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Irresistible by Mary Balogh
(Jove, $6.99, PG) ISBN: 0-515-12367-6
*****
After not writing a five heart review in almost six months, I find myself writing two in two days. What a wonderful weekend of reading I have had! I should, however, begin with my usual caveat. Five hearts means "keeper" in TRR's rating system and a "keeper" is a book that one wants to read again. Well, you should know that I keep all of Mary Balogh's books and that there's not one of her books that I haven't read more than once.

Irresistible is vintage Balogh. I asked a friend to explain Balogh's appeal (you've heard from me often enough) and she provided the following: "She takes time to make her characters' problems seem serious and believable. No matter how melodramatic the plot elements or how bizarre the characters' behavior, she almost always explains them sufficiently enough and handles them thoughtfully enough so that I can (a) suspend disbelief and accept the story and (b) take the characters seriously. I also find Balogh's books to be very romantic, and her sex scenes, though sparse, to be very sensual. And, finally, she is a smooth stylist who, though rarely including much in the way of historical detail , always captures an appropriate historical flavor. To me, this is a key ingredient of any decent historical romance."

I couldn't have put it better myself. With Balogh, it's the characters. Irresistible reintroduces us to the "Four Horseman of the Apocalypse," the four former officers in the British army who having survived the war come home to reestablish their lives. When Irresistible opens, Sir Nathaniel Gascoigne is on his way to London with his young sister and his cousin/ward. His aim is to find them both husbands. He then hopes to return to his Yorkshire home, free at last from a "monstrous regiment of women." He has no intention of marrying any time soon.

Nathaniel is also looking forward to seeing his three best friends. Two have married, but friendships forged in wartime are strong. And on Nathaniel's first morning in London, as the four are riding in Hyde Park, they see another wartime friend, Mrs. Sophia Armitage

. Sophia had followed her officer husband to Portugal and had cheerfully accepted the hardships of campaigning. All four former officers admired her courage and good humor. Her husband Walter had died at Waterloo three years earlier in a most heroic fashion. He had saved the life of the Duke of Wellington and his staff and had then died trying to save a junior officer. In recognition of his bravery, Sophia had been feted at court and by the ton and had been given a house in London and a pension. She lives quietly, but is delighted to see her old friends.

Sophia has a secret; she is being blackmailed by a villain who has some love letters written by her husband that would bring disgrace on his name and on his family. She is desperately trying to keep up with his demands and thus has stayed out of society. She can't afford to look modish. But her niece is being presented and now her friends have arrived and try to get her out of her shell. Thrown together with Nathaniel, the two become lovers, to each's surprise. And Nathaniel and his friends come to realize that something is troubling Sophie and want to help.

This is the skeleton of the plot of Irresistible, but it does not begin to describe the richness of the novel. As my friend noted, it's the characters! Nathaniel had come to London hoping to set up a mistress, but he never imagined Sophie in that role. He discovers a very different Sophia from the woman who had carefully hidden her charms for ten years and who had seemed passionless and sexless. He is confused about his feelings for her and what he really wants, but comes to see that he loves his friend.

Sophie's marriage was a sham and a fraud, bringing her no happiness and destroying any confidence she had in her attractiveness. Since her husband's death, there has been this looming threat of scandal. She had secretly admired (and perhaps loved) Nathaniel for years. To discover that he is attracted to her brings her both happiness and sorrow. She cannot believe that he could possibly love her and views his proposals of marriage as simply the result of his feelings of guilt for having "seduced" her.

The reticence that was so characteristic of the Regency era becomes a threat to Nathaniel's and Sophie's happiness. And of course, one of the things I so like about Balogh's books is that she creates characters who behave not like 20th century people, but rather as men and women did 200 years ago. It takes a little help from their friends to achieve the Happily Ever After.

In addition to Sophie's and Nathaniel's love story, Balogh provides a delightful secondary romance between the fourth member of the quartet and Nathaniel's strong-minded ward, Lavinia. Unlike his friends, Eden has continued to enjoy the delights of London since leaving the army. He has achieved something of a reputation as a rake. Lavinia at 24 has long resisted matrimony. The two are oil and water from their first encounter, and their witty exchanges add an element of humor to the tale. So we get two romances for the price of one!

Like most Balogh fans, I have put on my blacks to mourn her abandonment of the traditional Regency. But Irresistible reassures me a bit. To a greater extent than her recent Regency historicals, this latest book exhibits the emotional intensity that I so appreciate in her shorter books. It is, as I said, vintage Balogh. Maybe I can go into half-mourning. I always did look good in lilac.

--Jean Mason


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