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Gentle From the Night

The Lawman Meets His Bride

One Small Secret

The Merry Widow by Meagan McKinney
(Zebra, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-8217-6707-0
The year is 1857; the place is the frozen arctic. Rachel Howland is the beautiful owner of the Ice Maiden Saloon. As the sole white woman in the region, she’s the object of admiration of many men, but her heart is set on the adventurer and newspaper tycoon, Noel Magnus. She’s waited for years for him to marry her only to be put off again as he embarks on yet another adventure. Rachel is tired of waiting.

She travels to New York with the intention of posing as Noel’s widow and living in his family home. Before she can reach the Magnus property, she encounters two enchanting orphan street urchins. She is appalled by their living conditions in this city of plenty and takes charge of them herself.

Meanwhile, Magnus discovers that Rachel has left the north to journey to New York. Knowing that she is vulnerable to all sorts of disasters, he follows her in order to save her because she cannot possibly make it without him.

The caretakers at Northwyck, Magnus’s fabulous mansion, immediately accept Rachel as his widow and jump to the conclusion that the children are Magnus’s son and daughter. Rachel feels inadequate to adapt to the lifestyle of such wealth, but the faithful retainers convince her to stay. She believes that if Magnus chases her to New York, he may come to admit he loves her.

Rachel’s beauty eases her way into society, and she is taken under the wing of an influential society matron. But difficulties ensue when Magnus shows up to claim his “wife.”

I have read and enjoyed many of Meagan McKinney’s books, but this one does not rank with her best - or even her less-than-best - and I cannot recommend it. Other than the overly cute children, the characters - including the hero and heroine - are shallow and self-seeking at best, and the villain is positively repellant. (Don’t you wonder how an entire cast of characters can be so oblivious to the villain’s slimy qualities?) Even the most inventive, intriguing plot would suffer with such unappealing characters.

I can sympathize with Rachel’s desire to flee the frozen north, but her attitude - “I may as well pose as Magnus’s widow and live in his house because after all he’s not using it” - is pretty hard to swallow. Magnus’s retaliation for her deceit, however, borders on the vicious and abusive. Unless it’s enough to be rich and handsome, it’s hard to figure out what she ever saw in him. This is one of those books (it’s hard to call it a romance) where I was hoping the heroine would come to her senses and dump the hero.

As the story lurches from one focus to the next, the plot’s in serious need of some direction and continuity. First, there’s disappointed love in the icy north, then the naive innocent adrift in the Big City, then the long-suffering heroine faces disappointment, self-sacrifice, and treachery.

There is a subplot concerning a valuable black opal that’s loosely based on an actual historical search for a missing exploration party, but it is no more plausible than the main plot. (And how is everyone going to get to the arctic by dogsled from Nova Scotia? Swim?)

The most successful aspect of the book is the sense of setting in the book’s first chapter. The arctic is an unusual location for a romance, and the surroundings are vividly described. Unfortunately, the plot quickly relocates to a more conventional setting.

There’s nothing very merry for readers in The Merry Widow.

--Lesley Dunlap

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