True Colours

The Virtuous Cyprian

Lady Polly by Nicola Cornick
(Harl. Historical #574, $4.99, G) ISBN 0-373-29174-4
This book had an auspicious beginning, a disappointing finish and an engaging Scarlet Pimpernel-ish plot - none of which were improved by the hysterical air caused by an excessive use of exclamation marks.

Five years before our story begins, Lord Henry Marchnight courted young Lady Polly Seagrave. It was a gentle but ardent wooing and Polly was very much disposed to accept Henry but before he could pop the question he was falsely accused of attempting to seduce another young woman. The 18-year-old Polly, although confident of Henry’s innocence, was unprepared to withstand the censure of her family and society, all of whom believed the charge. Henry asked her to marry him over their objections and she refused.

It is a decision Polly has lived to regret. In the time since, to her family’s consternation, she has turned down no fewer than 19 offers of marriage. Now Henry has returned to London after apparently cutting a licentious swatch across the Continent and Polly is uncomfortably aware of him, particularly since he treats her as though she is invisible.

At her sister-in-law’s urging, Polly approaches him to ask for a truce. At first he seems to reject her offer of friendship (perhaps because it was made while she was tipsy and resulted in a passionate kiss), but Polly soon finds herself increasingly in Henry’s company and increasingly reminded of all the things she loved about him and gave up.

It’s an inviting premise that never quite lives up to its potential, although the characters - Henry in particular - are engaging. Deliberately mysterious, Henry is nevertheless an attractive hero and the audience is never in any doubt that his rakish persona hides a man of deeper and more substantial character. This is clear in virtually every moment of his behavior towards Polly. Although I thought other elements of the book were less successful, Ms. Cornick succeeds admirably here in showing us, with every gesture, Henry’s true character.

As well, in the beginning at least, I had no trouble understanding why this man was so attracted to Polly. Intelligent and sensible as well as beautiful and charming, she has also matured considerably since she refused him five years ago.

The middle of the book lags, however, partly because events serve more to repeat what we already know about the characters rather than move our understanding of them forward, and partly because Polly gradually seems to lose the determination and intelligence that made her so likeable in the beginning. This trend continues, rather like air leaking out of a balloon until the balloon finally bursts with a dreary pop. Almost to the finish line, Polly makes a bone-headed, out-of-character decision, the purpose of which, just like all those exclamation marks, is clearly to inject a little artificial excitement into the story.

Ah, yes. The exclamation marks. How is it possible for both writer and editor not to know that if the story is not exciting, inserting an exclamation mark at the end of every second sentence cannot force it to be so?

In fact, it has exactly the opposite effect! It masks natural tension and turns any naturally building excitement into a tediously consistent level of dither! After just a few pages I began to feel that author and characters had all consumed far too much caffeine and were in need of a mild sedative to calm their nerves!

I had no such need - I was frequently too exhausted by it to hold the book up. I beg Ms. Cornick to forget her keyboard has such a punctuation mark. Period.

--Judi McKee

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