Pendragon by Catherine Coulter
(Jove, $7.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-515-13225-X
Suppose you want to write a romance with a formulaic plot? (Apparently a popular ambition.) Some authors succeed by stressing any original elements they have introduced or by relying on strong characterization, a hot romance, and a convincing milieu to carry the day. Another method is to tackle the story tongue-in-cheek and hope that those readers who recognize the clichéd nature of your narrative will be amused by your camp treatment. Catherine Coulter has chosen this second, more difficult path for Pendragon. Bad decision.

Meggie Sherbrooke, the heroine of Pendragon, is a member of the second generation of what is evidently an extensively chronicled family. At the start of her story, Meggie is 18, and in 1823 that means a Season in London for a well-bred young lady. Meggie’s father is a vicar, so her aunt and uncle have taken her under their wing, with instructions to enjoy herself and not to worry about catching a husband.

However, Meggie is a very young 18. When her cousin-by-marriage, Jeremy Stanton-Greville, calls on her aunt and uncle, Meggie has a violent recurrence of the crush she had on him when she was thirteen and he was almost 24. She hasn’t seen Jeremy - or even thought about him - in five years, but never mind…she is in instantly and totally in love. Unhappily, not only is her love not returned; it isn’t even recognized. When Meggie realizes she has no chance with Jeremy, she decides she will never love again, turns down four offers of marriage, and goes home to devote herself to her family and her sport.

Her sport. Ah, yes. Meggie’s sport, and the sport of the whole Sherbrooke family, is cat racing. Cat racing is Ms. Coulter’s parody of those sports we meet so unfailingly in Regency novels: racing phaetons, hunting, and boxing. By devoting her first chapter to a cat race, the author is winking at us, letting us know immediately that she was jus’ playin’ when she put fingers to keys to write Pendragon. This is not meant to be a serious story; it is instead a send up of the Regency novel. The question is whether or not such a parody can hold our interest for 343 pages.

Actually it does a fair job for about one-third of the book. As long as Meggie is at home with her family, her story feels rooted in the reality Coulter established in earlier Sherbrooke novels. Unfortunately, when the scene changes, the tone changes with it, for the worse. After Meggie has been home nearly a year, she meets Thomas Malcombe, newly earl of Lancaster. Thomas provides a medicine that cures her little half-brother of a fever, giving Thomas an opportunity to court her and eventually to marry her. It is when he takes Meggie home to Ireland that parody descends into farce; witness the introduction of characters unnecessarily named Barnacle and Lord Kipper. Coulter’s mocking tone never falters, not even when a murder takes place.

The plot, which had initially had a few nice twists on the typical Regency plot - Meggie’s unrequited love for Jeremy, for instance - experienced a steep rise in its cliché quotient when the pair left the vicarage in Glenclose-on-Rowan. Can Meggie learn to love Thomas? Does he have a dark secret? Who killed the innkeeper’s wife? Do we care? Dialogue never spoken by any living being does nothing to increase our interest.

Readers who have followed the Sherbrooke saga - which I have not - may find that Pendragon entertains because it offers opportunities to renew acquaintance with characters met in earlier books. Even they will need a high tolerance for arch, however, and the ability to ignore the silliness of cat racing. For everyone else, I would say, “Approach with caution.”

--Nancy J. Silberstein

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