By Queen's Grace

The Conqueror

Knave of Hearts

The Ideal Husband by Shari Anton
(Warner, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-446-61228-6
Free of tension, free of surprises, free of plausibility, and free of romance, this book really ought to be free of charge.

Sir Geoffrey Hamelin is returning to England after four years in Paris. His sister is to marry and he worries that their overbearing father is forcing her into an unhappy union.

Fighting seasickness during a rough Channel crossing, Geoffrey sees a lovely young woman on deck. Leah, noticing his distress, approaches him and, within moments confides that she ran away to Paris with her lover, only to leave him when she discovered him with another woman.

We don’t know what Geoffrey makes of this astonishing confession because the ship begins to break up in the heavy seas. Geoffrey gets Leah aboard a lifeboat, then is struck by a falling mast before her horrified eyes.

The ship goes down, whereupon the sea apparently achieves a miraculous calm and not one of the men in Leah’s lifeboat objects when she insists they row around looking for Geoffrey. Eventually, they find him unconscious on a plank. On reaching shore, Leah finds that Geoffrey has two broken legs, cracked ribs, burns and gashes. He will almost certainly die.

Leah can’t think of any alternative but to take Geoffrey home with her to Cornwall, although she expects her father to “scold” her for running away and returning a ruined woman. When she shows up with the still-unconscious Geoffrey, however, everyone assumes they’re married and Geoffrey is in no state to object. In fact, even awake Geoffrey has no complaints. What he has is amnesia. Leah decides it could set back his recovery if she tells him the truth – why, it might disturb his rest or even his appetite.

Although the author does not specify the year in which this book take place, we can, through references to King Edward and his younger brother John of Eltham, the earl of Cornwall, place it somewhere between 1327 (when John of Eltham’s brother ascended to the English throne as Edward III) and 1336 (when John of Eltham died). The fact that I found it more interesting to look this up than read the book will tell you something.

But I also raise the issue because the Leah’s behavior is so out of touch with any reality of the 14th century. Either Leah and Geoffrey were hundreds of years ahead of their time in their thinking or the author just found it more convenient to ignore the historical realities. Why set a story in the Middle Ages, then give the characters modern sensibilities?

My frustration would have been ameliorated if the story had been well told. Unfortunately, the dialogue is stilted and indistinguishable from character to character and the motivations are either unpersuasive or non-existent. Geoffrey is only mildly concerned with his loss of memory. Leah – who is now engaging in her second illicit liaison – is only superficially worried about what will happen when her many sins are discovered. And Odo, Leah’s brother and the supposed villain of the piece, is an unconvincing whiner who apparently resents being deprived of Leah’s small dowry and an expensive brooch.

When it appears that Leah can no longer avoid a confrontation with her father and brother, the author sends the father and brother out of town for a month. A tense moment for Leah is described thusly: “Leah contained her own nervous impatience by rearranging Geoffrey’s carvings which graced the oak mantle. She moved the cow closer to the far edge, left the sheep and pig alone, then switched the bear and turtle.” I could scarcely summon the energy to yawn.

The alternatives to traditional sex necessitated by Geoffrey’s incapacity are overly formal and self-conscious rather than passionate. Out of bed, the characters are wooden and unfocused, so the emotional connection was missing. In the closing chapters, a belated attempt to inject tension by introducing some new motivations for the villain end up feeling merely contrived.

In other words, The Ideal Husband is a far from ideal book.

--Judi McKee

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