Lady Fiasco by Kathleen Baldwin
(Zebra Regency, $4.99, G) ISBN 0-8217-7715-7
Lady Fiasco is a debut Regency that needed a lot more editorial attention than it apparently got. This unlikely tale of a catastrophe-prone girl and a war hero in a snit never gets off the ground, and the unpolished prose doesn’t help things.

Tyrell, Lord Westmont, has returned from Spain a sulking, angry man. His mother wishes to see him married, but as for his heart, Tyrell knows ”that useless mechanism stopped working in Spain, on the battlefields of Badajoz to be precise.”

Why is it always Badajoz? Anyway, the story opens with Tyrell seething at a local party, refusing to dance with anyone. To stop his mother’s blathering about babies and titles, he agrees to dance once, then chooses old neighbor Fiona Hawthorn. She’s a complete klutz and manages to knock over a chair by simply standing up. The locals are afraid of her and think she is cursed or jinxed or somesuch, because havoc seems to reign when she’s around.

Fiona manages to snag her dress on one of Tyrell’s medals, necessitating a trip out to the balcony, where Tyrell, in an attempt to free her, tears the dress and gains enticing glimpses of her bosom. Tyrell returns to the ballroom, while Fiona climbs down the balcony and runs for home. Tyrell pays a duty call the next day to see if Fiona is all right, and finds she’s not there, though her family seems completely unconcerned. One of the grooms explains that Fiona likes to hitch up her skirts and make a two-mile run to a nearby lake to swim. When Tyrell catches up to her, she’s swimming around in a bathing dress.

Tyrell takes offense at Fiona’s obvious competence in the water and declares no woman can beat a man in a swimming race. He quickly strips down to his breeches, and this transparent setup ends predictably, with plenty of kisses. A shepherd’s flute brings Tyrell back to his senses, and in typically Oafish Hero fashion, he blames Fiona for the incident:

Listen to me! I don’t care who you tell about what happened here. I’m not getting leg-shackled to you or anyone else! I can’t. I won’t. Not now. Not ever.”

Tyrell rides off in a huff and Fiona dissolves into hot tears of shame. But no matter! Her eccentric Aunt Honore, the Countess Alameda, arrives to spirit her away to Brighton. Aunt Honore, you see, thinks nothing of Fiona kissing a man half-naked in the water. No! She should enjoy hundreds of kisses, and she certainly wasn’t compromised. How ridiculous.

It’s ultra-convenient to have an eccentric aunt around who can condone this silly behavior. Honore’s stepson, Marcus, makes several attempts on Fiona’s life so he can be assured of inheriting Honore’s fortune. Tyrell follows the pair to Brighton, suffering a slight attack of conscience, and he rescues Fiona from danger several times. Along the way, they supposedly fall in love.

My biggest problem with this story was its utter lack of any sense of Regency conventions. A heroine who is part track star, part mermaid, and nobody bats an eye? Her own parents don’t even react. A convenient aunt who thinks nothing of her virginal niece swimming half-clothed with a man? A woman who can run like the wind and swim like a fish, but can’t manage to walk across a room without tripping or causing some incident? Even when such incidents aren’t her fault, Fiona dissolves into tears far too easily, believing herself cursed. Far from making her sympathetic, it made her exasperating.

The sometimes-clunky writing didn’t help. Aunt Honore, in particular, is one of those unfortunate characters who “screams” for her maid, stomps her foot when she’s not getting her way, and generally acts like a bossy old bat. The foot-stomping rubs off on Fiona, which didn’t make her look any more mature. As for Tyrell, he spends most of the book insisting he can’t ever, ever love anyone and wondering why he’s attracted to his old neighbor. He’s a bore.

Brighton in the days of the Pavilion and the Prince Regent is clearly detailed, and this is a strength of the story. For all the interesting descriptions, though, Lady Fiasco is an inauspicious debut book. Klutzy heroines are difficult to write with sympathy, because their actions are so often forced and unlikely. One longs to tell them to go take lessons in basic walking. The “I’ll never love again” war hero is a tired romance staple. Books that are marketed as Regencies need to be firmly set in the Regency period and not look for convenient ways to ignore the conventions of the time.

Kathleen Baldwin may have better things to offer in the future, but Lady Fiasco is a book to approach with caution.

--Cathy Sova

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