Bantam, $4.99, ISBN 0-553-29325-7
Historical Romance, 1991
No matter how highly or little you think of Amanda Quick, you have to admit: she has a formula that works well, whether it is in a contemporary or historical setting. It is only when she decides to be a suspense-first author that things get derailed, but back in the 1990s, when she was at her peak, her success spawns a slew of imitators even to this very day, who takes to the same tropes that she uses in her books. Very few manage to upstage the author, though, and Rendezvous demonstrates this perfectly.
I mean, it’s actually a mess. The plot is a kitchen sink of tropes that, when read today, are so prevalent in the last twenty years that they are so, so, so played out. But the author puts them together in a way that works very well, and the story hits hard in the feels too.
On one side, we have the familiar reckless but well-intentioned heroine. Augusta Ballinger has no qualms picking locks during a ball, gambling with men, and running wild in the streets at night, when she’s not a founding member of a ladies club modeled after the men-only clubs of that day. Now here’s a scary thought: she’s actually one of the rare responsible members of her “wild, reckless” Northumberland Ballinger family. As you can imagine, she is often bailing out her family members, in her own wild, reckless ways.
On the other side, we have the usual hard-hearted spy hero. Harry, the Earl of Greystone, is vexed that the enemy spy Spider constantly eludes him, and yes, conveniently enough Augusta has an important clue in a poem left behind by her now-dead brother. He also has a whore of a now dead wife, and he needs a mother for his daughter Meredith. The thing is, he is also attracted to Augusta, not that she realizes it.
When Augusta hears the gossips claiming that Harry may want to marry her, she does her usual “It’s so fun to meet a stranger dude all alone at night!” thing. She and Harry get into all kinds of shenanigans. including one that sees her losing a huge amount of money to him – something that he ruthlessly exploits to his advantage. The tropes are just crammed here and spilling out of the pages – the whole “heroine becomes a savvy mommy” thing, the spy thing, the poem with a clue, the hero’s inability to trust women again after that whore messed him up, et cetera are all here. And then we have the tropes typically linked to the author’s formula – incompetent suspense that relies heavily on suspects dying just when the hero and heroine discover their identities and seek them out, villains holding everyone at gunpoint for their storytelling session, et cetera featuring That Hero and That Heroine and all the familiar secondary characters.
So, what is so great about this story, you may be thinking. Well, it’s the feels. In a way, Rendezvous is unfortunate to have to follow Scandal, which hits the feels hard and features a heroine’s astounding ability to get the hard-hearted hero wrapped around her finger, because these two books share the same virtues.
This one also hits hard in the feels once Augusta and Harry become a married couple. These two on the surface are complete 180 as she wears her heart at her sleeve while he’s as inscrutable as a granite wall, but the author does an incredible job in showing me just how similar these two are once the layers are peeled. They are both very lonely people, in the end. I also love how the author has Augusta deal with Harry’s issues when it comes to women: our heroine doesn’t let it crush her in any way, and in fact, there is one glorious scene where she lashes out at him and tells him that she is not his previous wife, so deal with it. While much of this romance relies on the author’s formulaic approach of surprise kiss and the hero manipulating the heroine into marrying him, the relationship unfurls after the vows have been exchanged in a manner that I find unexpectedly mature and believable. It is easy to understand why Harry falls for her and appreciates everything about her, and when Augusta mellows down, I find that it is due to a natural character progression coming from her own soul searching and self discovery, rather than some “heroine changes everything about herself to get a man to love her” thing. Besides, Augusta has Harry totally wrapped around her finger, and the final scene of him issuing ultimatums only to have her undo all his bravado with a single sentence and facial expression is just fabulously done.
Even the stereotypical sullen angry child Meredith is well done here, which is impressive considering my general aversion to such characters. Meredith never comes off too much like a plot device or a mouthpiece for the author, and her relationship with Augusta feels natural and believable.
You can come up with a dozen reasons why Rendezvous is a formulaic hot mess, and I don’t think I will disagree with any of them. The spy thing is easily the weakest link here, and it could have been easily removed or replaced without affecting the rest of the story, but I suppose it wouldn’t be an Amanda Quick book without a Scooby-Doo villain or two. But the relationship between the main characters just gets to me and hits all the right spots, and I adore Augusta and Harry probably a little too much considering that they are basically the same hero and heroine that the author has done a billion times over. In the end, it’s all about the feels, and how much I enjoy reading this story, and I enjoy it very, very much indeed. In fact, if I list the author’s books to date, with the least liked at the bottom and the most loved and reread at the top, this one will hover among the top four and, depending on my mood at a certain time and day, possibly at the very top.