Zebra, $5.99, ISBN 0-8217-7422-0
Historical Romance, 2003
Usually I find this author’s overly verbose style of writing a little hard to take unless in small doses each time, but Just Perfect works like a charm. The characters take ten pages to discuss what could have been summed up succinctly in three pages, but I find the setting and characters of this story quaint enough to hang on to every word. It is the relentless monotony of the well-mannered and well-behaved and oh-so-proper characters behaving in bizarrely low-key manner to definitely unusual circumstances that finally wears me down where hundreds of ‘pon-my-honor jargons fail to do so.
Ian, the Marquis of Kearny and Mallory (that’s one title), visits his cousin Martin Gazenby’s house in Little Mynd to bid on a prized stallion. Gazenby’s directions are not reliable, as it turns out, when Mallory becomes lost in the moors and has to be rescued by Hannah Thorne, the best friend of Gazenby’s wife Anne. Hannah is the sister of the new Duke of Berinwick and you will have encountered her and her family before if you have read the author’s previous book Just in Time. Unknown to Hannah and Mallory, Anne and Gazenby have come up with this scheme to matchmake those two together. Love may have to wait though when a woman is murdered in the area. This woman is Hannah’s abigail that disappeared during Hannah’s Season in London years ago and the resurfacing of the (dead) woman has people suspecting Hannah’s brother of being the villain.
Even a murder cannot dent the idyllic and so-proper veneer of the people in this book. In a way, this one is a very sweet and well-mannered story. The main ensemble cast in this story are really good people apparently incapable of dark and nefarious thoughts. I’m a cynical old coot but I must say that I find the Care Bear Valley atmosphere of this book quaint and charming despite my reservations. Of course I have reservations. I mean, when the town vicar and his wife first hear the abigail screaming in the cottage nearby, they first argue whether the scream he heard is really a scream. Then comes the second scream, and the vicar gets up to get dressed. The wife wants to come along. After some time wasted on arguing, he agrees that she can come along, and of course, she needs to get dressed and look proper and neat so as to not offend the screaming fellow’s sensibilities. There is a third scream while they are being oh-so-well-mannered, and needless to say, the dodos have a new friend by the time they reach the cottage in question. No, I don’t think I want to live in this place. I’ll just drive past, buy a souvenir, and leave with fond memories, that’s all.
Mallory and Hannah are impeccably well-behaved characters. There is not one disorderly behavior or speech from them at all. I find them charming at first, but soon I become really tired of these impeccable people. I start to scrutinize them just to find any stray curl of hair, some salad stuck between their teeth, anything to make them human to me. I discover instead that Hannah, despite being praised as a strong and willful woman, never actually does anything in this book. Okay, that’s just me grasping at straws. She’s so nice. Maybe that’s a flaw in itself, hmm. Mallory’s character is a little bit messy – the author gives this man some ill-defined psychic ability that is more of a distraction in this story than anything else. He is said to be melancholic, but I have no clear idea why he is melancholic even at the end of the story. He’s just there – and being nice, of course. The secondary characters are either ultra-cute or nauseatingly perky. Gazenby and Anne plot to help Mallory survive his encounter with the wild stallion that kicks at people by rubbing the stallion’s best buddy, the family cat, against Mallory’s clothes while Mallory is asleep. The resulting scenes are quite funny and they also make me more convinced than ever that the people in this story are happy Care Bears waiting to spray everybody with their beam of sunshine and love from their belly buttons of warmth and peace cakes. Which is why when the author has the characters talking about sex and what-not later in the book, I feel like cringing. It doesn’t feel right, these happy and cute people talking about grown-up stuff.
I really don’t know how to grade this book. I enjoy reading the first half of the book, although I am perplexed by how the characters treat the murder in their midst as if it’s nothing more than a rainy day ruining their plans for the afternoon. But the characters’ oh-so-proper behaviors and manners that end up crippling them and blinding them to more pragmatic (if less chivalrous) solutions to their problems soon become very tiresome to follow. I guess all I can say is that while Just Perfect is not a bad book in any way, it is too starchy and uptight for me. It’s one of the author’s better full-length books from Zebra, so fans of this author may want to take a look.