Lady Delafont's Dilemma

Lady May's Folly

Lord St. Claire's Angel

Miss Truelove Beckons

Belle of the Ball by Donna Simpson
(Zebra Regency, $4.99, G) ISBN 0-8217-7040-3
I really agonized over the rating for this book. I like Donna Simpson’s Regencies and admire what she tries to do here: take an unlikable character from her last novel and make her the heroine of this book. Unfortunately, the redemption didn’t quite work for me so the book didn’t quite work either.

In Miss Truelove Beckons, Arabella Swinley came across as a shallow, selfish young woman who was willing to undermine her cousin True’s love. That she was egged on by her thoroughly despicable mother and motivated by the fact that the family fortune was gone did not serve to excuse her actions. She really didn’t want Lord Drake except for his money and position but she was willing to spoil her cousin’s life - a cousin who loved her - to achieve her goals.

Belle of the Ball opens some months later. Arabella and her mother had left Lord Drake’s home in the company of Lord Conley, who seemed much taken with the beauty. If his lordship was not as rich as Lord Drake, he was rich enough. Unfortunately, once Arabella and Lady Swinley arrived at Conley’s home, they discovered that his overbearing mother opposed the match. Lady Swinley had tried to force the issue by locking the two in a room together, but her ploy had not worked. Now, Arabella is back in London for another season, dreadfully worried that news of this debacle will destroy her credit.

Her fears seem justified when she receives the “cut direct” from Lord and Lady Snowdale in a shop. Then, a large man comes to her rescue. But Arabella spurns the man’s assistance; it is more important that the Snowdales see her behaving properly than that she should be polite to this man who seemingly does not understand the niceties of behavior. Thus, Arabella meets Marcus Westhaven.

The two meet again at a social event and Arabella discovers that Marcus has spent many years in Canada. She finds his tales of this distant land fascinating and the man himself much more interesting than most London dandies. But Arabella’s situation is desperate. If she cannot find a wealthy husband - almost any wealthy husband - this season, she and her mother will find themselves penniless. She makes her situation quite clear to Marcus. However attractive and interesting she finds him, she must marry money.

Simpson works hard to make Arabella a sympathetic character, and to a certain extent, she succeeds. Should she fail to find a husband, she at least could have a home with her cousin True, but her mother’s circumstances would be most unpleasant. So her insistence on a rich husband is based on her concern for her mother. And, I fear, that it was here that I couldn’t quite buy the heroine’s motivations.

I am a firm believe in filial piety; after all, I’m a mother. But the problem is that I also believe that such feelings are not automatic. Lady Swinley is simply one of the most unpleasant characters I have come across in a long time. She paid no attention to her daughter when she was a child, sending her to school and having her spend her vacations with her cousins. She only developed any interest in Arabella when it became clear that her daughter was a beauty and would serve her social and financial purposes. She is overbearing and selfish and her machinations have harmed rather than helped Arabella. In short, she is a nasty piece of work.

Hence, rather than admiring Arabella’s wish to marry a rich man so that her mother would be taken care of, I found myself asking how she could be so short sighted. Perhaps this is unfair, but the fact remains that I could not admire Arabella despite the fact that she did show signs of growing maturity and self awareness. This made it a bit hard for me to understand how Marcus could fall in love with her.

Of course, everything turns out all right in the end although the solution is a bit pat and unlikely. Still, Simpson didn’t quite succeed in making me care about Arabella and, for that reason, I can rate Belle of the Ball as merely acceptable.

--Jean Mason

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