Portrait of Dreams

Wedding of the Year by Victoria Malvey
(Sonnet, $6.50, PG) ISBN 0-7434-1884-0
This book is lovely escapist read for the holidays - just donít start it on Christmas Day. If you do, the turkey will burn and the kids will run wild amid the shredded wrapping paper. And you wonít care.

This story has more twists and turns than a rollercoaster, but itís primarily character driven, so let me tell you about the cast.

There are two sisters, Elizabeth and Catherine Everley, daughters of the Earl of Shipham. Elizabeth, the oldest, although lovely, is a socially maladroit bluestocking who would rather live in the country and conduct scientific experiments in her workshop than attend parties in London.

Her younger sister Catherine is an accomplished flirt with a sense of adventure who, in her first Season, has received and turned down two dozen proposals (Elizabeth has received none). Catherine is not the storyís most thoroughly developed character, but neither is she as shallow as she might appear. She wants to marry, but only if she can have the kind of passionate friendship that her parents shared.

Their father, widowed after many years of happy marriage, is afraid that Elizabeth will go calmly onto the shelf and never know the joys of love. Knowing that Elizabeth would do anything to ensure her sisterís happiness, he decrees that Catherine may not marry until Elizabeth is safely wed. He knows his daughters, and Elizabeth determines to become the most conventional young lady on the marriage mart in order to attract a man.

Enter John and Richard Vernon.

Lord Richard Vernon sees Elizabeth standing on the sidelines at one of the rare balls he attends. Thinking she looks lonely, he asks her to dance and refuses to be put off by her unorthodox behavior. Richard is not exactly a conventional person himself. With a reputation as a conscienceless rake, he has actually found happiness and fulfillment running a successful business - a career he must hide, or be shunned by the ton.

His older brother John, Marquess of Wykham, on the other hand, is the picture of propriety. Forced to assume the responsibilities of his title at an early age, John takes his obligations seriously. Secretly, he longs to cast off the shackles of duty and roam the world, looking for adventure.

Through a series of circumstances, including an abduction that Catherine and John witness, the sisters Everley are thrown together with the brothers Vernon. Nearly everyone involved has a different opinion about which brother should hook up with which sister and several matchmaking plots unfold simultaneously.

One of the beauties of the story is watching how, whether consciously or unconsciously, each character refuses to be manipulated by the expectations of others and contrives to follow their own instincts and natures. Each is putting on the act that is expected of them but, when the chips are down, each character is true to his or her own heart.

Iím telling you, this book could give misunderstandings a good name. Itís not that there arenít lots of them, but they all spring directly from the reality of the characters rather than willful authorial manipulation - and not one of them lasts a minute longer than is necessary or credible. Astonishing.

Itís a charming story, with likeable, unpretentious characters you can root for. In pacing, itís swift and energetic, dashing ahead and taking the reader along for the ride. Itís a bit like being a passenger on a motorcycle - you can enjoy the wind in your face and the scenery whizzing past without having to pay too much attention to the road.

So be warned. No matter how tempting, be strong and put the book aside until December 26. Then take a well-deserved day off.

--Judi McKee

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