A Compromising Situation

Under the Kissing Bough
by Shannon Donnelly
(Zebra, $4.99, PG) ISBN 0-8217-7104-3
You may be wondering why the review of Shannon Donnelly’s October Regency romance is not appearing until November. Blame it on the reviewer’s absolute refusal to have anything to do with anything about Christmas before Halloween. The ghosts and goblins having come and gone, I can now turn my attention to the Christmas books that have unaccountably appeared two months before the holiday.

What I particularly like about Under the Kissing Bough is its unusual heroine. Most current romance heroines whether historical or contemporary seem to be cast from a single mold which I can best characterize as “feisty.” Indeed, readers (and reviewers) are quick to object to heroines who do not come across as strong-willed and active. Eleanor Glover is in some ways the antithesis of the usual heroine.

Eleanor is the second of four daughters of Lord and Lady Rushton. Compared to her tall, beautiful and vivacious sisters, shy and tiny Eleanor fades into insignificance. She is uncomfortable in crowds and at ton parties is happiest when she sits on the sidelines and watches the show. As her sisters and parents well know, she has the kindest heart of all, but a kind heart does not attract suitors.

Thus, when Geoffrey Westerly, Lord Staines, the heir to the Earl of Herndon comes to Lord Rushton seeking to wed one of his daughters as the fathers had informally agreed years earlier, Eleanor’s father suggests that Geoffrey marry his retiring second daughter.

Geoffrey does not really want to marry at all. For years he had loved his neighbor, the beauteous Cynthia. But when, carried away by passion, he had embraced Cynthia, she had fled screaming from his arms. She had shortly thereafter married the stuffy and proper local vicar. The devastated Geoffrey had thrown himself into a life of dissipation and would not be considering taking a wife were it not for the fact that his father’s doctor had written suggesting that the old man’s chronic illness had gotten worse and that the earl does not have long to live. Since it is his father’s greatest wish to see his eldest son wed before he dies, Geoffrey has decided to fulfill the long ago arrangement.

The first meeting between the soon-to-be-betrothed pair is understandably uncomfortable. The shy Eleanor is stunned that she is to be the bride of such a handsome man, but she does summon up enough presence of mind to insist that he promise her one boon, whatever she asks. She soon decides that she wants his love, but she dares not ask for the impossible.

The story of Under the Kissing Bough is a familiar favorite: two people who start out in an arranged match discover that theirs is indeed a match made in heaven. Eleanor succumbs first to her fiancé, not because he is handsome but rather because she senses his underlying hurt and she is ever one to want to heal others’ hurts. It takes Geoffrey a bit longer to both realize that Cynthia was not the woman for him and to come to appreciate Eleanor’s many fine qualities.

This road to discovery is played out against the backdrop of a country house Christmas party. Geoffrey’s brothers and Eleanor’s sisters try to help the couple find happiness, with sometimes humorous results. Geoffrey’s irascible and devious father adds interest to the tale. But mostly this is a sweet romance of two truly nice people discovering love.

It becomes clear early on that Geoffrey’s experience with Cynthia has warped his view of himself, that he is not as bad as he has painted himself. If his reaction to Cynthia’s behavior seems a bit extreme, it is nonetheless understandable. However this is Eleanor’s story. She is certainly shy and retiring and socially insecure, but she is no cipher. Perhaps it is a cliché to say that “still waters run deep,” but both the reader and Geoffrey soon come to appreciate her sterling qualities.

Under the Kissing Bough is a sweet Regency romance, a feel-good tale, a nice holiday treat. But it should be read at Christmas, not Halloween.

--Jean Mason

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