March 2005, Historical Romance (1820s Egypt)
Berkley Sensation, $6.99, 320 pages, Amazon ASIN 0425201503 Part of a series
While last year's Miss Wonderful was an appropriately wonderful book, I have to admit that it felt somewhat mannered to me - almost as if the author kept a deliberate distance between herself and her characters. I learned a great deal about canal construction in early 19th century England, laughed at the author's undeniably witty dialogue, and was dutifully charmed by her perfectly charming characters. Still, as I read, the larger than life specter of Lord of Scoundrels forever loomed, reminding me of just how robust and bawdy a romance the author could deliver.
Of course, such a comparison isn't fair since Ms. Chase clearly set out to write a different kind of book, one more reminiscent in tone to a traditional Regency, I think, than to the Henry Fielding-esque flavor of Lord of Scoundrels. Still, since I'm one of the many readers who adore both Tom JonesandLord of Scoundrels, I have to admit it was with a hopeful heart that I opened the first page of Mr. Impossible and began to read. Within a very few chapters, the happy truth clearly emerged. This funny, charming, and flat-out fabulous road romance is as robust and bawdy as any reader with a penchant for both might wish. .
Daphne Pembroke, is a rarity for a woman in 1821: A mistress of many languages, the scholarly young woman newly arrived in Cairo is determined to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics. Of course, since few in that time and place would take her work seriously and many opportunities would be denied her, everyone but a select few believe that Daphne's brother Miles is the real scholar and Daphne simply the wealthy widow who supports his studies.
When Daphne receives word that Miles has been kidnapped, she travels immediately to the British consulate to request assistance. But, with a myriad of characters and motives swirling around her, Daphne soon discovers that the only form of assistance she's likely to get is currently in a Cairo jail following a decidedly undiplomatic altercation with the local soldiers – the kind of incredibly stupid altercation only a Blockhead would get into, Daphne reckons.
Desperate Daphne is even more convinced of Mr. Rupert Carsington's idiocy when she meets the handsome aristocrat. After all, only a Blockhead could remain so relentlessly cheerful while rotting in an Egyptian jail. Still, she needs assistance of the male kind if she hopes to find her missing brother and, unfortunately, it appears as if Rupert, woefully inadequate though he may be, is it.
Rupert is in no doubt of Daphne's impression of him – an impression he deliberately and expertly fosters – and meekly agrees to Daphne's airy declaration that she is to be the Brains and he the Brawn in their partnership. So, with Daphne drastically underestimating Rupert and Rupert employing increasingly drastic methods of his own to fight his growing lust, the unlikely twosome set out to rescue Daphne's missing brother and contend with a bevy of villains determined to keep them from succeeding in their quest.
Frankly, the fun here is to be had from the delicious and virtually instantly combustible attraction between the fiercely intelligent but socially inept Daphne and the handsome aristocrat all too used to coasting through life buoyed by a wealth of personal charm and an impressively aristocratic family. Of course, Rupert (brother of Alistair of Miss Wonderful) is far more than that and, indeed, far from brainless, but keeping Daphne firmly in doubt of his mental capacities is undeniably amusing to the admitted reprobate. Not to mention, of course, that Rupert soon discovers that the best way to keep the frantic Daphne from turning on the "waterworks" that reduce him to a quivering mass is to keep her in a constant state of irritation, something at which he excels. But, despite the fireworks - or maybe because of them – the reader knows right away what it takes Rupert a bit longer to discern: He's pretty much a goner from the moment he first sets eyes on Daphne.
Daphne reminded me in many ways of the character of Dorothea from George Elliot's Middlemarch - in fact, I think this may be deliberate on the part of the author. Daphne, like Dorothea, is a scholarly and serious young woman who married a man many times her elder only to discover her ideal of a marriage of true minds replaced by the reality of a repressive husband both threatened by and dedicated to belittling her intelligence. Add in the fact that Daphne's husband was obsessively engaged in researching a subject that ultimately proves fruitless – exactly like Dorothea's Mr. Causabon - and the resemblance is even stronger.
But, dare I say it? Daphne is a great deal more fun than Dorothea and her romance with the irrepressible Rupert one of the most amusing and enjoyable I've read in years. I think there are few authors out there better at writing the kind of sophisticated and witty repartee in which we all like to imagine ourselves engaging and Daphne and Rupert's constant verbal dueling is so delicious that most readers will find at the very minimum one good chuckle on virtually every page.
With at least one seminal romance under her belt – and many readers would argue more than one – we've all come to expect a great deal from Loretta Chase. But, even with those elevated expectations, I couldn't be happier to report that once again the author steps up to the plate and delivers a smart, savvy and, well . . . adorable romance. This, fellow readers, is a good one. Make that a very good one.
-- Sandy Coleman
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