Beguiled by Susan Spencer Paul
(Harl. Historical, $4.99, PG) ISBN 0-373-29008-X
Anthony Harbreas, the Earl of Graydon, is a handsome, kind, and eminently eligible peer of the realm. But the life of this proper lord takes an unexpected turn when he becomes the victim of blackmail by the devilish Earl of Cardemore. Cardemore's sister, Lady Lillian Walford, is coming to London at the age of 21 to have her first season. Cardemore wants to ensure her success, so he forces Graydon, a darling of the ton, to act as Lily's escort.

Graydon, finding himself effectively trapped, and being an agreeable sort, goes along with the plan. What he doesn't suspect is that there is a reason Cardemore has gone to such lengths for his sister. Lily, as Graydon soon discovers, is mute.

Actually, she can speak, but due to a tragic incident in her childhood, her vocal cords are permanently damaged. Her voice, when she dares to use it, sounds "grating and manlike" even to her own ears, and she can't speak for long without tiring her voice out completely. Despite this misfortune, Lily is a sweet innocent with many romantic dreams about the delights of a London season. Cardemore wants Graydon to see that those dreams are fulfilled.

Graydon soon finds himself in sympathy with Cardemore. Lily's stunning beauty and sweet nature endear her to him quickly, and he willingly goes forward with the plan he was forced into. And when further machinations by Cardemore make it necessary for Graydon to marry Lily, he takes the news cheerfully.

Lily isn't so cheerful. Completely unaware of her brother's blackmail, she can't understand why Graydon would want to marry her. She remains convinced throughout most of the story that he couldn't possibly love her, ever, because of her disability. For his part, Graydon falls more and more in love with her all the time, but various unfortunate occurrences and misunderstandings keep them from resolving their differences.

Beguiled is an interesting and well-written novel that was, in many ways, a pleasure to read. The story flows easily and believably, the characters are well-formed and consistent, and there are several entertaining subplots.

Personally, I think it must be very difficult to write a book where a major character has any sort of disability. As a reader, I'm wary of these books, because I often feel a little manipulated as if I'm almost obligated to sympathize with the disabled character, simply because of his or her misfortune. But that's not enough for me. I want a disabled character like any character to be a well-rounded person who I can relate to and care about regardless of the disability. I think the author manages that here. Although Lily's muteness is a major part of the story as it should be she is a likeable character above and beyond that.

Furthermore, the whole subject of Lily's muteness was fascinating to me. I had no idea of the prejudice, fear, and disgust that the deaf and mute faced in the past. London's polite society regards Lily as more beast than human, or completely without morals, or mentally retarded, or cursed by God, or all of these at once. It was a tragic and compelling revelation for me, and one that the author weaves naturally into the story, without preaching or condemning.

Despite all of these good points, I can't wholeheartedly recommend Beguiled to romance readers. The relationship between Lily and Graydon simply lacked... heat. It wasn't just the lack of sex in the book (although the love scenes are few and far between, and very tame when they do appear), it was the lack of sexual tension. Graydon is so sweet and protective towards Lily that he seems more like a brother to her than a lover. He says that he desires her, but I didn't quite believe it, and as the book progressed, the whole idea of it made me more and more uncomfortable.

Now, I'm not a big reader of "sweet" romances in the first place, so perhaps I'm not the best person to judge this kind of thing, but for me, the sweetness in this book went too far, almost supplanting the romance altogether. However, if a lack of passion between the main characters doesn't bother you, I think you'll enjoy Beguiled.

--Ellen Hestand

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