Mistaken Kiss by Kathleen Baldwin
(Zebra Regency, $4.99, G) ISBN 0-8217-7746-7
***
I had mixed feelings about this book, to a large extent because it read as though the first half and the second half had been written by two different people. A strong ending is a good thing; schizophrenia is not.

To the consternation of Jerome Linnet and his close friend, Sir William Braeburn, Jerome’s sister Willa has become a “full grown female” with all the appurtenances thereto. The nerdRegency equivalent of geeks, Jerome and William have educated Willa to be excellent company for them (history, mathematics, the classics), but are not at all confident that, even if Jerome goes to the horrendous expense of a London Season, Willa will ‘take.’ Her red hair and thick spectacles (not to mention an outdated wardrobe scavenged from their attic) aren’t exactly in vogue.

Sir William suggests that much bother would be saved if he simply wed her himself. Willa is underwhelmed by this tepid proposal, but in the absence of other offers agrees to consider it. On reflection, Willa decides that she needs to know if William harbors any emotions at all. She goes in search of him to extract an experimental kiss and sees him relaxing in the orchard. Feeling that her glasses are not conducive to ardor, she removes them before approaching, and finds minutes later that she has just shared a passionate embrace with William’s ne’er-do-well younger brother, Alex.

A comparison kiss from William is “dull as old porridge” and Willa resigns herself to a dreary marriage. Just in the nick of time, however, her eccentric Aunt Honore appears out of nowhere to whisk Willa off to London as her companion.

The first half of this book reads like a very conventional traditional Regency. Willa is an all-too-typical bluestocking heroine. Her utter lack of social graces and dignity are supposed to be amusingly guileless and innocent; instead, they make her look like a nitwit. On reaching London, mousy Willa is transformed, like so many romance heroines before her, by pretty clothes. She’s not unlikable, she’s just too much of a stereotype to be very interesting.

Alex is a huge improvement. He’s charming and urbane, and clearly much better hearted than he thinks himself. Alex is a tease and a flirt, but it is clear he genuinely likes Willa. He knows he doesn’t want to settle down, so he’s appealingly confused at finding himself actually competing with Willa’s new swains for her attention.

There are attempts at humor, but, other than Alex’s enjoyable wit, they tend to be slapstick and they’re not really funny.

By contrast, the second half reads more like classic farce, and the energetic humor is much more successful.

There is an unusually large cast of characters, and the author juggles them beautifully as the action accelerates and the pandemonium increases. The escalating pace is nicely controlled, and both the humor and my involvement were enhanced because all the activity is true to the characters and the situation that Ms. Baldwin has established – a very nice accomplishment. I’d have enjoyed the book as a whole much more, if I’d known from the first that this is where we were headed.

There is one more issue I find myself compelled to raise. One of the characters in the book, a servant, consistently uses malapropisms as a way to add humor. This would have been a lot funnier if the author had not, herself, misused several words. It is unfortunate that none of the other people who read this book en route to publication noticed that ‘epigram,’ ‘sensibility,’ and ‘wretched’ were all incorrectly used. As well, ‘a score’ is not ten (it’s twenty), and, while I’m not sure what Ms. Baldwin thinks a lummox is, it doesn’t mean what she thinks it means. It’s such a shame to spoil the flow of a book by sending readers frowning to their dictionaries.

Having said that, however, I hope that Ms. Baldwin will try her hand at more Regency farce. When she gets it right, it makes a very entertaining change from the same old same old.

-- Judi McKee


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