Dell, $5.99, ISBN 0-440-22362-8
Historical Romance, 1998
This is not a well-plotted book. Believe me, The Perfect Scandal is packed with every conceivable plot element that has probably existed since the dawn of the modern romance genre. Yet it manages to be an insane kind of fun. It’s messy, but it’s also so campy and defiant in its overly bloated grandiosity that I just can’t help but to be charmed. This book still remains one of my all-time Camp Classics in the romance genre.
Let’s dispense with the plot first. Savannah Merryweather’s father is new money, one of the nouveau riche of 1890 New York who, unfortunately, made his millions from his pork business. The nature of the Merryweathers’ windfall is enough to make them outcasts among the snobby rich elite circles of the Upper Four Hundred. Mrs Penelope Merryweather (don’t tell anyone, but this “Bunny of the Kentucky Bells” was actually a hotel chambermaid whose family was still in the “chicken farming business” back in Ohio) wants to see herself be accepted by Mrs Astor’s circle. It’s just too bad that Savannah loves her chocolates more than anyone ladylike. And when Mr Merryweather relieves himself in Mrs Astor’s fireplace, Penelope “Bunny” Bell Merryweather’s latest desperate scheme is to marry Savannah to a bankrupt British lord.
Savannah is pretty reluctant, but she’s a dutiful daughter, at least where Daddy is concerned. She has plans, however. She wants to be a suffragist, she wants to live in sin with artists in France, and when she’s married and has a brat popped out for hubby darling, she is going to have an affair with malleable Charles, a tradesman’s son whose sole attraction is that he’s one of those guys she shouldn’t know.
It turns out Savannah is plunged into something out of a bad Gothic melodrama. The Earl of Castellane is a sinister man who may have murdered many a wife before Savannah. There’s even a shrieky, hostile housekeeper. Savannah flees, the part-time Gothic heroine she is, right into the arms of Dominic Dare, artist and rogue, who has a personal ax to grind with the Castellane heir.
In some really convoluted plot twist, Dominic ends up as the Earl, accompanying Savannah home to New York, where they then solve the mystery of some stolen masterpieces of New York. Along the way, Savannah plays the suffragist, Dom plays the hero of street children, they rescue Papa Merryweather from a Captain Shark, Savannah gets a hands-on biology tutorial from Dom, Dom tosses out a gigolo masquerading as an interior decorator trying to do the nasty with Savannah, and oh yes, they get accepted in the Four Hundred and live happily ever after.
The whole thing can spiral out of control, and at times it does, but everything is written in some sardonic tone that convinces me that perhaps this author isn’t taking her characters too seriously. There are some moments in the first really messy Gothic melodrama quarter of the story that makes me believe that Ms Garland is having fun with the bizarre plot, such as when the housekeeper stands at the staircase and shrieks at the fleeing Savannah, “No one leaves Ravenscar!” followed by the statement “Except the dead.” Surely no one writes such overblown melodrama unintentionally!
And it’s a great melodrama. It’s funny, hilarious, yet at the same time Ms Garland ennobles her main characters. Savannah and Dom stand high and proud despite the ridiculously overblown farce they are stuck in. It is their buoyant personalities that keep this story from degenerating into purely entertaining but forgettable fluff.
Savannah is as big as her heart. She is, in fact, large. A chocoholic who is forever waging war with her corset, she eats and eats and eats, all the while maintaining good humor and self-confidence. As Dom reflects to himself, Savannah has an inborn arrogance that made her as much one of the Four Hundred as any of the Astors. At the same time, she is also a confused young woman dabbling in amateur suffragist politics to find some order in her life. The poor woman can’t find any meaning in her well-ordered and boring life, after all, and the forbidden thrill of joining a suffragist movement has to be irresistible.
She found what she was looking for – somewhat – in a trip to France. Under her negligent and notorious Aunt’s care, she was adored by artists and sculptors, and ooh, she was even kissed three times in the mouth by three different men! She couldn’t shake off that wonderful moment when her rounded curves are adored and dieting isn’t a way of life. When she finds out that Dom is an artist, you can see her hormones flaring already.
And poor Dom. He tries so hard to be noble. After all, he and Savannah have a deal to carry out the temporary masquerade in a platonic manner. But he can’t resist the allure of – as Ms Garland puts it so succinctly – “… backside, a little less bustled but very full and distinguished nonetheless. She was spectacularly fashioned in silhouette, as full, round, and precariously high in the bosom as well as in the backside…She was squeezed into a dress the color of burnt oranges and wore a matching hat that looked like a squashed orange cabbage with a feather poking out of it that swayed over her forehead. With every lurch of wheels over road she becomes a bouncing feast of cabbage leaves, blond curls, white breasts…”
I have to adore such a man who actually find the fashion disaster and unfashionable curves of Savannah sexy. What a hoot! There’s also a scene where he comforts a sobbing Savannah who couldn’t fit into her bodice (don’t ask), and he finds himself thinking that a woman who enjoys life like Savannah is made more perfect by her generous curves that only reinforces her generous appetites.
That’s the fun of The Perfect Scandal – it’s like a gleeful parody of everything about the romance genre. Savannah is blonde (you can hear the sniggers already), loves red and garish scarlet or orange colors that make her look even more awful, eats and eats, and wages a never-ending war with bodices that can never fit. And the rascally rogue Dominic loves her for it. And he, in turn, reads like the Superhero went awry – he saves street children, his family was destroyed in some Regency Italian terrorist action, he paints wonderfully, he is a master of disguise, he is also a thief… And these two just click wonderfully. The sexual tension is as hot as it is adorable. In fact, it is adorable to see Dom genuinely falling for the outside as well as inside Savannah.
The Perfect Scandal is bad, but it also manages to be brilliant. The key, of course, is not to take it too seriously. It’s fun all the way, and I’m sure Dom and Savannah wouldn’t have it any other way.