint Of Mischief. It's the turn of the new century and suffragettes are making their views known loud and proud. Winnie fancies herself one of them too, and is mad when she isn't allowed to enter law school on account of her gender.
Finally she finds that only Charles Howe, the handsome lawyer she has goo-goo eyes for (the feeling's mutual, by the way), is willing to take her into his firm, but even then he doesn't take her seriously. When Winnie stumbles upon a sex guide, she takes it onto herself to be Charles' mistress for a night - just to scratch the itch, of course.
Too bad Charles has other ideas, ones involving Winnie in maternal gowns and a passel of brats running around her legs. But before they can work things out, Charles find himself prosecuting Mrs Black who poisoned her hubby with arsenic. Winnie, being the Women Champion, defends Mrs Black. Oh boy.
But this isn't Kramer vs Kramer. Mind you, there are a lot of things that aren't right about this book. Foremost is the cartoony characters (including that of Winnie and Charles). Most characters are one-dimensional, and the sole reason for Winnie and Charles being in love seems to be because she's beautiful and he's gorgeous and oh yeah, they find each other "courageous" in the most cursory way. I'm pretty sure Susan B Anthony and her ilk wouldn't be too happy with their depiction in this novel. The Women's Right Movement comes off as sanctimonious, misguided, and gives little regard to rationalism in favor of emotional hysteria.
That's the problem - the author simplifies too much the matter of Women's Lib, turning it into nothing more than a Scummy Neanderthal Man vs Noble, Enlightened Woman issue. Winnie jumps to Mrs Black's defense without even bothering to find out whether the latter is guilty or not. Her mind is already finding ways to champion Mrs Black as a downtrodden wife trapped in a marriage to a Bad Man before she even meets that woman. Down with men! Viva la femina!
Of course, Charles is guilty of the same, judging Mrs Black as a scheming mercenery harlot without even finding out more about the facts. But since men are depicted as, for the most part, buffoony Elmer Fudds, I'm willing to accept Charles' behavior as yet another Fuddy behavior.
I do like the way the author makes the Blacks not the one-dimensional martyr vs oppressor couple. Both Blacks are actually scheming, not-too-pristine people who clearly deserve each other. I also adore the way the author infuses Charles' mother with a surprisingly steely backbone. The one scene where she throws both father and son into shocked silence is worth reading this book alone.
But the main characters! Winnie is the worst. This woman would make an awful lawyer - forgive me, but for all her Susan B Anthony aspirations, I will not want her to defend me in court. This woman spends her time in court casting sidelong glances at Charles across the bench, chewing her nails in worry, and going all no-confidence mode the moment Charles steps to interrogate a witness. I am not too pleased with the way Winnie keep thinking of Charles as the superior lawyer with superior rhetoric skills. Whenever Charles pull a smart move, she'd go Oh no! Oh no! We are doomed! Charles is too smart! Too intelligent!
Like I said, give me Matlock anytime. Who wants a no-confident, too emotional lawyer who apologizes and flays herself in guilt over every not-too-by-the-law tactics she pulls? (Worse, at one point she actually, teary-eyed, compares her grand love with Charles to that of Mrs Black and her lover's.) A lawyer should bloody well do anything to make sure the case moves in our favor. Not one who clearly thinks with her heart more than her head. Winnie, keep your day job.
Likewise, character motivations are unclear, Charles is one-dimensional, Winnie is wimpy and spineless despite all her assertions otherwise, and the whole story goes down the bog. When the book's most memorable characters are Mrs Black, the gossipy Mrs Costello, and Mrs Howe, it is in dire trouble.
But you know what? The prose is so disarmingly charming, and the characters sometimes do cute Care-bear things. And the headlines of the case by the scrummy tabloid reporters really make me laugh. There is a whole Walt Disney cartoon-feel to it at times that I can't help but to go Aww, this is so-oo-ooo sweet! It is so easy to forgive the lousy characterization, silly plot, and the really too-simple way the whole court case is wrapped up. If this author takes time to meticulously create realistic three-dimensional characters with a substantial plot that doesn't take too many short-cuts out, she would be an author to watch out for.
CT gets a 63.
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