Miss Carlyle's Curricle
by Karen Harbaugh
(Signet, $4.99, PG) ISBN 0-451-19536-1
****
There is a niggling problem that faces every reviewer at one point or another. Does one judge a book simply on its own merits or does one judge it in comparison with the author's other books? It's a troubling dilemma and one I find myself facing as I try to evaluate my response to Karen Harbaugh's new Signet Regency. On the one hand, it is probably as good as or better than most Regency romances I have read recently. On the other hand, Miss Carlyle's Curricle lacks that special something that I have come to expect when I pick up one of Harbaugh's books. I think you can see my problem.

Harbaugh's last four or five books have cleverly integrated fantasy elements into the Regency romance and nobody does it better. Her latest release is a straightforward, fairly traditional love story with a dollop of mystery. It's a very nice love story, but it isn't vintage Harbaugh.

The story opens sadly. Charles Carlyle, Earl of Brisbane, a noted whip and member of the Four-in-Hand Club, dies when his horses bolt as he is engaged in a curricle race. His niece, Diana, witnesses the accident and is devastated. Uncle Charles had rescued her and her mother from dire poverty and he had been like a father to her. A few days later she escapes the house and rides into the woods where she is overcome by her grief. She encounters a stranger who is on his way to visit the earl. Thus she meets Gavin Sinclair.

Diana is surprised to find Gavin present at the reading of her uncle's will. She is likewise surprised at his bequests to her. First, he leaves her his racing curricle, a most unusual carriage for a young lady. Secondly, he leaves her the enormous sum of 75,000, provided she marries the next Earl of Brisbane. Her cousin, Sir James Racksbury, smirks when he hears that particular provision of the will. But his smirk disappears when the solicitor announces that the new Earl of Brisbane is not Sir James but rather Gavin Sinclair.

Diana immediately rejects the thought of wedding the new earl. For his part, Gavin claims to have fallen in love with Diana at first sight. But he wisely chooses to be patient and to woo his lady fair. Gradually, he wins over the skittish young woman who is quite unaware of her own attractiveness.

Diana is not a conventional beauty. She is tall and well endowed (my favorite type of heroine for obvious reasons) and she did not take during her London season. She is also strong willed and capable. Indeed, Gavin rightly calls her formidable.

Gavin is Diana's perfect match, for he too is formidable. He has had a checkered past, full of danger and mystery. He is perfectly suited to deal with the mysterious circumstances that surrounded the fourth earl's death and his groom's disappearance.

As I stated above, this is a very nice love story. My preference has always lain with those romances where the attraction between the hero and heroine grows and develops. Harbaugh does a fine job of showing us how and why Diana falls in love with Gavin and why Gavin's immediate attraction grows into something deeper and much more satisfying. Thus, when the two finally come together, the passion they ignite in each other is most satisfying.

As for the dollop of mystery, it is just that. There is little doubt who the villain is, but unmasking him is the problem. I did find Diana's behavior at the climax just a little bit over the top.

After much thought, I decided that I would recommend Miss Carlyle's Curricle since it measures up well against most Regency romances. Certainly the romance is the strongest part of the book. Yet I missed those extra special touches that traditionally set Harbaugh's stories apart. A good Regency romance but not great Harbaugh.

--Jean Mason

Note: The simpering miss on the cover is not Diana. She never would have worn pink! Is it my imagination or have Signet's covers become increasingly trite?


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