A Worthy Opponent
by Louise Bergin
(Signet Regency, $4.99, G) ISBN 0-451-21013-1
An original storyline, and a hero and heroine I liked made this book a light and enjoyable read. Conflicts and character motivations that ranged from vague to silly kept it from being truly compelling.

Miss Judith Shelton is determined to marry Viscount Westfall. She has never met the gentleman, but she cannot afford to go to London and he is the only marriage prospect in her vicinity who meets her requirements. Responsible for her younger siblings since the death of their parents, Judith has decided that her sister, Sarah, must have a London Season, and that her brother, Charles must have an Eton education. A good marriage is the only way to fund these ambitions.

When Westfall returns to the neighborhood, Judith literally risks her life for her family, putting herself in the way of the viscountís curricle to force an introduction. The stratagem works. No one is seriously hurt, but Judith exaggerates a twisted ankle and the courteous viscount insists on driving her home.

There is a fly in the ointment, however; Viscount Westfall is a very democratic fellow, and has brought his friend and business partner, Peregrine Campion, home with him. A canny Cit, rather than a naÔve aristocrat, Peregrine immediately realizes Judith has nefarious designs on his friend, designs that he determines to thwart.

From the short plot synopsis, it would be easy to think that Judith is nothing but a cold-blooded fortune hunter, but the author quickly establishes that her only objective is sincere, if somewhat misguided, concern for her familyís future. As readers, we actually like and sympathize with Judith right from the start.

This was not an unalloyed strength. In my opinion, the story would have been far more interesting and complex if Judithís tendency to ride roughshod over people had been explored. Certainly, her character would have been far more interesting and complex, and as a reader Iíd have been far more satisfied if, in the end, Judith had earned her happily-ever-after because she learned something about herself.

Peregrine was a likeable hero, and provided a unique (to me, at least) twist to the story of misguided matrimonial ambitions. My difficulty here was that his motivations were vague and unconvincing. How much stronger this original story would have been if heíd had a truly compelling reason to interfere between Judith and Westfall. His guilt over his failings with his brother seemed contrived, and their connection to the situation with Judith was flimsy, at best.

In spite of this, I was engaged by their sparring, and kept reading to see how they would manage to work things out.

The secondary characters fare less well. Westfall and Sarah are essentially ciphers, not so much people as nebulous phantoms whose sole purpose was to distract the hero and heroine. Again, the book would have been considerably more energetic if these two characters had made an active rather than a passive contribution to it.

The pacing is nicely brisk during the conversations, but has a slight tendency to drag during the narrative that can be attributed, in part, to the authorís apparent reluctance to use contractions. This gives the writing a formal, slightly stilted tone that slows the pace.

Iím in sympathy with authors who want us to like their characters, particularly when said author has the courage to put her heroine in a less than flattering situation. But characters in books, like people in real life, are actually more vivid and interesting when their flaws and foibles are an integrated part of their personalities. To Ms. Bergin, in particular, I would say Ė have the courage of your convictions! If you create two interestingly imperfect personalities, donít be afraid of their imperfections. Properly handled, those imperfections are part of what will make your characters leap off the page and into your readersí hearts.

--Judi McKee

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