Lady X's Cowboy

Love in a Bottle
by Zoe Archer
(Leisure, $6.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-8439-5738-7
Such a silly title, such a silly premise – really, a love potion? But, such a surprise – compelling characters and writing that is frequently downright lyrical overcome a middling tale with innumerable predictable elements. This is such a treat.

At the core of this treat is Sophie Andrews. She is a botanist. Or, she would be, if 23-year old gently bred women in England in the mid-1700s were allowed to be anything other than daughters, wives, mothers or widows. It isn’t that Sophie doesn’t want to fulfill her womanly destiny, just that what she really wants is to pursue the study of botany, and she has determined that this makes her pretty much unmarriageable. Luckily she has two older sisters and a younger brother, so she can hover below her parents’ radar as a fond afterthought; she expects she will be able to quietly continue her studies with the support of her dear Uncle Alford.

While on holiday with this uncle, Sophie is in the woods alone cataloging a spectacular fungi specimen when she happens upon Ian Blackpool, a charming, handsome, flirtatious not-quite-gentleman/not-quite-not. When she returns to the village of Little Chipping (loved that), Ian appears in town with a traveling salesman’s rig and smooth salesman’s patter as he peddles his bottles of “love potion.” Sophie is devastated to have been misled (even as she recognizes that she wasn’t exactly misled), and so is eager to return home and put the encounter behind her.

It is clear that Ian isn’t the mountebank he appears to be, but it will be quite a long time before the reader finds out exactly who he is. What is apparent, regardless of his station in life, is that he is fabulously handsome, quite amusing and seemingly well schooled, and he appreciates the real Sophie, botany and all. He is recently returned from India, Persia, and other exotic locales, where he has been on a quest to discover the formula for love. Ian is certain that “love” is a chemical reaction that can be reproduced if only he can find the right mixture of ingredients. He believes that having this formula will be the only way he will ever experience that state.

Through a series of events both likely and un-, Sophie and Ian hatch a plan to pool their talents and resources on a joint botany project. She’ll help him with the love potion (an undertaking she finds largely ridiculous), and he will assist her in her search for a rare coupling of a particular tree and plant in symbiotic bliss. This undertaking, of course, is clandestine, giving Sophie and Ian plenty of non-chaperoned time to develop their relationship and maybe even create a love formula of their own making.

Love in a Bottle has lovely characters; Sophie in particular is quite engaging. She is smart and adventuresome, but not ridiculously so, given the time and her station in life. In the first chapter, she is crawling around in the forest in her gown and panniers – quite obviously inhibited, but not deterred – a small allegory for her entire experience. Serious about her work, she is appropriately and significantly devastated when she is barred from it. Ian is a bit more of a cipher, but necessarily so, because we aren’t meant to know who or what he is. His present situation is nicely detailed, even if his origins remain murky. He is dashing, flirtatious, honorable and just flat tasty; he also has a significant undercurrent of sadness and quiet bewilderment.

The big payoff, though, is in the writing, the imagery; it is just spectacular. The book is filled with an imaginative use of floral imagery and botanical allusions to define or describe emotions, actions and physical sensations (botanallegory, maybe, or botanmetaphor?) There is an attention to accuracy in word choice that is both pleasant and surprising; I actually had to look up the real definition of “mountebank.” The dialog has beautiful rhythm and pacing, with the sound of period-perfect formality that isn’t so overdone as to be distracting or comical. Best of all, the narrative text is snappy and charming, like this little bit from the very first page:

She would never have described herself as a person normally interested in fungi. One was either pro-fungus or anti-fungus, as far as she had observed.

Now that is just surprising – interesting, crisp, amusing – and the quality did not deteriorate one speck between the first page and the last.

The plot is nothing to write home about, as Sophie and Ian have a relatively predictable primrose path to amble down together. There are even a couple of borderline silly elements in the plot, and a heavy-handed foreshadowing – a metaphorical gun is hanging on the wall in the first act and it is still begging to be fired with a scant dozen pages left – that somehow still manages to create a wee bit of tension-filled suspense.

Still, overall, this is a juicy treat; you don’t need to drink a potion to fall under its spell.

--Laura Scott

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