Lord Stanhope's Proposal

 
Much Obliged by Jessica Benson
(Zebra Regency, $4.99, G) ISBN 0-8217-6783-6
***
Much Obliged has too many characters and an implausible premise that must be taken with a great deal of salt. Nevertheless, Jessica Benson’s talent is evident in this tale of an arranged betrothal between two reluctant, stubborn people.

John Fitzwilliam, the Earl of Claremont, and Addie Winstead, his neighbor when they were growing up, were betrothed to one another before they were born. On the deathbed of Addie’s father, Fitzwilliam reluctantly agreed to honor the contract, believing that Addie was about to be left destitute. In the ensuing period, however, she seemed to manage very well, even purchasing a tidy London townhouse. Fitzwilliam decided that the rumors of her impending financial straits must have been exaggerated, and he went on his merry way.

Addie is now “Anonymous,” a commentator in the London papers with a specialty in boxing: specifically, the events taking place at Gentleman Jackson’s Saloon. Addie’s father was a close friend of John Jackson; Addie learned at her father’s knee and is now an expert on pugilistics. Dressed as a nondescript maid, she cleans the saloon while men box, surreptitiously watching their moves under her lashes. When her old friend Fitwilliam performs poorly in a match, his name pops up in the papers in a critique of his style and performance.

Fitzwilliam is irritated by this, but distracted by his friend Drew’s infatuation with Addie’s younger sister. He agrees to concoct a foursome so Drew can press his suit with the lovely Justine, and it will also give him the perfect opportunity to clear the air with Addie. If she’s still available in ten years or so, well, he’ll honor the agreement. But the evening at Vauxhall Gardens doesn’t go as planned. Fitwilliam feels a strong spark of interest in Addie, whom he hasn’t seen in a while. And when he impulsively kisses her on a park bench, they are spotted by a London dandy who mistakes Addie for a trollop. What’s a gentleman to do? Why, propose marriage, of course.

Only Addie won’t marry out of duty or pity. If Fitzwilliam doesn’t love her as much as she loves him, why, she’ll just have to marry someone else.

The action moves to Fitzwilliam’s country estate in a move that seemed farfetched, to say the least. And to make matter worse, at this point an entire troop of secondary characters makes an entrance. The book begins to flounder, and even the author’s lively dialogue and strong central characters can’t quite lift it above the confusing. Addie and Fitzwilliam begin to react to the people around them, rather than driving the story. Addie’s pompous fiancé and his mother take up entirely too much page space; Addie’s twittish Aunt Honoria is more or less filler, and the rest of the pack include standard types such as a matchmaking mama and a scheming debutante set on catching Fitzwilliam’s eye.

The encounters between Addie and Fitzwilliam after the midpoint of the story are superficial in nature. They meet, they kiss, they break apart, they meet again, they kiss some more, they break apart. You know the drill. Fitzwilliam is confused, but keeps it all inside; same for Addie. I wanted more meeting of the minds. Exactly why are these two supposed to be falling in love? I wondered.

This was too bad, because individually, Fitzwilliam and Addie are characters of depth and intelligence. If only they’d had a few honest conversations instead of anguished bouts of “I can never love anyone” and “He’ll never love me.” And as for the plot premise, I guess I just can’t see a well-bred Regency woman as a boxing coach. It didn’t work for me.

Much Obliged features strong writing skills hung on a weak plot premise. If you can suspend belief, you may enjoy it more than I did.

--Cathy Sova


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