The Grand Hotel by Carla Kelly, Elisabeth Fairchild, Anne Barbour, Barbara Metzger & Alison Lane
(Signet, $6.50, PG) ISBN 0-451-20036-5
****
The Grand Hotel is an anthology of stories set in Regency-era England that features a more unifying theme than most anthologies. The Grand Hotel is a new luxury hotel in London, and the five stories written by well-known Signet regency authors involve the hotel staff and guests. In contrast to the pattern of most anthologies, The Grand Hotel uses continuing characters and events throughout which give it a broader scope than is possible with completely unrelated stories.

The first story by Carla Kelly, “The Background Man,” is the best of the five. Charles Mortimer is the temporary hotel manager, substituting for the regular manager who’s recuperating from an attack of gout. He served in India as a clerk with the East India Company but was drawn into battle at Kaitna Ford where he encountered Arthur Wellesley who was to become the Duke of Wellington. He is efficient, diplomatic, and self-effacing. His only activity aside from hotel business is writing a chronicle, Wellington in India.

Miss Millicent Carrington registers at the hotel; she has come to London to seek employment as a governess. Charles is immediately taken with her, and when she has to cut short her stay because she no longer has the funds to pay for her lodgings, Charles finds a way to circumvent hotel procedures and offers her a temporary position with the hotel. Will he be able to transform this into a more permanent relationship?

What’s so wonderful about Carla Kelly’s stories is her characters. They’re so well-drawn by the end it’s as though you’ve come to know a friend. Her heroes are particularly appealing. They’re honest, dependable, and always possess a welcome sense of humor. It’s no wonder Millie falls in love with Charles -- who wouldn’t?

The next story takes up where “The Background Man” ended. “Love Will Find a Way” by Elizabeth Fairchild is the story of a love that began through correspondence. Lieutenant James Forrester had written the letters to Annabelle Grant for his wounded, blinded superior officer, Captain Archie Grant, during his final days. James fell in love with Annabelle through her letters.

James meets the now-widowed Annabelle at the Grand Hotel determined to arrange opportunities for them to be together. Annabelle wants to learn about Archie’s last days. Is she ready to move on with her life? Is there enough time for James to win her love?

This story is in direct contrast to the first. The over-all mood of the story is sad with little relief. While the two main characters are sweet and deserve a chance at love, I can’t help but worry that memories of Archie will inevitably shadow their relationship.

“The Castaway” by Anne Barbour tells the story of Martha Finch who has come to London and the Grand Hotel to claim she is Lady Felicity Marshall, the long-lost granddaughter of the Marquess of Canby, miraculously rescued from a shipwreck. Gabriel Storm, the Earl of Branford, is determined to protect his elderly friend from an imposter. His investigation will reveal secrets she had hoped to remain hidden and lead to a surprise twist unknown to them both.

I’ve never been very comfortable with the lost heir story line. It’s hard to gather much sympathy for a character that’s trying to pull a con on some lonely old man. In addition, the romance between Martha and Branford is unconvincing; I liked him better when he was skeptical.

“The Management Requests” by Barbara Metzger is the most amusing story in the anthology and has a delightful framing device that adds to the fun. The story is divided into sections headed by recommended rules of behavior for guests, such as “No spitting, fisticuffs, or rowdy behavior.” And each rule is violated in the action that follows.

Captain Arthur Hunter, Viscount Huntingdon, has come to the Grand Hotel to oversee arrangements for an Austrian princess and her entourage. Because of wounds received in the war, he is unable to maneuver the stairs to reach his fifth-floor rooms and prevails upon the manager to vacate his ground floor rooms.

When Hope Thurstfield arrives at the hotel in search of her missing fiancé, she mistakes Arthur for the hotel manager. Her room reservation has been given to the princess’s party, but he arranges for her to be given his original room assignment. Arthur’s abilities are stretched to the limit as he tries to juggle the demands of his pushy sister-in-law, the domineering Princess Henrika Hafkesprinke, his pretend role as hotel manager, and his growing affection for Hope.

The only story of the five that could be described as a regency romp, it is simply a delight to read. There is a touch of farce in the complications that arise from the Big Misunderstanding, and the writing is witty.

“Promises to Keep” by Allison Lane is the last -- and least--of the stories. Maggie Adams from Pittsburgh has promised her dying father that she will seek out her English relatives. She meets Marcus Widmer, recently resigned from the diplomatic service, at the hotel, and they discover they are related. They will uncover an old scandal and family secrets that will threaten her life.

For its length, this story is overcrowded with characters. It is difficult to follow who’s doing what to whom and why with so many convoluted relationship to unravel. Inevitably, the romance is relegated to second place. Maggie is a plucky heroine, but she can’t save the story on her own.

I predict that The Grand Hotel will be a welcome addition to countless beach bags and airline totes. The five stories are of varying quality with the ones by Ms. Kelly and Ms. Metzger better than the others, but none is really awful -- an all-too-common problem with romance anthologies. I do wish there had been a sixth story that wrapped up some loose ends concerning minor characters, but nevertheless this is a well-conceived and well-executed anthology. I definitely recommend it.

--Lesley Dunlap


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