For All Eternity

A Perfect Scoundrel

Scandal by Heather Cullman
Signet, $6.50,PG-13) ISBN 0-451-20767-X
There are scandals aplenty in Scandal, but none that compare with the publisher quoting rave reviews of Ms. Cullman’s previous books to lure readers into buying this ponderous effort.

The year is 1798, and Gideon Harwood has returned to England with his Sikh manservant, Jagtar after spending nine years in India as a mercenary. There, he accumulated the “dazzling wealth” necessary to rescue his family from destitution. He has ensconced his two troubled younger sisters in a manor house in Lancashire, but his brother, Caleb, has disappeared without a trace.

While searching for news of Caleb, Gideon discovers a shocking scandal that would ruin the Marquess of Stanwell. To buy his silence, the Marquess offers Gideon his lovely daughter, Julia, in marriage, and guaranteed acceptance into the ton which, as a nouveau riche commoner, Gideon could never hope to achieve. If it was up to him, Gideon would happily spit in Stanwell’s eye. He has no use for the shallow artificiality of the ton and he doesn’t actually give a toss about the Marquess’s dirty little secret.

But he has two sisters who suffered grievously without his protection while he was away and who might benefit from the enhanced social status, so Gideon agrees to marry Julia. He will only do it if they make it look like a love match, however, because he thinks that will somehow make the match more convincing to the nobility (who routinely marry for money and position).

Julia is not happy; she was determined to marry for love. Her father was determined to get her off his hands by the end of the Season. To force her acquiescence, he tells Julia that her mother gambled with Gideon the previous night and in two hours lost more money than the family’s entire estate is worth. If she marries him, Gideon will forgive the debt. If she refuses, everything will be auctioned within a fortnight and her beloved younger sisters thrown into the street. (It’s a rare, totally unentailed estate, apparently.)

Although Julia prides herself on her cleverness - seldom a good predictor of actual intelligence in a romance heroine - she swallows these flimsy lies whole. (Heavens! Her mother has a secret gambling problem?) She resigns herself to marriage martyrdom to avoid a future in which she envisions “her parents were being hauled away to prison in chains, ruined and disgraced, and her siblings sat huddled in a damp, cold alley, hungry, frightened and abandoned, their emaciated bodies clothed in rags, their tender flesh ravaged by chilblains.” Ravaged by… chilblains?

In addition to general implausibility, the story groans under the weight of a cumbersome, over-descriptive writing style. Nouns tend to plough up such a heap of adjectives that the reader is gasping for breath before climbing over it to reach the thought. (“Jagtar’s constant companion, Kesin, a sharmindi-billi, or slow loris, as the queer, owl-eyed primates were called in the English-speaking world, poked his wooly cream-and-brown head from the pouch tied to Jagtar’s saddle, emitting a sharp, scolding twitter…”) Long lists of details, such as an inventory of the tradespeople traversing Gideon’s street while Julia gathers her courage to go into the house, are probably intended to provide color. Instead, they bury the reader in superfluous verbiage. And things I really wanted to know - about how their feelings develop from antagonism to love, for example - are glossed over in a few paragraphs.

Even more problematic is the almost total lack of romance. Both Julia and Gideon stagger from misunderstanding to misunderstanding almost willfully refusing to communicate, each completely self-absorbed in their own problems and insecurities, and willing to jump to the worst conclusions about the other at the slightest provocation. Then, in the end, the problems are solved so neatly and easily that all the preceding angst looks like a big waste of time.

I’ve a feeling that Ms. Cullman’s previous work will earn her a lot of readers for this book. If only it deserved them.

-- Judi McKee

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