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What a Lady Wants
by Victoria Alexander
(Avon, $6.99, PG-13) ISBN 978-0-06-088263-1
Funny how some writers can ride on their past reputation and get away with the most unappealing characters and the flattest writing Itís the only way I can explain why Victoria Alexanderís latest novel has been appearing on best-seller lists. Even though it is not the worst thing Iíve read in recent weeks, What a Lady Wants is hardly stellar quality. Were anyone elseís name on the cover, I doubt it would be such a hit.

After several seasons on the Victorian marriage market and a short trip to the continent, Lady Felicity is still single. One night, she wishes upon a star for a perfect husband. Several minutes later, Nigel Cavendish climbs over her garden wall and onto her balcony. He isnít pursuing her; heís fleeing the jealous and angry husband of his most recent lover. The otherwise reasonable Felicty is nevertheless convinced he is her fate. Determined to give her destiny a helping hand, she sets out to ensure her wish comes true.

Nigel Cavendish has recently bet three other men (all Alexander heroes or heroes-to-be) that he will be the last one to marry; he has no reasons to doubt his eventual victory. He isnít ready to settle down and has always steered away from marriageable virgins. The difference, of course, is that heís never been attracted to them before. That things have changed can only be Felicityís fault. So when heís not openly flirting with her, heís blaming her for disrupting his life.

Nigelís attitude is the main reason why I find this novel so off- putting. Iíve never thought immaturity charming, and I dislike men who hold others responsible for their failures even more. Nigel falls into both categories, seriously detracting from any nascent appeal.

Take how he behaves in what could have been a potentially delightful exchange. Felicity and he wager on a card game. If he wins, she must remove temptation and leave London for the rest of the season. Now frankly, if she is such a threat to his existence, why doesnít he head for less dangerous pastures? Needless to say, the fact that Felicity goes along with him doesnít earn her high marks.

It gets worse. Felicity wins the game and the bet, taking some of the wind out of Nigelís arrogance. It then turns out that the portrait was never his to give, so our adventure-seeking hero decides to steal it back. Once again, he draws on his wall-climbing skills and enters Felicityís bedroom. Yet, when they are inevitably discovered together, who does he blame for trapping him into marriage? Felicity, of course. The way I see it, the only trick played has been on the readers.

As with this one, many of the scenes verge on slapstick and farce. There are accidents with guns; men falling off balustrades; winks and nudges and a few too many well-timed coincidences. Some were funny, but over all the comedy felt too strained to earn genuine laughs. On the several occasions Felicity remembers she has a backbone, she redeems the story. This is one reason why the novel gets passing marks. Still, I suspect only diehard Alexander fans will enjoy it. Others should head for something more appealing.

--Mary Benn

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