Bantam, $5.99, ISBN 0-553-58142-2
Historical Romance, 2001
Sweet. That’s an overused adjective when it comes to describing Katie Rose’s allure, and her fourth romance Runaway Hearts is, pardon me, sweet like everything else this author has ever written. Not sweet as in root-canal-decay-sweet, but sweet as in the way you get this big, silly grin on your face as you follow the antics of two fat, adorable bulldog pups playing in the field on a sunny day.
But the author still has a long way to go when it comes to depths and plotting – in this one, she has the characterization almost down pat.
Mary Lou Finch is an 1895 New Yorker – a dowdy, overweight chemist. When her professor father bets every single cent of theirs, including her dowry, in a horse race and the horse turns up missing, Mary Lou decides that she has to do something. She doesn’t want her dowry so that she can be married, but she wants the money to be financially independent.
Lucky for her, the missing horse owner, Pierce Thorndike, is looking for a governess for his unruly son Edward. She decides to go undercover as Mary Poppins with a test tube (trust me, it’s not as lurid as you imagine). Naturally, Pierce has to turn up the hunk of all hunks. On his part, he finds this absent-minded but intelligent woman charming and even loveable.
Mary Lou and Pierce are, in essence, stereotypes of the naïve bluestocking and grouchy Colonel Von Trapp. But the author tweaks enough of these characters to make them appealing. Mary Lou, for instance, studies animal reproduction in her free time. While she may be lobotomized, sorry, I mean she may be free from bodily lusts until she meets Pierce, when she does feel this bodily lust, however, she is aghast. Because she is reminded of how horny fruit flies behave – how undignified! Still, Mary Lou isn’t clueless about the reproductive system, and that’s refreshing.
Likewise, Pierce, despite having the usual bad marriage to Bad Dead Wife, doesn’t have any mean streak in him. He never, in fact, brings up his marriage or how all women are evil lying harlots, et cetera. He feels protective of his strangely appealing – if absent-minded – governess, and since she’s a staff, he tries not to get too horny. As if that’s possible.
Even that boy, Edward, is wonderful. No grown-up philosophy, no corny deliberate cute moments – just a normal, inquisitive boy who takes to Mary Lou because she teaches him how to dissect rats and grasshoppers. Mary Lou doesn’t pull out the Poppins bonnet out of nowhere, and she isn’t a super nanny. It’s just that she and the boy share the same interest in blowing things up and cutting things open, and thus, their bonding is real and unforced.
But the mystery on which this story is anchored on is… well, let’s just say Agatha Christie will still be queen for a long time more. In fact, her ghost may appear before me to admonish me for dignifying the horse-theft/murder scenario here as a “mystery”. For one, there is no specific pattern in Mary Lou’s investigation. She just more or less stumbles along into clues and everything in a linear journey from Points A to B to C. And Pierce keeps stumbling upon her in the midst of her investigation. The third time that happens, I frown. The fifth time that happens, I get irritated.
Likewise, Mary Lou is kept described as everyone, including Pierce, as brilliant. Please, this mystery is simplistic and the final “Aha!” thing that leads to the big clue is a no-brainer. Mary Lou may be brilliant in science, but in the Nancy Drew school, she’s still in elementary class. If she’s brilliant, everyone else – including Pierce – must be living in the Care Bear Land of Simple Mindedness. Not exactly an impression I would like to have of the romance hero.
That’s the problem with Runaway Hearts: the plot is childish and too-simple to the point of being condescending. The romance is typical but fun, but with as much space allocated to the romance as the mystery, the Mystery for Simpletons thing soon drags the story down.
Oh yeah, and why does no one give that stupid father of Mary Lou a dressing down? Gambling away the family fortune is criminally irresponsible, but in the end everyone gives him a big hug.
The author has the right idea and she’s almost there. Now if only she works a bit more to give her mystery subplots some semblance of depths and, well, mystery.