Miss Grantham's One True Sin
by Melynda Beth Skinner
(Zebra, $4.99, G) ISBN 0-8217-7182-5
**
Marianna Grantham comes to Trowbridge Manor, the estate of Truesdale Sinclair,Viscount Trowbridge, to convince him to enter into a sham betrothal with her. Her older friend Ophelia Robertson has suggested the viscount, popularly known as True Sin, would be amenable to her scheme. Marianna has been sent to London from the Caribbean by her extremely wealthy parents to marry a titled nobleman.

Marianna has no interest in such a marriage because she wishes to wed for love. Rather than try to enter society she took a job as a schoolteacher at a girls' school. (There's no mention of how she managed to get such a position with no experience and no references and no explanation of how she expected to meet a titled gentleman to fall in love with while teaching girls.) She has been writing her parents inventing a titled fiancé, but now her parents are coming to England and will expect to meet him.

Marianna thinks that she can pay True Sin with a large quantity of jewels to play the part of her fiancé. True Sin is in financial difficulties - his late brother impoverished the estate and one of True’s ships (he’s got his own shipping empire built from scratch with his own hands naturally) has been lost. True agrees to her scheme but secretly intends to wed the rich Marianna (to whom he’s not attracted one bit) for her pots of money then abandon her and return to the sea. An attempt to compromise Marianna beyond all redemption nearly succeeds.

Marianna moves into his mansion, and Ophelia arrives the following day to be her duenna. True is guardian to his three young nieces, known as the ABC's for their initials. They have been allowed to run wild without supervision, but Marianna, being a wonderful teacher and exemplary role model, soon has them acting like the young ladies they are.

Ophelia and Marianna plan a large house party to announce the engagement. The guest list is heavy with eligible bachelors so that Marianna can have a chance to choose the man she will really want to marry. (The ethics of husband-hunting at an occasion ostensibly intended to celebrate her engagement to another apparently don’t bother her in the slightest.) It is at the house party that Marianna learns the truth - True has a dreadful reputation. (You get what you pay for, lady.) Her parents will never approve. Marianna is a superficial, snobbish twit who believes that members of the ton are the only people with any worth. It is of primary importance to her that she makes the social connections that will get her the status she desires.

Among the guests is the very proper and very nice, near-sighted Earl of Lindenshire, who is more interested in his scientific and naturalist studies than the more manly pursuits of others of his class. Marianna realizes that Lindenshire is attracted to her and is the kind of nobleman she wants, but True Sin is looking better and better to her.

All her plans and plots are endangered, however, when her parents, ill-bred, social-climbing parvenus, arrive to reap the benefits of Marianna's engagement.

It may have been the author’s intention to write a Regency romp, one of those light-hearted, carefree stories with a lot of cute situations and little or no angst, but it’s impossible to pigeonhole this hodgepodge in any literary category. The True Sin is foisting a book on readers that suffers from multiple personality disorder.

I’ve read books with implausible plots, outlandish plots, farfetched, harebrained, and downright stupid plots, but Miss Grantham breaks new ground for me. It's just plain wacky. It's as though the author couldn’t decide which stock plot she should trot out for another go-round - debauched rake in need of reformation? sham engagement to stave off pressure? wealthy heiress wanting to marry for love not her fortune? impoverished nobleman having to marry to save estate? prissy schoolteacher breaking through noble rake’s hardened heart? social-climbing parents living through offspring? motherless orphans needing love? secret baby? Then decided rather than choosing one, she’d write a story that cobbles all of them together!

The characters are just as confused and inconsistent. The heroine is simultaneously a prissy schoolteacher, a wealthy heiress, a bold adventuress, a spirited hoyden, a shallow social climber, an inept but well-meaning Lady Bountiful, an oppressed daughter, intelligent and witty, dumb as a post. The hero is a debauched rake, a society reprobate, a responsible businessman, an egalitarian employer, a talented craftsman, a conscientious landowner, a caring uncle, a cold and disapproving user, a passionate lover. A romance assumes they’ll fall in love as they get to know each other, but these two are forever destined to meet as strangers. The face is familiar, but the persona is new.

I did like Lord Lindenshire and was glad that Marianna was obviously destined to wed True. It would be a dreadful shame to sentence him to a lifetime with her. He deserves better. Most everyone does.

This book is less a coherent narrative than a ping-pong game in print - a furious volley with the ball careening from side to side before plunging off the edge. I had no difficulty sticking with it, but that was probably because I kept expecting it would eventually come together and make some sense. It never did.

--Lesley Dunlap


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