Play it Again, Sam

The Wedding Bargain
by Victoria Alexander
(Avon, $5.99, G) ISBN 0-380-80629-0
The Wedding Bargain aspires to be witty romantic comedy, with lots of verbal fencing and repartee, such as the novels of Georgette Heyer, or the Hollywood comedies of the 30’s and 40’s. While I cheer Victoria Alexander’s inspirations, unfortunately I did not enjoy reading The Wedding Bargain.

Maximillian Wells, Earl of Trent, is rich, handsome, and considered quite the catch. Having enjoyed a jolly bachelorhood, he has finally set his sights on settling down and heir-begetting. For this, he needs a wife, but for him not just any proper, bread-and-butter miss will do. He decides on Pandora Effington, and then goes about delivering the happy news of their impending matrimony.

Pandora is headstrong and beautiful; her misadventures have earned her the nickname “the Hellion of Grosvenor Square”. She, too, has been busy amusing herself, enjoying eight seasons without any intention of marrying, heedlessly discarding beaux and marriage proposals along the way. Even so, she secretly pines for true love, and a heroic man to give it to her.

When Max proposes, Pandora spiritedly declares she will never marry. But Max is determined to succeed where other men have failed. Pandora is understandably nonplussed, offended by the man’s presumption, and quite equally determined to thwart him. After some tricky negotiating, Pandora agrees to marry him, but only if he proves himself to be her hero. How can this be accomplished? Pandora decides that he must simply reproduce the twelve labors of Hercules.

Of course, Pandora expects Max to forfeit; but to her surprise, he picks up the gauntlet. Thereafter he exerts himself to duplicate the labors, though he does not follow them verbatim; with Pandora’s tacit consent, he is permitted a great deal of creative latitude. After all, in 1818 there’s a shortage of nine-headed Hydras or man-eating mares scampering about London for Max to best.

The Wedding Bargain begins with a very cute idea. Usually I dig this kind of battle-of-the-sexes comedy; unhappily, The Wedding Bargain doesn’t live up to its charming premise. For starters, the hero and heroine never quite come to life. Max seems nothing more than your stock Regency-style hero. Oh yes, his eyes twinkle at will and he kisses Pandora manfully, but overall he’s flat. Pandora is a pastiche of other romance heroines, chiefly Emma Woodhouse with a dash of Scarlett O’Hara. She is consistently described as intelligent, yet seems anything but; she is always a chess move behind Max, and what kind of battle-of-the-sexes is that? Plus, I found it distasteful rather than adorable that Pandora can’t remember the name of the chap she eloped with to Gretna Green, then summarily jilted -- doesn’t she sound like a peach?

Furthermore, Pandora spends almost the entire novel fretting and dithering about Max, which soon begins to become monotonous. Scene after scene, she pretends to hate Max, then they end up kissing and she calls him a beast. After the twentieth time she calls him a beast, I reckoned that this was meant to be witty repartee, but it struck me as dreary.

Reminiscent of Julie Garwood or Julia Quinn, The Wedding Bargain is written much in dialogue. When done well, dialogue reads very fast, but here it is slow going. Every contretemps between Max and Pandora is only a slight variation of the one preceding it -- becoming very ho-hum very fast. All too often the verbal fencing between hero and heroine flops due to weak attempts at humor. Take, for example, when Pandora meets Max in a graveyard. Predictably, he startles her and she fires her pistol. After quickly disarming her he demands,

“. . .Do you know how to use it?”
“Certainly,” she lied.
He snorted. “Not well. I was right behind you and you missed me.”
“I’m English,” she murmured.

Huh? This joke makes no sense, especially for these characters living in their particular time period. As it is, such an tired attempt at drollery yanked me right out of the story. Worse, The Wedding Bargain loses even a minimal sense of conflict quite early. Pandora and Max are obviously besotted with themselves, and soon both are desirous of skipping the labors of Hercules and going straight to the bridal boudoir. But if that happened, the book would end around Chapter 5. And perhaps it should have, for without compelling conflict or original main characters, the remainder of the book felt quite contrived.

The Wedding Bargain is clearly intended to be light, bubbly entertainment; I wish I had found it so. It did, however, make me appreciate how hard it is to write this sort of story without being forced and derivative.

--Meredith Moore

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