Zebra, $3.99, ISBN 0-8217-7930-3
Historical Romance, 2005
Caroline Linden’s debut historical romance What a Woman Needs is essentially a duel of wits kind of story. You know, one where the hero and the heroine are trying very hard to best each other. I find the hero charming if very silly, but the heroine’s inability to stand up to the hero, much less beat him at his own game, makes this duel of wits more like a one-sided session than anything else.
This could take some time to explain, so bear with me. We have Stuart Drake, a charming rogue who is currently cut off by his father after two recent events involving inappropriate behavior towards young ladies. Stuart has a good explanation for those events – they always do, I tell you – but his father had had enough and therefore cut him off without a penny shortly before this story begins. Stuart needs money urgently for his personal abode, so he decides that the best way he can obtain the money in the short time that he has is by marrying an heiress. Taking himself off to Kent where news of his recent embarrassment have not reached the genteel folks there, he sets his eyes on Susan Tratter. He charms his way into the heart of the bratty young lady with ease and he’s now all set to go…
Until he lets himself be set up by a seductive woman during a party and realizes shortly after that he has willingly demonstrated that he is keen to seduce another woman minutes after exchanging beautiful words with Susan. And that seductive woman is Susan’s purportedly ancient crone of guardian, Charlotte Griffolino. While I agree with Stuart that Charlotte wasn’t playing fair when she did what she did to him, he was more than happy to play along so he’s not the victim here if you ask me. Charlotte refuses to let Stuart marry Susan. Not only that, she orchestrates his ostracization by the genteel folks in Kent by letting them know of his financial status. Stuart feels that he can only do what any man would do in such a situation: get back at Charlotte for the mess she has dragged him into.
There is a subplot involving someone breaking into Charlotte’s house for mysterious reasons, which would become Stuart’s main excuse to stay close to Charlotte as the story progresses.
I like Stuart. Sure, he’s not perfect. He’s irresponsible and silly, but when the author tells me that he’s a very charming man, I can believe that because this fellow is so naughty that way. The thing is, in this story there isn’t much here that will allow Stuart to become more interesting because Charlotte doesn’t challenge him in any way. He can pretty much walk all over if he chooses to, which makes his interactions with her far less interesting than I would have hoped them to be.
Charlotte may be a widowed Contessa and she may have known her share of naughty men in the past, but in this story she behaves like a very harried shrew who cannot stand up in any way to Stuart. She lets him push all her buttons that she is pretty much dancing to his tune in this story. She protests, she complains, and she even shrieks now and then, but all he has to do to get his way is to call her bluff or to get physical with her. Charlotte is all talk but no walk, which is my biggest disappointment when it comes to this story. She makes everything too easy for Stuart.
Also, she’s not the brightest bulb around. She knows that her house is constantly broken into, for example, and she claims that she is worried about the safety of the others who are living with her, but she doesn’t actually do anything about the problem until the hero gets into the picture and starts telling her what she needs to do.
For me, such stories are enjoyable only if the heroine gives back as good as she gets. Here, Charlotte is pretty much a loud and protesting nitwit who is no match at all for Stuart. As a result, seeing Stuart get the upper hand is like watching an elephant crush an ant in the most anticlimactic fight in the world. The secondary characters in this story, especially Stuart’s parents, are interesting in that they aren’t completely your typical stereotypical archetypes, but on the whole, the romance is most disappointing because either the heroine is in the wrong or she is programmed to become a drooling putty in the hero’s hands. Charlotte’s personality makes this story far less fun than expected.