The Last Hellion

Miss Wonderful by Loretta Chase
(Berkley, $6.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-425-19483-3
Before going any farther, let’s get this out of the way. Is Miss Wonderful as good as Lord of Scoundrels?

Sorry, no.

Then why the five hearts if it’s not?

Because it’s a keeper.

Only a handful of romances can measure up to Lord of Scoundrels, which in the opinion of many is one of the top-ten romances of all times. (Check TRR’s Features section for lists of Top Ten Reads.) If in order to be a keeper a book has to reach that level, our keeper shelf would hold a mere ten books rather than the scores and scores most of us can claim.

Alistair Carsington is the third son of the earl of Hargate. His lordship has repeatedly bailed his son out of romantic messes – he’s not a rake, he’s a softie. Now that Carsington has returned from Waterloo with a limp and a desire to be dressed at all times in the very first stare of fashion, the bills from various haberdasheries have led the earl to issue an ultimatum: Carsington must either marry an heiress or make his own way in the world. Any further financial rescue will imperil his younger brothers’ futures.

His best friend who had been instrumental in saving Carsington and his leg from the surgeon’s knife suggests that Carsington go in with him on a canal that will make for easier shipping of goods. Carsington heads off to Derbyshire to convince the landowners that they should support this canal. His first objective is to convince prominent landowner Sylvester Oldridge; if Oldridge agrees, the other landowners and businessmen are likely to fall in line.

Oldridge is a distracted botanist. It is his daughter Mirabel who has been managing his business affairs for a decade following the mismanagement by a steward. She even ended an engagement in order to run the estate. Mirabel is opposed to the canal because it will spoil the rural beauty of the region. The monetary benefits do not outweigh the certain damage.

Carsington is immediately attracted to Mirabel – to her intelligence and her character, not to her fashion sense for she has none. He cannot help but be impressed by a woman who isn’t instantly smitten by the feted war hero. Mirabel is initially contemptuous of the man she believes to be a dandy of the first order – he rides two hours in a driving rain rather than stay overnight because he does not have a change of clothes. Upon further acquaintance, however, she realizes there’s much more to him than she had suspected. His war experiences have left a deep impression on his character and his mind; this is a man she can admire even as she is determined not to love him.

Mirabel has more determination than I. I loved Carsington from the beginning – he’s one of the best heroes of the year. He’s charming, loyal, and modest. He feels unworthy of all the acclaim poured on him for his heroism in battle – he doesn’t even remember what happened at Waterloo. He’s also willing to ignore the societal model when looking for a potential bride – no silly young miss for him, Mirabel’s being two years his senior bothers him not one whit. There’s a hint at the end that Carsington’s two younger brothers may be getting their own romances. If they’re half as delightful, this is definitely good news.

One thing that author Loretta Chase does well is create multi-dimensional characters. At first impression, Carsington and Mirabel are a mismatch, but their portrayal gradually proves that they’re absolutely right for each other. The author thankfully avoided opportunities for the dreaded Big Misunderstanding. Once they are no longer strangers, Carsington and Mirabel believe in each other; they don’t look for excuses to assign blame.

Moreover, Ms. Chase depicts secondary characters as more than flat and one-dimensional. One of the best in Miss Wonderful is Crewe, Carsington’s valet, who repeatedly saves Carsington and Mirabel from disaster. Mirabel’s father initially seems like the stereotypical absent-minded professor, but he proves to have hidden depths.

The writing style is one of the delights of the book. This is no heavy, angst-y drama. Beginning in the first few pages, the droll tone of the story lifts the standard plot – boy meets girl, boy and girl argue, boy and girl fall in love – into a truly entertaining tale. In the hands of less talented author, Miss Wonderful could have been anything but.

So it’s not Lord of Scoundrels, but Miss Wonderful is still great. This one’s a keeper. I’m holding on to mine. I strongly recommend you get your own copy.

--Lesley Dunlap

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