The Mermaid

The Perfect Mistress

The Soft Touch

Sweet Talking Man

The Unlikely Angel

The Husband Test by Betina Krahn
(Bantam, $6.99, PG) ISBN 0-553-58386-7
In theory, this book is set in some vague medieval time. In fact, it takes place in an alternative reality that combines the plumbing, transportation and superstitions of the Middle Ages with the political and social realities of musical theatre.

Eloise of Argent, a novice at the Convent of the Brides of Virtue, likes to “improve” things. Apparently the nuns let her, in spite of the fact that her improvements end in disaster. Within a page I was humming How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria? But Eloise is determined to be Abbess someday - not because she is humble, pious or selfless, but because she likes telling everybody what to do.

One day, as she’s emerging from the charred wreckage of her improvements to the convent kitchen, Peril, Earl of Whitmore comes to call, demanding to be provided with a woman. (In this alternate reality, kings and noblemen eschew powerful alliances and pay big bucks to wed dowerless, unconnected, convent-raised orphans.) He says he needs a wife to organize his household, but what he really needs is a bride of uncompromising goodness to lift the devastating curse supposedly placed on his estate by his father’s discarded mistress. His people have sent him to the Convent of the Brides of Virtue and he’s to come back with the most virtuous girl they’ve got, or else.

The Abbess, seeing the chance to solve a problem like Eloise, invents the Husband Test, several pages of qualifications Peril must meet before he’s allowed to marry a Bride of Virtue. She then appoints Eloise as Husband Judge and packs her off with Peril to conduct the test. Take your time, dear, and don’t rush back.

There’s lots of scope for Eloise to tell people what to do at Whitmore. The grain is rotten, the fields are unplowed, the house is filthy and the food makes everybody sick. Apparently for the two years Peril has been in charge, the villeins have been too busy fighting with each other and blaming the curse for their troubles to do a lick of work. Fortunately, in the convent Eloise learned everything, and I do mean everything, about estate management so she can tell everybody how to fix what’s wrong with the housekeeping, the kitchens, the farms, the stable, the dairy, the brewery, etc. etc. She even finds a stashed fortune that should solve Peril’s financial problems.

Unfortunately, while concocting these adorable hijinks, Ms. Krahn forgot a couple of things that some readers might find important.

Like a personality for Peril. He just runs around snarling at everyone. We do know he won his knight’s spurs at an unusually early age and made a name for himself in many “campaigns and victories.” What we don’t know is how he managed all this with no leadership skills, because a 21-year-old girl who’s lived nine years in a convent is a more effective leader than he is. Frankly, Eloise’s hair has more color than this guy.

Like a romance. Grouchy Peril stays away from Eloise (mostly) for the first half of the book because she’s a nun. Cranky Peril browbeats her for most of the second half of the book because she’s bossy and his men are quick to make jokes about who’s wearing the breeches around here. In between there are a couple of opportunities to prove they’re compatible in bed, then there’s a happy ending.

Like a husband test. In spite of the name of the book, there really isn’t one. So, um, what are we doing here, again?

Ms. Krahn is an experienced writer, and some things about this book work - in spite of all she’s done to undermine it. It is energetically paced and there are moments of true charm. I liked the complex and thoughtful Eloise who took charge at Whitmore a lot better than the oblivious wigeon at the Abbey. I’m just not sure what she drank on the journey that caused the transformation.

Although I like an imaginative plot, I’m not a fan of this sitcom approach to rewriting history. It’s unfortunate that even readers who appreciate it may find this less than satisfying as a love story.

--Judi McKee

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