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New Faces 4:

An interview with Victoria Malvey

Portrait of Dreams
by Victoria Malvey
(Pocket, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN: 0-671-02070-6
Debut author Victoria Malvey has crafted a Regency historical that shows considerable promise. Portrait of Dreams starts out with an interesting premise, offers a redoubtable heroine, and provides nice touches of humor. Yet the book also exhibits some of the failings of a first novel, especially in regards to some confusion with the plotting. Perchance the original manuscript was shaped to make it more of a "typical" Regency historical. At least that's what it seems to me.

Let me explain. Malvey's novel begins with a most interesting premise. Nicholas Leigh, son of the Earl of Leigh has just married Andrea, the woman chosen for him by his father. But Nicholas and Andrea had most happily fallen in love before the wedding. Now, on their wedding night, Nicholas is introducing his bride to the joys of wedded bliss and Andrea is proving an apt pupil. Suddenly, there is a knock on the door.

This inconvenient interruption is a message from the king, calling Nicholas away to undertake a previously agreed to mission. Andrea is somewhat miffed that Nicholas never told her of his promise to serve the king. She already has some unconventional ideas about the proper relationship between husband and wife. But Nicholas promises to be back in a few weeks and then they can begin their married life. The two will not see each other again for seven years.

Nicholas and his fellow conspirators to assassinate Napoleon are betrayed and captured. As the son of an English earl, Nicholas is not executed with the rest of the conspirators. Rather, he is imprisoned (not in the Bastille, I fear, since that monument to the ancient regime was dismantled during the French Revolution) and held for ransom. He not surprisingly wonders why the money is not paid promptly.

The delay is the result of a catastrophic decline in the Leigh family fortunes. Nicholas' father had paid huge bribes in an attempt to uncover his son's fate. After his death, Nicholas' brother, Thomas (not Lord Thomas; earl's younger sons do not have courtesy titles), attempting to restore the family fortune through risky investments nearly bankrupts the family. At this point, Andrea steps in, takes over the reins (literally) and finds a way to recover the family's financial position. But it takes her years to amass the huge ransom demanded by the French.

Nicholas arrives home, suspicious of the delay and not knowing that his wife has saved the Leigh groats. Andrea is a very different person from the adoring 17 year old he married. She has become used to directing the estate's business and is unwilling to resume the traditional role assigned to women in Regency England. For his part, Nicholas needs to reassert his place, to resume his life, to recover his sense of self. He does not know what to make of a wife who wants to be his partner, not his subordinate, who doesn't want his protection, but rather wants to share his life.

Wow, thought I when I read the first few chapters. This premise should make for lots of interesting conflict. When Andrea refuses to resume marital intimacies, I thought, this should provide some great sexual tension. I expected a story which would show two strong-minded, attractive people who have to find a way to renegotiate the terms of marriage.

But, for some reason, Malvey added a subplot having to do with attempts to murder Nicholas. Now, I admit, that I was completely surprised when I discovered who the perpetrator was (perhaps too surprised). But I had this niggling feeling that at this point, the story went off track or maybe, switched gears. Suddenly, the character-driven conflict that had seemed so promising took a back seat to the question of "who was doing it." Oh, the question of how Andrea and Nicholas would work things out popped up now and again, but it didn't seem to have the same intensity.

And I really wasn't fully persuaded when the denouement occurred

. Still and all, I found Malvey's first novel entertaining. Portrait of Dreams is a quite acceptable romance. But the promise of its original premise just wasn't realized. As Malvey hones her writing skill, I hope she finds a way to revisit the concept of showing two people who must rediscover love and renegotiate a relationship. I personally find this kind of story more interesting than "who's trying to do in the earl."

Now I want to make a point that has nothing to do with the quality of Malvey's book. Portrait of Dreams is 274 pages of relatively good size print. This is a book by an unknown, first-time author which is not receiving a whole lot of publicity. And Pocket has priced the book at $6.50. How many readers are going to pay that much for an untried author? How high can book prices go? I grit my teeth and pay $7.00 or $7.50 for my favorites, but I doubt I would have bought this book were it not that I am reviewing it. What's going on here?

--Jean Mason

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