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The Right Man by Anne Stuart
(Harl. American #765, $3.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-373-16765-2
Okay, it's almost the year 2000. Hasn't enough time passed that we can have some romance novels set during the 1940s? Since I was born well after that decade, it certainly seems faraway and fascinating to me, and I would like to, as they say, "read more about it."

What I don't want to read, however, is a sort of time-travel/historical romance set in the 40s disguised as a contemporary series romance. In The Right Man, author Anne Stuart tries to give the reader not one, not even two, but three romantic couplings, and the end result is that not three, not even two, not one comes off as satisfying, moving, or convincing.

The story (at least, the first story) opens five days before Susan Abbott's wedding. Of course Susan's not marrying the "right" man of the title, because that would constitute the end, not the beginning, of the novel. Instead, she's marrying her longtime beau, the steady, passionless Edward (you can tell he's not the hero just by the name, can't you?). Her reasons for marrying him are logical and easily listed on the "pros" side of a decision list: "One, she loved him. Two, the wedding was planned. Three, her mother loved him. Four, this was her childhood dream come true. Five, it would return the Abbotts to their rightful place in Matchfield society. Six, she loved Edward."

Okay, so by page 54 it's evident this engagement is destined to bite the dust. But if Edward's not the right man, who is? Apparently, it's supposed to be Jake Wyczynski, a mysterious, handsome world-traveler and adventurer who appears days before Susan's wedding to bring her gifts from her godmother, whom Susan has never even met. This godmother, Louisa, was apparently the best friend of Susan's aunt Tallulah, who died on the day of her wedding fifty years ago.

The enigmatic Jake and Louisa both stand as symbols exotic contrasts to the sensible, staid existence Susan has chosen by agreeing to marry Edward. But despite Jake's disturbing attractiveness, and the unnerving way he seems to unsettle the normally unflappable Susan, she's determined to stay the course. After all, she doesn't have anything on the "cons" side of the decision list, and she really does have a thing about returning the once affluent Abbott family to the circle of the social elite. With Edward's money and prestige, that's just what she'll be able to do. Oh yeah, and she loves him, too.

The reasons behind Susan's adamant determination to restore the Abbott name to glory are rather vague and inexplicable, particularly since she's not a snob. There's some mention of wanting to provide more luxury for her mother, who lives comfortably but "deserves better" in Susan's opinion. Never mind that her mother seems perfectly content Susan's mind is made up.

So things move along through a few scenes of Susan interacting with the oh-so-disturbing Jake, wherein she mostly acts frosty and snippy, and he self-righteously tries to interfere with her life. After knowing both Susan and Edward for a matter of minutes, Jake is sure that Edward's all wrong for her, and he proceeds to tell her so. Even Susan's mother, who "loves" Edward according to the decision list, expresses some concern that Susan is making the wrong decision. What's a girl to do?

The answer for Susan seems to be: fall into a three-day, coma-resembling sleep and have a strange, vivid dream about the aforementioned Aunt Tallulah. Better yet, dream that you actually are Aunt Tallulah, and "live" the three days leading up to her wedding. Or is it a dream?

It's all very confusing, both for Susan and for the reader. Without prior notice, we're torn from Susan's love story and dropped into Tallulah's. Granted, the two stories have obvious parallels Tallulah is set to marry the wrong man, also named Edward but called "Neddie," and there's a handsome, disturbing "Jack" looming in the background who just might be the "right" man.

This second love story takes up a good deal of the novel, and while it's interesting and (a bonus for me) set during the 1940s, it fails to satisfy. We've barely begun to get to know Susan, and now we're supposed to get to know Susan-as-Tallulah, or Susan-who-is-melding-with-Tallulah, or something. Jake disappears from the story, and we're introduced to Jack, who already has a long history with Tallulah we're only told about. At the same time, a very few flashes back to the present try to squeeze in a reconciliatory love story between Susan's mother and her long-estranged ex-husband, Susan's father.

It's just too much for one short novel. The romance between Susan/Tallulah and Jack fares the best, but it's far too dependent on their told-but-not-shown past history. By the end of the novel, modern-day Susan and Jake are still virtual strangers, both to the reader and to each other. And Susan's mother and father get something like three pages devoted to their story, making it the least satisfying of all.

I got the idea that the author was trying to tie all three of these stories together with the overriding theme of "follow your heart," or "live for adventure, not security," I'm not quite sure which. But it takes some contriving to make all three fit this moral, and that leaves even less space for character development.

Editors, publishers, whoever's in charge I'm begging you. Just give us some historical romances set in the 40s, or even time-travel novels where 90s heroines travel to the 40s. I really would be interested in reading something like that. But this kind of over-ambitious, crammed-too-full-to-satisfy novel only shortchanges the reader.

-- Ellen Hestand

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