My Favorite Marquess
by Alexandra Barrett
(Zebra, $6.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-8217-7787-4
****
My Favorite Marquess is My Favorite Book, at least for this month. A sequel to His Chosen Bride by sister/author team Elizabeth and Julia Bass, it has as its heroine a seriously unlikable secondary character from the previous book. That would be Violet, the widow Mrs. Treacher, who is more than a bit of a snob. She also has a sassy mouth, a temper, and does not suffer fools. Daughter of a wealthy merchant, Violet has ever been judged not quite up to snuff, no matter how perfect her behavior or appearance. She considered herself lucky to have snagged a husband who was heir to his uncle’s title. Violet expected to one day be a marchioness. Unfortunately, he passed on before the title passed to him; his family settled an old family property on her (probably to get her sharp tongue out of their vicinity).

After turning down a purchase offer from an owner of a adjacent property, Violet takes herself and her cousin Henrietta, along with her father’s butler, Peabody, off to Cornwall to improve the house – ominously called “Trembledown” – and see it sold for a tidy sum. She plans to use the proceeds to get out of her father’s house and settled into a more pleasant part of the world.

Sebastian Cavenaugh, Marquess of St. Just, is the neighbor who made the offer for Trembledown; he wished to purchase it because it offered unfettered access to the coast (this being crucial to his role hunting spies for the government under the guise of Robert the Brute, notorious cutthroat smuggler). Since Violet would not sell him the property – quite a surprise, as “dilapidated” doesn’t begin to describe its condition – he decides to pry the spoiled, haughty widow out of the area by harassing her in both his roles: as the brash, charming, criminal rogue Robert the Brute, and the cold, haughty, judgmental Marquess whose smart-aleck letters goaded her into going to Cornwall in the first place. First she is abducted by the Brute: then the Marquess, a pompous (but attractive) “top-lofty toad,” begins to hound Violet’s every move, monocle firmly in eye and distain dripping from every utterance. Violet’s efforts to avoid him are for naught because Sebastian considers her one of the prime suspects in his quest for a notorious spy. After all, why else would she be hanging around the coast trying to repair a house that could have more aptly been named Tumbledown? There are several other likely – or really unlikely – suspects as well. The local vicar even makes the short list.

I knew this book was going to be a winner from the very first words: the letters between Sebastian and Violet were both highly proper and rapier sharp, and they got more terse and more biting with every exchange – while maintaining their surface politeness and excruciating correctness. These were simply the most entertaining bits of writing I’ve seen in ages. This tale is filled with sharp, witty, precise and lively prose; I was marking favorite passages on practically every page, such as this pithy thought that captures Violet, as well as her cousin, in a nutshell “Violet, of course, was managing to control her own travel fatigue in an exemplary fashion. (True, she had brought Hennie to tears by calling her a tiresome magpie, but that had been a full hour ago.)”

The very best bits in the book were in Violet’s dialogues, both internal and spoken. After the Brute barges into their carriage, leaving Hennie and Peabody blessedly speechless, Violet muses: “I should have picked up a fugitive days ago.” The prissy fussing of the long-suffering butler, Peabody, ran a close second.

The spy mystery was somewhat silly and not too threatening, although it ran out of suspects quickly near the end. Sebastian’s Scarlet Pimpernel riffs were a hoot, and even cousin Hennie got lucky in the end. What’s not to like? Well, as it turns out, the book could have received a 5 star rating but for one thing – the veritable draught of love scenes from Violet’s first fling with the Brute to her eventual indiscretion with the Marquess. The plot was lively and creative, but couldn’t manage to generate much sexual tension because the Marquess was busy being a haughty snob while Robert the Brute was out of the picture because, really, it’s hard to work in very many house calls from a smuggler without creating an insurmountable credibility gap. It is a testament to the fine writing that this flaw, which could be deadly in the hands of lesser writers, is only a minor annoyance in the otherwise vastly entertaining spectacle that this book encompasses. On the whole, My Favorite Marquess is a truly enjoyable romp.

--Laura Scott


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