A Poor Relation by Joanna Maitland
(Harl Historical, $5.25, G) ISBN 0-373-29309-7
Misunderstandings are the flavor of the day for this Joanna Maitland tale. A Poor Relation has so many of them the story could be titled A Bevy of Misunderstandings. And the deciding factor in what started out as a fairly delightful story is that there is no other plot BUT the misunderstandings.

Isabella Winstanley is an heiress, but she doesn’t want anyone to know. So she is living with her poor aunt and they are spouting the tale that the aunt is rich and Isabella has no real money of her own. They are sponsoring another relative, Sophia, who has only a small dowry and is basically poor, but they are passing her off as an heiress in order to get a husband. Now the reality is they aren’t openly lying, they are just allowing these misunderstandings to be bandied about as the truth. Isabella, being all of 26 is really on the shelf and Sophia is a very immature and often silly miss who is ready to enjoy her first season.

What a surprise Baron Leigh Amburley has in store for him when he meets the two lovely ladies on a return trip from one of Isabella’s charity activities. She is dressed poorly and is helping a poor creature on the side of the road. Amburley mistakenly thinks he is breaking up a robbery, only to be told to go on his way and mind his own business. Now he thinks Isabella is really a poor relation and is passing herself off as more than that. But since he is intrigued, he doesn’t tell the ton, he just decides to observe and find out what she is really up to.

But Amburley has secrets of his own. He has money, but is not totally flush. He is forced to earn extra money at the card table, especially to finance his mother’s tender heartedness – you see she tends to give lots of money to charity too. And his friend, Lewiston, is an heir to a fortune but since he has no title, no one seems to know he is rich.

It is all very tonnish and the entire tale deals with the strictures and confusing antics of what is acceptable, not acceptable, rakish or not, womanly or not, etc. One of the misunderstandings occurs when Amburley becomes interested in Isabella, who assumes he is interested in Sophia who really likes Lewiston. Sophia doesn’t know what to do since she is beset by so many beaus and Lewiston is too scared to declare himself because he thinks she will reject him. Ah…love.

Another misunderstanding revolves around Isabella, her skills at cards unequaled by other females, throwing a piquet game in which she is assured of beating Amburley. She decides she can not embarrass him, and he decides to then challenge her to a horse race (double or nothing). He figures he can let her win, thus taking away the issue of her having to come up with the money. But she goes him one better by betting his pair of grey mounts if he loses. Each is trying to save the other embarrassment and they just keep getting deeper in the misunderstanding game.

Needless to say, this story is intriguing on the one hand and yet, it drags on the other hand. I enjoyed their banter and each character has sound reasons (at least in their mind) for their actions. While their logic is frayed at times, it is still their logic. But 300 pages of misunderstanding followed by misunderstanding gets old and frankly, I just wished they would drop the silly rules of the ton and talk to each other. The author helped the reader keep up by telling the story from several points of view, so we knew the truth the entire time. I wish the characters had been so privileged.

Isabella is basically the kind of woman I enjoy. She is no doormat and very non-traditional for the times, yet she clearly recognizes the need for appearances and takes great steps to preserve her reputation as she sets about her good works. Amburley is basically a good sort; although quick to want to protect, he is interested in Isabella as more than a lovely woman. He enjoys her quick wit and her ability to carry on a conversation about more than dresses and balls.

A Poor Relation would be a great story if it was only about 200 pages because the couple was interesting, their interactions lively and their happy-ever-after well received by this reader. It was the extra 100 pages full of more misunderstandings that limited the tale to just an acceptable story.

--Shirley Lyons

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