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The Runaways

Lady at Risk

Autumn Vows by Barbara Hazard
(Signet Regency, $4.99, G) ISBN 0-451-19575-2
Ms. Hazard is an experienced, talented author with a long backlist of titles of both Regencies and full-length novels. Since I've enjoyed her work in the past, I started Autumn Vows with high hopes. I'll admit to some disappointment that it didn't live up to my expectations. This book seems to have two main themes: (1) smart, capable heroines can behave in really stupid, illogical ways and (2) it's better to be an orphan because families are the pits.

Theodora Meredith is the eldest daughter of a large, chaotic, and generally ill-mannered family. Her indolent and often pregnant mother depends on her to manage the myriad of matters necessary to keep the large household operating during her husband's frequent absences.

Theo is informed that Lucas Whitney, Earl of Canford, has asked her father for her hand in marriage and that he has accepted. She is mystified as to why the earl would be interested in her since they had never been introduced or engaged in conversation during Theo's London season. When her father brings the earl for a brief visit, Theo tries to convince him that marriage between the two of them would not be a good idea, but Canford tells her that the announcement has already been published in the newspapers so the matter is settled.

Theo is reluctant to marry Canford because: (get this) he is so handsome and virile she's sure to fall in love with him, he'll never love her because she isn't beautiful, and he'll be proud and conceited like her father, but she decides she can't not bear to marry him. So her technique for dealing with this situation is to be cold and withdrawn and unresponsive. (Oh, that's a great way to build a successful marriage!) Sure enough, she falls in love nearly immediately after their wedding but doesn't want to give him a disgust of her because he doesn't reciprocate her feelings so she rejects any overtures he makes. (I warned you this was illogical.)

Nearly two months later they are invited to his married sister's home for Christmas where Theo meets Canford's family members who seem cold and hostile to her. After Christmas Canford announces that he's going to London and leaving Theo at home. Theo balks at this treatment and follows him to London. Soon afterwards members of both families arrive to further complicate their relationship.

A problem with this story is the overabundance of characters, particularly the ill-behaved relatives. One of Theo's sister's an immoral slut, another's a sermonizing religious fanatic, the boys are wild and uncivilized, and the baby cries all the time. It's a wonder that Theo's still got her sanity after dealing with this crew. It does, however, raise the question of why Theo didn't jump at the chance to marry Canford just to escape.

Besides the relatives falling all over themselves creating complications for Theo and Canford, the plot device that drives much of the story is the ubiquitous Big Misunderstanding. Theo won't reveal her feelings for Canford, and Canford won't reveal his reason for marrying her. Maybe this means they're really meant for each other, but it didn't make me like either of them very much. I grew especially irritated with Theo. I'll certainly agree that a character's actions should arise from character motivation, but I'd much prefer that the character motivation be more than sheer stupidity.

Furthermore, the story bogs down with all the family complications. With all the relatives popping in and out, there seems to be little progression towards a resolution of the hero and heroine's romantic problems.

Other characters—friends, acquaintances, and other relatives—also abound. The problems of one secondary character, Lucy Blake, are raised then left completely unresolved so it seems reasonable that another book is intended. I know that Ms. Hazard's capable of writing a charming, original story. I just hope Lucy's an orphan.

--Lesley Dunlap

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