Indiscreet by Mary Balogh
Jove, $5.99, PG, ISBN 0-515-12001-4
****
I believe that Mary Balogh's writing is among the best in the romance genre. What she does as well or better than anyone else is character motivation and development; her plots evolve from her characters. Indiscreet is a prime example: rarely am I as drawn into the characters as I was in this book; I feel as though I know the hero and heroine intimately. Even many of the secondary characters are fully drawn and three dimensional.

Catherine Winters is a respectable widow living a modest but genteel existence in the village of Bodley-on-the-Water (love the name!) with only her terrier for company. When the esteemed residents of the local manor return for the spring season with guests for a house party, Catherine smiles at one man believing him to be Claude Adams, her neighbor and the landlord of her cottage. In fact, he's Claude's identical twin brother, Rex, Viscount Rawleigh, recently returned from the war on the continent. Rex believes Catherine's smile to be meant as encouragement and decides a dalliance with the lovely and seemingly willing widow would be an excellent way to pass some time in the country.

But Catherine is not willing. Even though she is attracted to Rex, because of a scandal in her past she is very aware of the delicacy of her position and the disaster that threatens. Her very existence depends on her maintaining her present situation. In spite of her firm resistance, Rex, whose fiancee broke their engagement for love of another man while he was at war, pursues Catherine with relentlessness. His desire for her only increases when she doesn't yield; even his brother's firm warnings don't dissuade him.

Bodley-on-the-Water is a small village with a limited social circle, and they're inevitably in company together. One evening, Rex walks her to her cottage and again tries to seduce her. Furious at her refusal, he leaves her cottage without checking for curious witnesses and quits the area--along with his friends--the following day.

Clarissa, Claude's wife, resentful at the abrupt termination of her house party, learns of Rex's rendezvous with Catherine. In Claude's absence, Clarissa accuses her of immorality and gives notice of her imminent eviction from the cottage. As a result, Catherine's reputation is ruined, and only marriage to Rex can salvage it. It is only after their wedding that Rex learns the truth about the scandal that forced Catherine into permanent exile. He insists they travel to London to confront her past and the man whose actions have wreaked such havoc on both their lives.

Conflicts abound during the course of Indiscreet. Between characters. Within characters. Against society's strictures. At the inequality of a woman's place within society. Not to mention abundant sexual tension.

I found myself greatly sympathizing with Catherine's struggles to maintain her position nearly to the extent that I felt that I was struggling along with her. Her integrity and strength of character dictate her behavior and not only her opposition to Rex's propositioning: her shadowy past is a consequence of her refusal to submit to conditions she knows to be contrary to her principles. She is portrayed as a sympathetic character without being artificially perfect, a fault romance heroines too frequently display.

Rex is a more problematic character. Although he is basically a decent person and is acting from believable motivation, at times I wanted to ask, "What part of 'no' don't you understand?" His pursuit seems more than slightly obsessive as though Catherine's consent has become a military objective rather than a romantic encounter. He does ultimately recognize how unfairly he has treated her ... then continues to order her life over her objections. I must admit, however, that this is completely in character: Rex is never going to manage by consensus and a sudden switch to sensitive male would be unrealistic.

My main criticism of the book is that the author has set up the final confrontation successfully, then in only a few pages the conflict is resolved and the book ends. I felt deprived of a resolution as fully detailed as the buildup to it. I'd agonized long and well over Catherine's problems; I wanted more time to enjoy her triumph.

But there's a ray of hope in the ending. During the course of the book, we meet three of Rex's friends who were with him during the war. The author holds out the promise that there are more to come.

They can't come fast enough for me.

--Lesley Dunlap


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