On Tuesday, September 8, 1998, Mark McGwire hit his 62nd home run surpassing Roger Maris's single season record. Everyone at the crowded park was screaming; the TV commentators were desperately searching for new superlatives; my husband was yelling, "He did it! He did it!"
My response: "That's nice, dear."
Maybe that all would have mattered more to me on another evening, but at that moment I was too caught up to care. I was reading My Darling Caroline, and nothing was going to take precedence over that until I'd finished. Adele's Ashworth's debut novel is definitely "outa here!" A home run the first time at bat.
Caroline Grayson is the third of five daughters. (The back cover blurb calls her "Lady Caroline Grayson." The book, however, does not make the mistake of referring to the daughter of a baron as "Lady.") All her sisters are either married or promised. Unlike her tall, blonde, and beautiful sisters, Caroline is short and dark and, with such competition, unconcerned about her appearance. Extremely bright and talented in science and math, Caroline has plans. Having been rejected by a preeminent Oxford scholar because females are not permitted a university education, Caroline has represented herself as male and has been accepted to study botany at Columbia University in New York.
Before it's time to leave, however, she overhears her father bribing Brent Ravenscroft, Earl of Weymerth, to marry her. Brent had left his estate in the care of a cousin while he was serving with Wellington on the continent. When he returned home, he discovered that his cousin had stripped his home and sold all his possessions. Lord Sytheford, Caroline's father, now owns Brent's horses and will sell them to another unless Brent marries Caroline.
Caroline feels betrayed. She had believed that her father understood her intention to avoid matrimony and dedicate herself to scientific study. She decides that she will marry Weymerth but obtain an annulment when it's time for her to sail to America.
Brent is furious that he has been forced into marriage against his will – and to an unattractive spinster in her mid-twenties at that! Nevertheless, Brent wants a son and heir, and Caroline is his wife. Caroline, on the other hand, wishes to avoid marital relations so that she can have the marriage annulled later.
This is only the first two chapters!
Thus, in short order, the author has established the conflict: brilliant scientist unable to achieve her goals because of her gender wanting to avoid marriage, proud aristocrat furious at the circumstances that have saddled him with an unwanted wife. Do they remain unattracted to each other? Silly question.
Ms. Ashworth has written some of the best sexual tension I've read in a long time. They long; they burn; they abstain. (Incidentally, the long-awaited end of the abstention is an unusually sweet love scene.) Unlike many stories where the heroine refuses to succumb to the lure of the hunky hero only because the book would end at page 50 if she didn't, Caroline's resistance is the result of the lessons of a lifetime.
Brent, bless him, doesn't expect Caroline to be the typical brainless, society wife. (He's not much of a hunk either – he's tall and skinny!) It's only when she begins to recognize that her husband knows she's unique and appreciates her for who and what she is that Caroline starts questioning her attitudes and goals.
One of the strengths of the book is the depth of characterization. Both Caroline and Brent are multi-faceted and appealing. I wanted them to work out their problems because they deserve a happy ending. The subordinate characters are similarly well-drawn and contribute to the complexity of the plot.
Incidentally, a number of coincidences pop up that strain the reader's credulity. They're all neatly tied up in the epilogue, which distinguished My Darling Caroline from scores – maybe hundreds – of romances before that have abounded with unbelievable coincidences.
This novel is not without a few problems. The hero repeatedly calls the heroine "sexy." That word didn't enter the English language until the 1920's – more than a century later than the Regency period of the story's setting. (Don't authors and editors own dictionaries?) The heroine cries at regular intervals. I have a mental limit of one good cry per heroine per novel.
I've said before, however, that I'm willing to overlook a myriad of faults for strong characters and a great plot. Here's the proof. Even with its faults, My Darling Caroline is lots better than books I've awarded four hearts. If a book takes priority over everything else – sports history, national news, meals – and I absolutely cannot go to bed without finishing it, that's a five heart book. My Darling Caroline qualifies on all counts.
It's a rare pleasure for a reviewer to be able to recommend a new author enthusiastically. Take my word for it: you'll want to "catch" this one!