Wonderful by Jill Barnett
(Pocket Books, $5.99; PG) ISBN 0-671-00412-3
*****
Forgive me if I sound trite, but I can't pass it up…Jill Barnett's Wonderful is just that. Humorous, sensitive and always entertaining, Wonderful won me over completely. It's sure to please the legion of Jill Barnett fans, of which I now count myself one. Never having read any of the author's previous outings, I wasn't pre-disposed in her favor, which made the discovery all the more enjoyable.

Set in the 13th century, Wonderful follows the uphill romance of Lady Clio and Earl Merrick de Beaucourt, an initially mismatched pair of lovers who grow to a deep and lasting love despite each other's perceived faults.

Engaged as a girl to the warrior Merrick, Clio is tucked away in a convent after the death of her parents. For six years she awaits the return of her betrothed, who has been earning fortune and fame on a crusade as The Red Lion. When Merrick returns to England and finally meets his fiancée, she is hardly an easy-tempered secular girl. Clio is rather put out by being forgotten for six years, and has spent the intervening years in pursuit of "wonderful" ideas. Granted they usually end in disaster. But her most recent brainstorm shows promise, at least in useful way: she begins making ale, (a respectable living for women at the time) in the hopes of recreating the famed lost "Heather Ale" that legend holds has magic qualities.

Clio is lighthearted and high-spirited, a girl with big ideas who easily wins over the affections of the rough and gruff Merrick. Their courtship is one of give and take -- Clio tries her damnest to understand why Merrick forbids her to leave a castle; Merrick eventually forgives her when she does.

One of the things I found most endearing about Clio was her penchant for mentally changing Merrick's name to suit her latest mood. Throughout the proceedings she refers to him alternately as "the earl of bluster," "the earl of hardhead" and "the earl of lips," among others. Watching Clio's affection for Merrick grow through her nicknames for him added a sprightly quality to novel, which also carries over into some of the secondary characters. A team of brothers, most aptly named Thud and Thwack, add slapstick humor to the early proceedings, as does the continuing battle of old and new religions that flourishes between the aged Druid hag, Gladdis, and the superstitious Brother Dismas. Once the love story between Merrick and Cleo takes center stage, however, these characters are, somewhat unfortunately, forced into the background.

Author Barnett moves things along at an easy, comfortable pace, allowing the reader to really experience the changing emotions of her characters. Bit by bit, we begin to see through Merrick's tough exterior and get a glimpse of the sweet man underneath. Ill prepared for his overwhelming feelings towards Cleo, he finds himself beholden to the God who created this remarkable woman. And Clio's initial hesitancy towards committing herself to Merrick, after having been ignored for so long, gives way to a joyous exploration of love and romance.

Wonderful's charming love scenes had me holding my breath, and I even caught myself misting up once or twice, which is not something that happens easily for me. Barnett pours a tremendous amount of emotion into her characters, their thoughts, feelings and words. It never reads as false sentiment, written simply to advance the plot or gain sympathy from the reader. The words seem truly to come from the hearts of her characters, a hero and heroine to remember.

Barnett sets up the sequel to Wonderful with the introduction of Merrick's friend Roger and the mysterious theft of an Arabian horse. I found myself wishing for more detail on the Welsh raiders who appear occasionally, but I'm sure that will figure more prominently in the next novel, Wild, appearing sometime in 1998.

I hope it's as entertaining, and involving, as its predecessor.

--Ann McGuire


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