My Man Pendleton
by Elizabeth Bevarly
(Avon, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-380-80019-5
****
If you like vintage movies such as Bringing Up Baby where the madcap heiress cheerfully befuddles the straight-laced but handsome hero until he realizes she's brought love and laughter into his dull humdrum existence and he can't live without her you will probably enjoy My Man Pendleton. Elizabeth Bevarly does a credible job at recreating a screwball comedy, and her wry humor enlivens the entire novel. As long as you aren't looking for anything vaguely resembling reality, you'll be fine.

Kit McCllelan is a typical poor-little-rich-girl with a big problem. Her mother has recently died, and in her will she stipulated that, unless Kit marries within two years, the sizable family fortune will be donated to several worthy charities. This unusual bequest is intended to punish Kit's father and four brothers, who had chased away all of her suitors.

With only several months remaining, Pendleton enters the scene as the most recent executive recruited by Kit's father to help manage the family's Kentucky bourbon distillery. Unbeknownst to Pendleton, the McCllelan patriarch has been hiring eligible young patsies right and left and then foisting them on his wayward daughter in a thus-far futile attempt at matchmaking. But Pendleton is more than a typical stuffed shirt. He's come all the way from South Jersey to take this job and while he has something to prove, he's no pushover.

Like any good Katherine Hepburn character, Kit leads Pendleton on a merry chase and then precipitously moves into his house, lock stock and barrel, with an offer he can't refuse. But underlying Kit's bravado is the very real fear that no man will ever love her for herself only the $99.4 million she represents.

Pendleton (we don't learn his first name until well into the novel) is a great leading man, with more than enough spirit to match wits with Kit and a few idiosyncrasies of his own. My favorite scene in the novel comes early on in a business meeting, when Pendleton strings together a litany of meaningless jargon and manages to make it sound like a coherent business strategy:

"In my opinion, sir, the implementation of such a visionary objective does seem to impact our mission statement, but I wonder if it won't be more productive in segmenting our quality group."

Kit is a little more problematic. In a good screwball comedy, the action is so fast and furious that you don't notice that the heroine is basically a pain in the butt, but that doesn't quite happen here. There are times when her outlandish stunts seem obnoxious, even if you accept the "misunderstood rich girl" dynamics. I could easily see why she fell in love with Pendleton, but couldn't always understand why the emotion was unequivocally reciprocated.

There's a sweet but underdeveloped secondary romance between Kit's older brother and a member of the Louisville Temperance League. The novel has a breezy, "wink-wink" style that never takes itself too seriously:

"Oh, but hey, no biggie. It was love, not brain surgery. She'd get over it. Eventually. Certainly by the end of the twentieth millenium or so. And by then, if what all those post-nuclear-holocaust movies said was true, the world would just a big ol' ball of dried-up, burned-out carbon anyway. And where was the fun in pining for someone when you had to wear a gas mask all the time?"

I've enjoyed Elizabeth Bevarly's category romances, and it's a pleasure to see her move into the mainstream. If Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant could star in the film version of My Man Pendleton, it would be a movie well worth seeing.

--Susan Scribner


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