The Perfect Wife by Jane Goodger
(Signet, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-451-20130-2
****
Jane Goodger uses the unusual setting of Newport during the 1890s to craft an entertaining tale of revenge gone awry in The Perfect Wife. As the story opens, Henry Owen is about to propose to dumpy, giggling Anne Foster. This is no love match, at least not on Henry's side, though Anne is infatuated with him. Rather, Henry is marrying for money -- specifically, the inheritance that will become his as soon as he weds rather than when he turns 30. He needs the money to save Sea Cliff, a beloved family cottage where he spent his childhood summers, from falling into the sea.

Henry does indeed marry Anne despite his niggling conscience. On their wedding night, he abandons her, then files for divorce three weeks later. Anne is left a societal outcast. Henry is left unscathed. After all, he's still wealthy and good-looking, which is all Newport society cares about. A divorced woman, on the other hand, is unacceptable to everyone.

Two years pass. Anne has come out of her bitter shell with a vengeance, lost weight, changed her hairstyle. Nobody looking at this elegant beauty would ever connect her with the formerly dowdy Anne. Armed with her new looks and her stalwart friend Beatrice, Anne decides upon the perfect revenge. She'll lure Henry into falling in love with her, then break his heart.

Henry doesn't recognize Anne at first and is, indeed, enthralled by her beauty. When he's tipped off to her true identity, it's a nasty shock. For two years, Henry's conscience has plagued him over the ruin he caused Anne. Now here she is in the flesh, a living reminder of his past sins. And she captivates him.

Society isn't ready to admit Anne back into their fold, so Henry takes matters into his own hands and persuades four of Newport's most formidable dowagers to acknowledge her. (Just how he manages to accomplish this in one day is glossed over and is one of the few weak spots in the book.) Anne is reinstated and becomes a popular guest. And as she draws Henry into her snare, both Anne and Henry find that they are longing for a second chance.

Anne and Henry are superb characterizations. Beneath Anne's swanlike exterior lurks that pudgy ugly duckling, quacking out messages of doubt and insecurity whenever Anne starts to believe Henry might really love her. Henry, having saved his beloved family cottage, finds his victory to be hollow at best. His grandfather is dying at Sea Cliff, and Henry knows no peace. Henry's journey to self-discovery and his realization that he threw away the real prize is poignant and moving. His desperate attempts to prove to Anne that he truly regrets his actions will wring readers' hearts.

There is a secondary romance between Beatrice and Henry's friend Alex that seems apt, but involves a major about-face in characterization that isn't really developed or explained well. The leap from womanizing scoundrel to devoted lover is a big one, and here it just felt like too much of a leap for what we know of Alex, though his world-weary mannerisms are interesting. Beatrice is spunky enough to hold her own against him. And her devotion to Anne helps carry the story.

A subplot involving a secret at Sea Cliff, told through entries in the grandfather's journal, is absorbing without being too intrusive. Savvy readers may guess where it all leads; there is one shock at the end that most will not see coming, though.

The only characters that fell flat for me were Anne's parents. They don't occupy much time onstage, but their reaction to their daughter's "scandalous divorce" is cardboard villainy, even given the societal restraints of the time. It's almost impossible to picture sweet Anne among such toadying sycophants, and I found myself mentally dismissing them from the story.

All in all, The Perfect Wife is a near-perfect tale of revenge turned to passion. If ever a book explores the old adage that "there's a fine line between hate and love", it's this one. Jane Goodger is a gem among romance readers. Here she adds a few more facets to an already sparkling writing repertoire.

--Cathy Sova


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