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The Pretenders by Joan Wolf
(Warner, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-446-60535-2
****
Delightfully predictable or predictably delightful? I am not quite sure which of these phrases best describes Joan Wolf's most recent release, The Pretenders. Certainly, Wolf blazes no new trails with her plot, but she does her usual fine job of drawing the reader into her story and creating warm and interesting characters (plus a really nasty villain). This is Wolf's fifth Regency historical written in the first person, and I feel that this device works even better here than in any of the previous books.

Our heroine and narrator is Deborah Woodley, a tall, athletic and unconventional young woman of 21. Though the daughter of a baron, she and her mother have led a somewhat hand to mouth existence because her father's family – not having approved of his marriage to a governess – provided only meagerly for his widow and her child. Deb's and her mother's humble cottage is near Ambersley, the palatial estate of the Earl of Cambridge and she grew up as playmate and best friend of the current earl

Reeve, as he is known to his friends, is three years older than Deb. They share a love of horses as well as a long friendship. Reeve is chafing under the tutelage of his cousin, Bernard, Lord Bradford, his trustee. Reeve's father had placed his inheritance in trust until Reeve's 26th birthday, citing his son's irresponsibility. Reeve has gone out of his way to demonstrate the accuracy of his father's assessment.

But Reeve is in big financial trouble. His horse, the Derby favorite, broke down during the race and he lost huge sums of money. Lord Bradford has informed his nephew that he will pay these debts of honor only if Reeve shows some sign of settling down, say like getting betrothed. And when he marries, Bradford promises to turn over half his fortune to his nephew.

Having no desire to take on a leg-shackle, Reeve suggests that Deb pretend to be his fiancée, thus saving him from his immediate crisis. Of course, the rest of the plot follows from this. Lord Bradford refuses to budge unless the betrothal becomes a marriage and . . . .

As I said above, delightfully predictable. One of the reasons that Bradford pushes for the marriage is that he – like us – comes to appreciate just how special Deb is and just how perfect she is for his nephew. All the while, said nephew is discovering that his little friend has grown up in the most interesting ways. For her part, Deb doesn't know what to make of these new feelings she has whenever Reeve touches her. And when he kisses her!

Reeve, as a hero, works nicely. Deb has no illusions about him, but she also understands the sources of much of his self-destructive behavior. She knows how to handle him, in the best sense of that word. And how could she not fall under the spell of a man whom the Ton insists on comparing to Byron's Corsair?

In addition to this main romance, Wolf provides a delightful secondary romance for Deb's still lovely mother. Seeing this through Deb's eyes allows Wolf to show how an adult daughter feels about her mother's sexuality and provides more insight into her character and growth. And then there is the threatening presence of Reeve's jealous enemy.

Wolf's excursion into the first person narrative has been interesting. It is no mean feat to sustain this throughout a novel and still provide the reader with all the information needed to make sense of the story. If Wolf at least once descends to the overheard conversation, for the most part she plays it straight in The Pretenders. Deb emerges as a lively, attractive and lovely heroine who doesn't appreciate either her own beauty or her own ability at the outset, but who becomes much more self-aware over the course of the book. Yet for all the skill of Wolf's performance, I am glad to see by the excerpt from her next book that she is returning to the more traditional form.

In many ways, The Pretenders seems more like a Regency than a Regency historical, which doesn't bother me because I think Wolf is one of the mistresses of the traditional Regency. So I guess that both of my descriptive phrases work. The Pretenders is both delightful and predictable. Most of all, it's entertaining.

--Jean Mason


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