February 2008, European Historical Romance (Regency England)
Harl Historical #884, $5.99, 296 pages, Amazon ASIN 0373294840 Part of a series
Sometimes when I'm reading a book I don't like very much, I amuse myself by thinking of a new title for it – one more suited to its contents. In the case of The Wayward Debutante, it was a simple matter of adding a few words; I started thinking of it as "The Wayward Debutante…and the Dumb Jerk She Married." Actually, that's kind of a PG version of what I really called it, but you get the idea.
Eleanor Sinclair is the daughter of a viscount, and in the midst of her first season. But really, she couldn't care less about the whole marriage scene. Her true love is the theater. She loves the theater so much, in fact, that she comes up with an elaborate ruse so she can attend on her own. She cleverly invents a fictitious, sickly friend, and goes to visit her on nights when her married sister (who is her chaperone) has other engagements. As soon as her sister leaves, Eleanor dresses like a governess and heads to the theater to see a play. The first time she tries this, she notices a very handsome man with a tacky, coarse woman. Eleanor tries to enjoy the performance, but she can't help looking back at the man and wondering why he is with such an annoying floozy.
The man in question is James Bentley, and he notices Eleanor as well. On her second theater outing, he manages to speak to her. She tells him she's a governess, and though they have barely met, he finds himself making an indecent proposal. Eleanor leaves in a huff, forgetting her reticule in her haste. Intrigued, James picks it up and resolves to find out more about her. He secretly tails her for awhile, but he can't quite figure her out. Her clothes are much finer than the typical governess garb, but she also appears to be ill-treated by one of her companions (her bossy spinster aunt). Finally he manages to catch her alone in the park, and he makes an offer she can't refuse: He'll escort her to the theater every now and then, so she doesn’t have to go alone. Eleanor knows this is a stupid idea, but she just can't resist. Soon she finds herself sneaking out once a week to meet James.
James is pretty up front about his motives; he wants Eleanor in his bed. He has no intention of marrying, because – well, come to think of it, he doesn't actually have a good reason. He does have the requisite bad childhood, which serves as his all-purpose reason for being a jerk. His father was a nobleman, but his mother was the second wife (she was an actress, and a very scandalous choice). His older half-brother Richard never forgot the humiliation of his father's second marriage, so when James's father and mother died, Richard took all of his anger out on James, abusing him severely and often. James ran away and joined the military when he was 16, and since returning to society, he spends his time investing in the theater and being a rake.
Their relationship progresses swimmingly, though Eleanor knows she really needs to tell James the truth about her identity. She is on the verge of doing so when James asks her to be his mistress (again). She slaps him and takes off. Meanwhile, in her other life (the one where she's not pretending to be a governess) she meets James's half-brother Will at a ball (this isn't the vile half brother; it s a different one). Will feels like he needs to get married, though he really doesn't want to, and he considers asking Eleanor to be his wife. Disaster ensues when James accompanies Will to a ball and sees Eleanor as she truly is. James is beyond furious. How dare she deceive him! But he still wants her. Can they ever resolve their differences?
For the life of me, I cannot think why anyone would consider James to be a romantic hero. Whether she's a governess or a noblewoman, Eleanor is a respectable woman. James wants her in his bed, and his intentions are not at all honorable. His righteous indignation when he discovers Eleanor's deception is quite ironic, considering the fact that he hasn't told her his true identity either. When the inevitable happens, he is dragged into marriage kicking and screaming. As if that is not enough, he proceeds to do everything wrong from that point on. He avoids Eleanor, goes away "for her own good", etc. Name an annoying romance cliché, and it makes an appearance. I just couldn't see the appeal. I am all for the occasional bad boy hero, but he's supposed to stop short of total jerkdom. Deep down, he's supposed to be honorable. Attractive, commitment-phobic guys may be a dime a dozen, but they're not the stuff of fantasy.
Eleanor's little theater jaunts are problematic as well. I found it hard to believe that she would really think it was a great idea to risk her reputation. After all, there are other ways to get to the theater, and her sister was not an unreasonable person. How about striking a bargain, like "I'll go to this annoying musicale tonight if we can attend the theater on Thursday"? As it stand, Eleanor's behavior just isn't believable.
But as the book wore on, I was so irritated by James's boorish behavior that Eleanor's shortcomings faded into the background. Really, this doesn't speak well for either of them. If you're looking for a fun, romantic read – well, I'd just keep looking.
-- Blythe Barnhill
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