The Last Waltz by Mary Balogh
(Signet, $4.99, PG) ISBN 0-451-119147-1
*****
I imagine that writing this review is somewhat akin to writing a eulogy: celebrating the dearly departed, praising her many accomplishments, wanting to believe that she's now in a far, far better place, and weeping inside.

The title The Last Waltz is a double entendre. Yes, there's a last waltz in the story, but this is primarily a last waltz with us, the readers of Regency romances.

This is Ms. Balogh's final "short" Regency with Signet, her final Regency Christmas tale. In the future, all her books will be in a longer format. Don't get me wrong: I think Ms. Balogh's books, regardless of length, are terrific. (Her Longing is a particular favorite of mine.) But I must confess to some mental reservations: we're losing a rare talent. Her shorter Regencies are consistently excellent I hereby nominate her The Temporary Wife as the single all-time best short Regency romance. Ms. Balogh has been a unique voice.

While Regencies conform to a certain form, Ms. Balogh has never been constrained to an endless repetition of the same pattern. Her books could be sad (A Precious Jewel) or funny (The Famous Heroine). Her characters could be bold or timid, modest or arrogant, sharp or a little backward, admirable or even a bit despicable, but they were always finely drawn and, by the end, better for the love they've found.

The genre is poorer for her defection.

Similarly, I will miss her Christmas stories. For several years judging by my collection, at least seven Ms. Balogh has written either a full-length Regency novel or short story for inclusion in a Christmas anthology. (My personal favorites are Christmas Belle and "The Surprise Party" in the 1995 A Regency Christmas.)

I'm not much of a fan of seasonal stories; too often it seems to me that the holiday celebration is a device to obscure a basically weak plot. Ms. Balogh's Christmas stories are every bit as strong as her non-seasonal ones and, in addition, feature a touching Christmas message. I foresee that my routine annual purchase of Signet Christmas anthologies may no longer be so routine.

As her legion of fans might predict, Ms. Balogh is not slipping gently into that good night. The Last Waltz is a final example of the superior quality we've come to expect from her.

Gerard Percy, the Earl of Wanstead, is persuaded by friends to throw a Christmas party at his estate in order to find a bride. Gerard has made his fortune in trade in Canada following a sudden disappointment in love. He is still embittered by memories of his heartbreak but is satisfied with his successful life in Canada and intends to return in spite of his unexpected inheritance.

Christina, the lady who broke his heart, is the widow of the late earl and the mother of two daughters. She, along with the late earl's sister and aunt, live an austere and restricted existence at Thornwood Hall.

Both Christina and Gerard dread facing each other again.

Gerard does not know the circumstances that forced her into marrying his cousin. For her peace of mind, Christina is determined to believe that her marriage was the proper course for her, that the fun-loving Gerard would not have provided the stability she needed in spite of their love.

As the guests arrive and Christina acts as Gerard's hostess, she gradually emerges from her emotional freeze. Gerard, on the other hand, becomes aware that what he'd believed of Christina was quite wrong, and he is resolved to uncover the truth.

This brief plot synopsis can't describe the depth of this story. As in most of Ms. Balogh's books, the characters carry the story. Gerard and Christina and their relationship are the story: the house party is merely the setting. The characterization is so strong that the plot is of lesser significance. These are good people whose devastating pasts have molded them to be who they are today. We know they're right for each other, but their differences seem nearly insurmountable.

The secondary characters are also well defined. It's a rare author who can juggle so many characters in such a limited setting in such a short novel and handle it well. Ms. Balogh does it with seeming effortlessness.

Even those readers who've never bought a Regency before will want to read this one if for no other reason than to see that a good author can distinguish herself from the rest regardless of genre. Those of us who have discovered her before will want this one to add to the many others on our keeper shelves to be read and reread.

I'm sure many long-time Regency readers will join me in saying, "Thanks, Mary. Thanks for the hours of reading pleasure you've given us and for what you've brought to the genre. We'll miss you. Bon voyage and good luck."

But we're still weeping inside.

--Lesley Dunlap


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