Whisper Always
by Rebecca Hagan Lee
(Jove, $6.50, PG-13), ISBN 0-515-12712-4
I approached Whisper Always with a great deal of optimism. The authorís long-standing interest in Crown Prince Rudolph of Austria-Hungary led me to hope that the setting, and perhaps the plot, would introduce me to an unfamiliar milieu. Alas, a few lovely glimpses of Vienna in the late 1870ís were not enough to offset a plot in which the lovers experienced no less than five misunderstandings and six reconcilements. In the end, I thought that if Cristina Fairfax and Blake Ashford, ninth earl of Lawrence, doubted their love so easily, I should doubt it, too.

Cristina is a 20-year-old debutante when she meets Blake at the ball that follows her presentation to Queen Victoria. Blake, at age 31, is a career diplomat, presently assigned to escort Crown Prince Rudolph on his state visit to Great Britain. Both Rudolph and Blake notice Cristina; both are attracted to the green-eyed beauty.

In his role of royal escort, Blake attends a midnight auction where the wares for sale are the wives and mistresses of the gentlemen present. Tonight's 'piece de resistance' is unusual: Cristina's thoroughly nasty mother is offering her for sale to the highest bidder. With a wink and a nod, Rudolph accepts her offer.

The transfer is to take place the following night, leaving enough time for Rudolph to deliver a costly necklace to Patricia Fairfax in payment for Cristina and enough time for Patricia to have her daughter beaten into obedience. In turn, Blake uses the time to arrange to rescue Cristina after she is taken to the Crown Prince's lodgings in Marlborough House.

The scene is set for the first poorly plotted episode in 400 pages packed with far too many similarly unlikely episodes. Cristina, numbed by a strong dose of laudanum, is delivered as planned to Marlborough House. Left alone and unaware of Blake's plans, she tears the sheets on the bed into strips -- she uses her teeth -- and climbs out the window. Predictably, the sheets are too short, and Cristina is left dangling too far above the ground to jump. Blake's subsequent rescue is undercut by the reader's realization that at no point did Cristina try opening the unlocked door to the bedroom and sneaking out in a more conventional manner.

Illogical plot devices such as this are far too numerous in the complicated narrative that follows. Even more annoying, however, are our lovers. Whenever these two are separated by more than a few feet, they question their love. When they question their love, they fight -- spiteful, vicious fights. The insults they fling at each other are certainly realistic -- in fact, many couples who stoop to this level of argument end up in divorce court. However realistic, this is not what I want to read when I pick up a romance.

Lee's prose style does nothing to bring her story to life. She is fond of the short, declarative sentence and frequently strings them together in lengthy paragraphs intended to explain the dialogue and action.

In summary, an unbelievable plot, quarreling lovers, and uninspired writing made this book a chore to finish. Save yourself the trouble.

--Nancy J. Silberstein

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