True Colours

The Virtuous Cyprian
by Nicola Cornick
(Harl. Historical #566, $4.99, PG) ISBN 0-373-29166-3
Nicholas, Earl of Seagrave, returned from battling the French to find he didn’t give a damn about anything anymore. This post-war depression has manifested itself in drinking, gambling, and a series of affairs with actresses and other lightskirts. He has managed to get himself engaged to Miss Louise Elliott, a cold but entirely appropriate debutante to whom Nicholas is completely indifferent. She’ll do. And that’s that.

Back at the Seagrave estate, the long-time lessee of Cookes, a small manor house, has recently died. George Kellaway had twin daughters. One of them, Lucille, is a quiet schoolteacher. The other, Susanna, is one of London’s most notorious Cyprians. Susanna shows up at court in Suffolk demanding that the lease pass to her as eldest daughter. But Susanna needs to go abroad with her lover and talks Lucille into taking her place at Cookes for a few weeks so the Earl will have no excuse to throw her out.

Nicholas is incensed to hear that a noted courtesan is in residence at his family estate, and his shrill fiancée immediately breaks off their engagement. Nicholas isn’t the least upset about that, but he is determined to get rid of the troublemaker: Susanna Kellaway. Only the woman he finds at Cookes doesn’t seem like a Cyprian. She’s rather, well, bookish. And very intelligent. And those eyelash flutterings seem a bit awkward. What is going on here?

The villagers are hostile, the devastatingly handsome Seagrave sneers at her, the local merchants won’t even sell the housekeeper food, and she’s getting threatening notes calling her all sorts of vile names. No wonder Lucille soon wishes she’d never agreed to this charade. But how to extricate herself? The idea of (gasp!) telling the truth doesn’t surface for quite a while. By that time, Lucille has well and truly sunk herself into a morass from which she might not escape.

Take a story with an interesting premise, a troubled war hero, a smart but innocent heroine, a selfish sister, and a genuine attraction between the leads. Mix gently. Serve up in a picturesque Suffolk setting in the time of the Regency.

Then kill it with exclamation marks !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Yes, exclamation marks. In a weird throwback to another era of romance, even the most mundane of conversations are punctuated with endless exclamations. To wit:

“Your sister may have told you, Miss Kellaway, that Seagrave never spends time on his estates! I can only assume that the furore caused by Miss Susanna’s arrival here has brought him from London! She will be most disappointed to have missed him!”

Is there anything in this example (and I could have chosen from dozens) that justifies this kind of nonsensical punctuation? I’ll try to stop clutching my head and muttering “Why? Why? Why?” but frankly, I’m seeing those darn marks in my sleep. Where were the editors on this?

Silly dialogue aside, The Virtuous Cyprian suffers from a plot that runs out of steam. Nicholas is interested in Susanna/Lucille. No, he’s not. Yes, he is. Lucille is going to tell Nicholas the truth. No, she can’t. Yes, she must. Just when all might be resolved and these two might actually start to develop a romance, a whole troop of secondary characters make an entrance, and the story starts running in circles. Instead of Nicholas and Lucille getting to know one another and cementing their bond, outside events intervene, false assumptions are made, a secondary romance rears its head, and the two leads simply get lost. The end of the story felt like an extra twenty pages needed to be added, because Nicholas’s actions are nothing less than absurd, and the idea that these two potentially fascinating characters could love each other when they’ve barely held six conversations just didn’t wash.

The Virtuous Cyprian started out with fire and promise, but fizzled out. A developed romance between the leads (and a moratorium on those exclamation marks) might have saved this story. Readers, this one was a disappointment.

--Cathy Sova

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