Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Reluctant Reformer, by Lynsay Sands [3]

***/***** (3/5)

Lynsay Sands' THE RELUCTANT REFORMER is a pleasant surprise, and the first novel I've really enjoyed since Hoyt's THE LEOPARD PRINCE. Carving her own mold in the congested realm that is Regency Romance, Sands' THE RELUCTANT REFORMER underscores the story of Lady Margaret "Maggie" Wentworth, prone to comical messes of her own making. The plotting and characterizations manage to strike a fresh appeal, slightly different from what I'm used to in romance novels.

After THE SEDUCER and A KISS TO REMEMBER, I was happy to read a plausible male characterization minus the over-the-top pining common to this genre. THE RELUCTANT REFORMER actually recognizes how stupid guys are in matters love. Often times, guys fail to comprehend the emotion themselves, much less admit to the heroine that they love her. That isn't to say THE RELUCTANT REFORMER's hero James Huttledon, Lord Ramsey, doesn't show emotion or a sensitivity, he does finally verbalize the words. But thankfully, his journey to arrive at that point doesn't emasculate him, and doesn't leave him as the lovesick feminine lapdog we find in Medeiros romances, for example.

The book's tone is often humorous, the romance passionate, and the plotting dealing with our heroine's career as a journalist uncovering scandals, and landing herself in the most compromising situations in the process, equal parts funny and interesting. Thankfully, the book doesn't feature interminable passages of introspection, either from the hero or heroine thinking of the other. Maggie's adventurous escapades reign supreme. The romance and Maggie's adventurous escapades seemed to mesh, which was good. The ending, thankfully, was nicely crafted and good.

There are two reasons I didn't rate this book higher. One, I found that the book dragged at places throughout. In the beginning, Maggie trying to escape the brothel was a bit protracted, without adding anything to the setting. But the events and plotting were fresh enough to keep me interested. Later, the book is especially stretched out when Maggie flees the Ramsey estate and rushes into the nearby forest only to be discovered by Lord Ramsey's neighbor and friend. Similarly, later parts of the novel seemed to drag without much really happening. Still, Sands maintains a humorous, fresh tone throughout. Secondly, similar to the beginning of Hoyt's THE RAVEN PRINCE, I thought the book could have done without the railing against men. Maggie and James' aunt bonded over the feminist topic.

The Story, possible SPOILERS.

The book primarily features Lady Margaret "Maggie" Wentworth's tendency to find herself in the most compromising, silly messes, usually messes of her own making. I'm reminded of actor Ben Stiller's MEET THE PARENTS where he has the worst kind of luck, trying to fix things but making the situation worse. Twenty-five year-old Lady Margaret finds herself alone in the world after her brother dies from the Napoleonic wars, and she's left to fend for herself and the servants she adores. She's very close with her servants, and doesn't want to sell her brother's beloved town home in London, albeit an affair one to run. She decides to continue her brother's clandestine yet profitable career as the journalist G.W. Clark writing for the Daily Express and uncovering major -- but dangerous -- scandals.

The story begins in a brothel where Maggie is interviewing prostitutes and the Madame of the establishment for a new article. Lord Ramsey, James Huttledon, fought in the war with Maggie's brother, and promises to look after Maggie after Maggie's brother dies saving James. James hires detectives and Bow Street runners to tail Maggie and figure out how she's able to stay afloat financially, running her expensive town home and its many servants. When the runner reports Maggie's last appearance at the brothel, James and the runner draw all the wrong conclusions, mistaking Maggie's profitable career as a prostitute.

James heads over to the brothel to find Maggie in sheer and scantily-clad clothing and kidnaps her from the licentious establishment. James imprisons Maggie at his country estate at Ramsey for safekeeping, hoping to convince Maggie of a change in career and prevent her from returning to a life in prostitution. Humorous exchanges ensue as James misinterprets Maggie's responses to his pointed questions ("You enjoy it?!" "Yes!"). Neither speak plainly about what career each has in mind and Maggie thinks James is asking about her employment as a journalist while James is actually inquiring about her career as a prostitute (which she's not, of course).

The halfway point of the novel clears up the misunderstanding, returning both Maggie and James to London. The second half of the novel finds Maggie as the target of many attempts on her life. It would appear Maggie requires a change of occupation after all, as her innocuous career uncovering scandals turns deadly. The plotting in the second half shares time between the mystery behind the attempts on Maggie's life and a flourishing romance/passion between Maggie & James. Both are related and interwoven nicely. As she continues to find herself in the worst situations, poor Maggie gets beat up and shot in the second half. James rehires the runners to protect and investigate who is behind all of this, but can't bring himself to abduct her again for her own safety. She's pretty mad at him to begin with.

The book concludes satisfactorily, and it looks like I'll have to check out other Lynsay Sands novels in the future.

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