Now I get it. Last year, everyone was raving about Diane
Farr's Fair Game, which won our reader's award for best Regency Romance. When
I read it, the appeal completely eluded me. But I decided to give her
another chance, and I'm so glad I did, because my experience with Once
Upon a Christmas was so much better. This is a book I can heartily
Celia Delacourt loses her family in a sudden tragedy, and as the daughter of
a poor vicar she has nowhere to turn. Out of the blue a distant relative
shows up and invites her to come stay at her home. It seems Celia is the
great-granddaughter of the Duke of Delacourt, and her new benefactress is
none other than the current duchess. The duchess is not without her ulterior
motives however; she is quite a authoritative woman, and she is determined
that her son (who is the heir to the dukedom) will marry a woman she can
control and dominate. She figures that Celia is something of a tabula rasa,
and that she will gratefully accept any instruction the duchess provides.
Jack Delacourt knows something is up when he is invited to his own home for
Christmas. He always goes home anyway, so he figures a special invitation
from his mother means that she has a prospective bride waiting. He is
determined to undermine her efforts, so he decides to show up as planned -
and behave in such an obnoxious manner that even the most determined fortune
hunter will not want to wed him. When Celia first meets him, he is wearing
an eye-jarring ensemble and laughing like a hyena. One of Jack's sisters
intimates that he is mad, and because his behavior seems so odd, Celia
believes it. But Jack and Celia are soon thrown together, and Jack finds
himself liking her, even though he has no desire to please his mother. Celia
likes Jack too, but she remains convinced that he is mad, even though he
abandons his crazy behavior early on. Meanwhile, the duchess is not so sure
she wants the match to come off; Celia is not at all the bidable type the
duchess was hoping for.
It is a particular challenge for Regencies and series romances to present
fully-developed characters and a convincing plot within a short book format.
Once Upon a Christmas is a book that succeeds admirably in this
endeavor. Every character is convincing and interesting, from Jack and Celia
to the duchess, to Jack's cat. Jack and Celia are the type of hero and
heroine you just have to like. Celia has tragically lost her family, but she
remains down to earth and concerned about others. She refuses to be cowed by
the formidable duchess, even though her position in life is precarious.
Jack is great also. He provides much of the humor in the book; the scenes in
which he deliberately acts like an arrogant buffoon are priceless. Although
the members of his family are difficult to get along with to say the least,
he manages to be compassionate without becoming a doormat. The other
characters all live up to their promise, and there is a delightful secondary
romance involving one of Jack's sisters. This secondary romance is so
enjoyable I couldn't help wishing that the couple had their own book.
When I first opened the book, I wondered how Farr would be able to get the
hero and heroine together and still manage to put the controlling duchess in
her place. After all, the duchess wants these two to get
together. Farr handles this part of the plot deftly, in a way that had me
smiling at the end. My only quibble was that Celia really spent too long thinking that Jack was
mad. This was funny, but it did get old after a while. Still, the engaging
plot and pleasing characters made Once Upon a Christmas a fun read.
This is one of the best Regencies I've read this year.
-- Blythe Barnhill
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