Breathless

Conor's Way

The Seduction

 
The Charade by Laura Lee Guhrke
(Sonnet, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-671-02367-5
****
Perhaps I picked up Charade with unrealistically high expectations. I so greatly enjoyed the authorís previous book, the wonderful Breathless, that I have been eagerly awaiting her newest romance. I have no hesitation in recommending Charade with its well-developed characters, cohesive plot and relatively uncommon setting, but unfortunately, it isnít the equal of its predecessor and didnít leave me breathless.

In the days immediately preceding the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, indentured servant Katie Armstrong has fled to Boston to escape a brutal master in Virginia. Katie had been convicted of thievery in England; she returns to her old trade in the Boston market and lifts the purse of an English officer. Boston blue blood Ethan Harding observes the talented pickpocket at work and admires her audacity as well as her lovely appearance.

Viscount Lowden, newly arrived in the Colony on a mission to uncover the leaders of the emerging rebellion, also observes Katieís light-fingered technique. He has her seized and forces her to become his spy with the mission of determining the true identity of one John Smith who seems to be an important source of information regarding the English authoritiesí plans.

Katie contrives to have herself introduced into a tavern thatís a known meeting place for Whigs, those who oppose English rule. While working there she meets John Smith, who is really Ethan Harding. Ethan immediately recognizes the pickpocket heíd admired earlier.

When Katie follows him to his home, establishing his true identity, Ethan conceives a plan to force Katie to become a spy to discover the reason Lowden has been sent to Boston. Katie will pose as his mistress so that she can be introduced to a higher level of society. Katie recognizes the irony that she is spying for both sides.

The difficult circumstances of her origins have forced Katie to think only of her own survival, but coming to know Ethan and gradually falling in love with him changes her values even as she knows that he can never marry someone with her background. Can she avoid detection as a spy? Can she avoid Lowdenís trap? Will she betray the man she loves? Will Ethan send her away when her assignment is over?

As I was reading Charade, I had the nagging feeling that I had read this book before ... or at least something very much like it. It wasnít until I was three-quarters of the way to the end that it struck me: This could be Mara, Daughter of the Nile by Eloise Jarvis McGraw transported to the time period of the American Revolution! Now this may not mean anything to some of you, but Iím sure that a lot of you will have fond memories of this classic young adult novel. (Incidentally, nearly 50 years after it was first published in 1953, Mara is still in print so you can buy it for your daughter or niece and read it again on the sly.)

There are parallels in the two plots -- plucky runaway indentured servant/slave, nation on the edge of rebellion, heroine pressured into spying for opposing sides, hero juggling two identities on two different socioeconomic levels, hero acknowledging love after life-threatening crisis. Iíd love to know if Laura Lee Guhrke was enamored of Lord Sheftu as a preteen, too.

If the similarities between the two books are more than mere coincidence, the author is following a well-established literary tradition -- basing a new work on an old model. For example, Romeo and Juliet has spawned innumerable progeny; any number of romances have been inspired by classic fairy tales. The primary consideration is whether the new version succeeds as a work on its own, and Charade passes this test.

The best aspect of the book is the character development. It isnít easy to make a character whose morals are flexible at best seem sympathetic, but even when Katieís caught red-handed she still manages to charm herself out of most trouble. Katieís evolution from a defensive, self-centered survivor to a woman whose love is so strong sheís willing to sacrifice everything for the man she loves is gradual and convincing.

Ethan is one of those almost-too-perfect heroes, but his increasing appreciation for all of Katieís attributes -- even her shadier talents -- seems believable given how the political and social upheaval of the day has altered many of his attitudes.

After a flurry of stories set in Colonial/Revolutionary America around the nationís Bicentennial celebration, the majority of historical romances seem to be stuck in Regency England or the American West. I can recommend Charade to readers who are ready for another time and another place. And, of course, to those readers like me who were enchanted by that guttersnipe Mara when we were a few years younger.

--Lesley Dunlap


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