The Bartered Heart

The Discarded Duke

Keeper of the Swans

The Rake's Retreat

The Ramshackle Suitor

Reclaiming Lord Rockleigh

Regency Christmas Spirits

 
Prospero’s Daughter by Nancy Butler
(Signet, $4.99, PG) ISBN 0-451-20900-1
*****
Prospero’s Daughter is an astonishing read in several respects. Skilled writing and a sure hand with characterizations match its unusual plot, heroine, and resolution. And wrapped at its center, like a lovely gift, is a beautiful love story. This is easily the best Regency I’ve read in the past year, perhaps in the past several years.

Major Morgan Pearce has returned from the war to take over the reins of his uncle’s publishing business, Grambling House, much to his titled father’s dismay. Unable to please his forbidding father, Morgan had purchased a commission with the help of his beloved uncle and distinguished himself in the war, earning the nickname “Mad Morgan” for his bravery. Unfortunately, at one point his life had been “saved” by Ronald Palfry, a junior officer, who now believes Morgan owes him. For complex reasons later explained in the story, Morgan allows Ronald to believe he really did save Morgan’s life.

Ronald’s latest request is that Morgan travels to Ronald’s family home, Palfry Park, and help Ronald’s father edit his memoirs. Morgan reasons that a well-written memoir by one of England’s most distinguished generals would be good for Grambling House. Although his sister is due to wed Lord Waverly in just a few weeks, Morgan agrees to spend a short time at Palfry Park.

Palfry Park seems to be an example of bucolic perfection. The general is genial, if no great shakes as a writer; Ronald’s two beautiful sisters, though empty-headed, are attentive; and his mother is the picture of charm. Morgan is at first enchanted, then somewhat bored by it all. Until a fateful day in the garden when he stumbles into the back of a Bath chair and hears a youthful, feminine voice tartly telling him to watch where he’s going.

The voice belongs to Miranda Runyon, a cousin to the Palfrys. Her father was a gifted essayist and Miranda had published several of her own essays before a carriage accident claimed the lives of her parents, several years earlier. Since then, she has been hidden away at Palfry Park, ostensibly cared for by the Palfrys but in actuality shunned as a “monstrosity” that would tarnish the perfection of the Palfry home. The family doesn’t visit her; in fact, they pretend she doesn’t exist. She’s cared for by two dour servants. Miranda has slowly wasted away to a mere shadow, sure she’s paralyzed for life. When Morgan runs into her, she can’t even grasp a handkerchief and has nearly given up on life.

Miranda wants nothing to do with Morgan and tells him to leave her alone. Morgan finds he’s intrigued by her obvious intelligence, and after discovering her identity, can’t believe she’s being treated like this. Things come to a head when Morgan and Miranda face off in a battle of wills that leaves both of them shaken. He reminds her of the many soldiers who came home without arms or legs and chastises her for not appreciating she’s alive when she might have been killed. Why is she allowing herself to waste away? She counters that her damaged cheek and crippled body brand her as an outcast in Society; her own relatives won’t even look at her, so Morgan’s ideas be damned.

They are both wrong, and they are both right. They have also met their soul mate in each other.

With the help of one of Miranda’s attendants, who turns out to be much more sympathetic than Miranda knew, Morgan and Miranda embark on a crusade to help her recover some of her physical abilities. Wouldn’t she like to write again? Morgan prods. Wouldn’t she like to someday return to her home in Cornwall? It starts with hand exercises, and leads to a day where Morgan takes Miranda up on horseback in front of him and sets her free to love him. But what if Miranda can’t walk again after all? Will Morgan truly accept her as she is? Will Miranda ever truly believe she can be loved, despite her physical limitations?

There is a lovely flow to this story, and events unfold in a natural, engrossing pattern. Miranda and Morgan slowly become friends, and their attraction is allowed to deepen bit by bit into a wholly believable romance. The realization that they’ve fallen in love comes as a shock to both of them. Miranda and Morgan are fully-developed characters, full of desires, uncertainties, and no small amount of bullheadedness. I liked both of them immensely. It also appears the author has done some careful research into treatments and cures popular during the Regency, as well as the attitudes of physicians toward patients who questions their diagnoses.

There is a secondary romance between Morgan’s sister, Kitty, and Phillip DeBurgh, the man she truly loves. Phillip is Morgan’s dearest friend and one of those soldiers who came home without a leg, only to fall into a deep depression and shut himself off from everyone. Morgan’s frustration at not being able to reach Phillip is what initially drives him to help Miranda, and the author puts a nice twist at the end and makes Miranda the protagonist for change.

This book felt absolutely authentic. There are no miracles here; everything gained is by sheer hard work, and life is not perfection at the end of the story. Unexpected heroes help matters along, including the hapless Ronald Palfry, who when faced with the truth of his actions during the war rises to the occasion and does something truly heroic.

Nancy Butler has written a stunningly beautiful romance, one that will capture you from page one. I can’t recommend Prospero’s Daughter highly enough. This is romance fiction at its finest. As for me, I’m off to find this author’s backlist.

--Cathy Sova


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