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The Unsuitable Miss Martingale

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Wild Roses

The Scent of Lilacs by Barbara Hazard
(Signet, $4.99, G) ISBN 0-451-20410-7
The Scent of Lilacs is a Regency Gothic of sorts that didn't quite work. Inconsistent characterization and an implausible romance made it a disappointing read.

Kate Whittingham and her older brother, Edwin, have come to Bryce House in an attempt to claim an inheritance. Edwin has been left the house by their Uncle Daniel, but there is a strange codicil to the will. Edwin must spend an entire month living at Bryce House, and that includes sleeping there at night. There are rumor of ghosts and the staff won't even remain overnight. Kate is determined to help her brother gain his inheritance - and a way out of penury for them both.

Things begin to go bump in the night. A male ghost known as The Gentleman, dressed as a ghostly Cavalier and wielding a dagger, appears to both Edwin and Kate. Kate is also awakened by a ghostly young lady who wails and cries. The scent of lilacs she leaves behind begins to haunt Kate as much as the ghost. When Kate meets handsome Luke Tremaine, the neighboring Earl of Bryce, he hints that Uncle Daniel may have left behind a journal about the ghosts that will answer Kate's questions.

Luke has a reputation as a rakehell, and Edwin is firmly against any contact other than strict propriety. Luke is, after all, an earl, but beyond courtesy calls, he insists Kate have nothing to do with him. Kate, of course, runs into Luke again and again, and she tells herself he's as exasperating as he is dashing. Luke seems to have little interest in Kate beyond a few physical touches - lifting her off her horse, helping her into the saddle - and it may come as a surprise to the reader when the two of them decide they share an undying love and wish to marry.

Kate begins to regret her promise to Luke when the ghosts begin to appear to her alone, even when others are present. For a woman who is professed to be intelligent and quick-witted, the obvious solution to this mystery escapes her and she begins to wonder about her sanity. Oh no! She must be insane! She can't marry Luke after all.

Okay, I had several problems with this plot. First, the development of the romance between Kate and Luke was almost nil. They meet, ride a few times, share an outing to the seaside - and suddenly they're in love and Luke the womanizer is declaring his undying passion. It just didn't fit. I felt as though the author had been concentrating on building the suspense/ghost aspect of the story and suddenly remembered this was supposed to be a romance, so she threw one in.

The ghost aspect, while initially interesting, didn't hold up. The cavalier, for reasons the reader will understand at the end, does little more than wave a dagger. The weeping lady also has little to do other than show up and weep and scare Kate out of her wits. Kate, who up to this point has been presented as pretty sharp, should have been more suspicious rather than instantly assuming she's going crazy.

Finally, the story is told in first person - a difficult trick to pull off and still allow the reader to know the characters. Here it didn't work. We get page after page of Kate's thoughts, Kate's actions, Kate's emotions but nobody else's. Perhaps that's why the romance didn't work for me. I never got to know anything about Luke except what Kate told me, and it was precious little other than he was deucedly attractive.

Call A Scent of Lilacs an interesting experiment that didn't quite pan out. Blending Regency with Gothic seems a natural fit, and if the story hadn't been burdened by the first-person narrative, it might have worked better. If you are looking for something out of the ordinary, by all means give A Scent of Lilacs a try, but there may be better uses for your reading time.

--Cathy Sova

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