No Ordinary Groom

Gayle Callen
2004, European Historical Romance (1840s [Victorian] England)
Avon, $5.99, 384 pages, Amazon ASIN 0060543949
Part of a series

Grade: C
Sensuality: Warm

I wasn't sure what to expect from No Ordinary Groom since my past experience with Ms. Callen's work was mixed. Even after finishing the novel, I'm still not sure what to think, because while there are some extremely enjoyable elements to this book, they are, unfortunately, packaged in a fluffy plot crammed with Big Misunderstandings and peopled by a too large secondary cast. We also have an identity crisis here - at times the book resembles a Victorian romp, at others it's a romantic spy adventure, and occasionally it takes a more "serious" attitude toward the main couple's mistaken impressions of each other. Unfortunately, No Ordinary Groom never fully succeeded in fulfilling any of these identitied to my satisfaction.

Jane Whittington is a proper young Englishwoman in all respects with the exception of her interest in intellectual pursuits and a strong desire to travel to far-flung lands. She is determined that she will not take the "society wife" role played by her mother and sister and longs instead for grand adventure and control over her own destiny. Her father, a colonel in the British Army, has traveled for years on continents far away. Jane wants similar adventure, opportunity, and fascinating people to make up her life.

Imagine Jane's horror when Lord William Chadwick appears at their London townhouse with a letter from her father announcing that he has betrothed her to Lord William. Even worse than the prospect of any society marriage at all is the fact that her intended is a fop with seemingly no conversational ability beyond the weather and the cut of his coat or the cloth of her gown.

But Lord Chadwick is a fraud. He's no fop, but a spy recently returned to England and gifted with lands and a title for acts in the Queen's service. He served under Colonel Whittington, and is delighted with Jane because he seeks a proper society miss to help him create the perfect English family. He plays the part of the dandy because it is easier than revealing himself to his bride-to-be, and, honestly, after years of playing roles in his spying escapades, he's lost touch with who he really is. He also thinks Jane would be horrified if she knew the truth about him and what he had done and seen in his service to his country.

Right from the beginning, these characters are in direct opposition to each other and they have completely false opinions of who the other is. This Big Misunderstanding is really the premise of the whole novel and leads to some humorous revelations as Jane begins to suspect there is more to the foppish gentleman and Will begins to feel a trifle uneasy about what lies beneath Jane's Perfect Society Miss image. The banter and repartee between the two is fun and spirited throughout.

The heart of the plot of No Ordinary Groom consists of little more than Lord Chadwick and Jane taking a cross-country trip from London en route to her father's Yorkshire estate and getting to know each other in the process. The first in a trilogy called Spies and Lovers, No Ordinary Groom also spends an inordinate amount of time introducing other characters and setting up the second romance in the trilogy and that is one of my major quibbles with this novel. If the author had stuck to her rather insubstantial but still enjoyable theme and allowed Jane and Will to work out their Big Misunderstanding-plagued relationship without endless distraction, it would have been more successful for me since I liked the characters and enjoyed their interaction.

However, the introduction of a plot thread about an English traitor, the dragooning of Will into the plan of his fellow spies to capture the woman, and the frequent interjection of new characters (all set-ups for the next novels in the trilogy) detracted from the charm of the couple getting to know each other better. They are each likable and once you get to know them completely (getting through the layers takes time), they seem a good fit for each other. But the physical and emotional journeys Jane and Will take seemed both interminable in places and overly circuitous because of all the other circumstances brought into play. The backbone of the book ultimately couldn't sustain all the things the author tried to do within the story.

If you are in the mood for a Victorian romp with quite a few added elements, then No Ordinary Groom might satisfy you, as long as you don't expect too much and can handle the schizzy style. It left me with decidedly mixed feelings.

-- Nicole Miale

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