Play it Again, Sam

The Wedding Bargain

The Husband List by Victoria Alexander
(Avon, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-380-80631-2
Having read - and enjoyed - a series of books filled with angst, I was ready for something light and fun. I couldnít have chosen a better story to lift my mood than Victoria Alexanderís The Husband List. The plot, the characters, the dialogue all combined to provide a delightfully humorous tale of two people who think they plan to marry for convenience sake, yet end up marrying for love.

Lady Gillian Marley needs a husband to claim the fortune left to her by her great uncle. A widow who had loved her husband dearly, Gillian had never planned to marry again. She asks her two childhood friends to come up with a list of prospective husbands. The only man on the list that seems even remotely suitable (her friends had not taken her seriously) is Richard Shelton, Earl of Shelbrooke. So Gillian invites him to one of her salons and proceeds to propose. Since Shelbrooke is in need of money to repair his familyís fortune, dissipated by his father, Gillian is rather certain he will agree to her terms - a marriage in name only.

Richardís own scandalous career had been cut short by his fatherís death. For the past five years, he has been assiduously trying to repay his fatherís debts, provide for his four young sisters, and preserve the family estate. His method is a bit unusual. Richard has created an alter ego, the famous French painter, Etienne-Louis Toussaint. Toussaintís excellent paintings command a very good price. But Richard understands that no one would pay for a painting by an earl. Thus the disguise.

Richard is certainly attracted by the idea of sharing Gillianís fortune. He is less thrilled with her terms. He wants her to want him, not just his title or his name. He insists that he will spend the two months before the deadline - Gillianís 30th birthday - seducing (Ďer, courting) her. But he finds her skittish in his presence and wonders if she might be more attracted to the kind of man he used to be, a man like the elusive artist. So he cooks up the plan of wooing the reluctant widow in both his personae, with all the attendant potential for disaster. Richard is astute enough at the outset to wonder if there might not be something wrong with his plan, but forges ahead nonetheless.

What did I like about this book? Just about everything. First, I liked the characters. Gillian is an intelligent, attractive and witty woman. Unlike so many widows found in romance novels, she loved her first husband deeply and was devastated by his early death. Alexander effectively portrays the ambivalence she feels about marrying and, more significantly, loving again.

Richard is also intelligent, attractive and witty. He finds Gillian alluring for all the right reasons, but is as confused as she is about his true feelings. Their conversations sparkle and their interactions sizzle. But having started out to make a convenient match, both are understandably confused by their developing feelings.

Alexander surrounds her hero and heroine with an entertaining cast of secondary characters who add to the fun: Gillianís two childhood friends, Robin and Kit; Richardís four sisters and his astringent aunt; Gillianís overpowering grandmother; Richardís friend who is also Gillianís brother.

One of the problems that I often find in Regency historicals, especially those of a humorous bent, is that the characters seem too contemporary. Interestingly, even though current concerns and attitudes seem to arise in The Husband List - Gillian becomes a champion of women artists - I didnít feel that these were out of place. Rather they arose from the plot and the characters. Yes, the authorís voice is quite modern, but I still felt that I was reading about people who lived almost two centuries ago.

Many of my fellow devotees on the Heyer list would probably disagree, but I have a feeling that if ďthe sainted GeorgetteĒ were writing today, she might well be writing books very much like The Husband List. (OK, she might eschew the steamy love scenes.) After all, what Heyer did best was humor and in this, Alexander likewise excels.

So if you want a lighthearted story with a fun plot, great dialogue, attractive characters, which provides you with plenty of reasons to smile and even giggle on occasion, you should enjoy The Husband List. I know I did.

--Jean Mason

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