The Gentleman Caller
by Megan Chance
(Harper, $6.99, PG) ISBN 0-06-108704-1
****
I had been wanting to read a book by Megan Chance for quite a while. I had heard that her plots and characters take some of the conventions of the romance genre and stand them on their heads. I also heard that she is a superb stylist whose ability to recreate another place and another time is almost unequaled. So when the opportunity to review Chance's latest historical romance came my way, I jumped. Let me report that everything "they" say about Chance is right on.

Chance sets The Gentleman Caller in New Orleans in 1856. As the story begins we meet two of the main characters, the lovely Corrine Lafon and her father Garland, a rich and prominent member of the Creole elite. Corrine is listening as her lover asks for her hand in marriage, only to be rudely refused by the proud Garland. A lowly artist will never marry his daughter! And we are immediately made aware of the fact that Garland is a domestic tyrant and Corrine is a troubled young woman who seeks the admiration of other men to make up for her sense that her father doesn't love her.

A reader fortunate enough not to have read the back cover copy might assume that The Gentleman Caller is Corrine's book, but such is not the case. The heroine is her older sister Rosalie, a woman of 26 who lives a life of piety and good works and whose ambition is to become a nun. This is not your typical romance heroine.

The hero is likewise unusual. Jack Waters has just been released after serving three years in prison. His wealthy family had disowned him and he faced a bleak future until Garland Lafon approached him with an offer he couldn't refuse. Lafon would make Jack his heir if Jack would marry his elder daughter Rosalie. Jack accepts the bargain with alacrity, assuming that Mademoiselle Rosalie is an unattractive spinster, but willing to wed her in exchange for the wealth and security he once enjoyed. This is not your typical romance hero.

There is not a lot of action in The Gentleman Caller. Rather, the reader watches the characters interact, change, grow, and suffer. We soon come to realize that there was some tragic event in Rosalie's past that led her to withdraw from life, some betrayal, some sin for which she can find no forgiveness. Her father has chosen Jack as someone who can force her to feel again, someone who will feel no scruples about seducing a would-be nun if his purpose is to be served.

Jack is handsome, charming, and self-centered as the tale begins. He needs Rosalie to marry him and her wishes don't matter. While he discovers that his proposed bride is no antidote, she doesn't hold a candle to her sister Corrine. So while he is courting one woman, he is lusting after another.

To his own surprise, the better he gets to know her, the more Jack likes and admires his betrothed. But will he care enough to allow Rosalie's wishes take precedence over his own? Chance creates a flawed hero in Jack, whose gradual progress from self-centered cad to a caring and responsible human being is the centerpiece of the book.

The Gentleman Caller is a character-driven romance of the best kind. We get to know and care about these people, as Chance, with her incredible skill, gradually uncovers their deepest fears and darkest secrets.

The author is equally skilled in recreating New Orleans on the eve of the Civil War. The city itself is described in loving detail, so that the reader can smell the flowers, feel the impending storms, and almost suffer from the oppressive heat. Likewise, Chance describes with a sure hand all the details of Creole life, including on the mantle "the requisite glass dome holding wreaths and flowers made from human hair."

Does The Gentleman Caller stand the conventions of the romance genre on their heads? Not exactly. But, unlike many historical romances, the book describes real people who face difficult and sometimes painful circumstances. If you enjoy this kind of story, you will enjoy this book.

--Jean Mason


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