The Untamed Earl
by Taylor Jones
(Leisure, $6.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-8439-5845-6
The Untamed Earl has everything: a trick marriage, a half-ruined castle, smugglers, a fop of a decorator from London, a mysterious tower, a one-armed man, a snotty clerk/secretary type. In fact, it has at least three major story threads – a pity they do not make coherent sense either individually or collectively.

Poor Estella Hancock, daughter of a Brighton merchant/shipper: she has pulled one of her infamous pranks, and it has backfired badly. In an ill-conceived attempt to lure Godolphin, Lord Seabrook into a scene that would embarrass him (but somehow, not her), the 19 year-old miss has been caught by her parents while locked in a steamy embrace with the mysterious Earl. She just wanted a taste of the poorly understood, but vastly interesting, Ravishment (with a capital R). Alas, apparently Godolphin had already spoken to Estella’s father, requesting her hand in marriage. Her parents view the ardent embrace as evidence that she has agreed.

Four weeks later, her parents are off to America on some pressing business, and Estella is the Countess Seabrook, living in Godolphin’s half-crumbling castle. The Earl is recently returned to the estate, and is too busy lurking in his mysterious tower office (which of course she must never enter) and staying out all night occupied with mysterious doings to be bothered with Estella; he instructs her to take over the rehabilitation and redecoration of the castle/estate (here comes the fop decorator). Godolphin is involved in a search for a smuggling operation, and he thinks that Estella’s father is the local mastermind. Godolphin is looking, in particular, for a set of ledgers belonging to Estella’s father that somehow contain crucial information.

Estella, not all that interested in decorating, would much rather spend her time on other pursuits, such as sneaking into the tower office (where she finds signs that Godolphin is hunting her father) and entertaining herself with one of her better wedding gifts. That gift, “Madame Pettibonne’s Treastise on Canine Behavior, Prepared Especially for the Lady Handler,” is providing Estella much useful information, but not for the handling of her dog. She has decided that the book is actually written in code, and refers not to training dogs, but to the taming of men, husbands in particular. In league with the timid vicar’s wife, also newly wed, Estella is translating the book from the French and both women are planning to use their newfound advice on their husbands.

So, now we have an inveterate prankster, smugglers and some disappearing ledgers, a marital manual disguised as a dog-training handbook (I hear dog-whisperer Cesar Millan in my head, advising calm, assertive pack leader behavior), and a host of quirky secondary characters. Mostly, that all adds up to 300+ pages of confusion. Any one of the three main themes could have made a pleasant story, but all together they just made for a choppy and inconsistent narrative. The prankster theme appears in the first chapter, but goes underground as Estella neither plots, nor executes, another prank until almost the end of the book. There are pranks being played, most of them far nastier than anything Estella would seem capable of, but it is clear that she is not the organizer behind them. Is she an inveterate prankster, or not? The author appeared to have some thoughts on this, but they went astray somewhere in the execution. Maybe the dog handler manual and smugglers sent them straight out of her head?

In addition to this choppy and inconsistent plot, the characters were not particularly appealing. Estella is, truly, too stupid to live, and too spoiled to be likeable. What a twit. Who would think that it a good idea to invite the one-armed man, a man known to be crazy, a man who just tried to chop off your own husband’s arm, over for a private meeting? Godolphin (whose first name we never learn, which was vastly annoying, as I remain unsure how to pronounce Godolphin) is equally unattractive, storming off in a huff seemingly every time he is alone with Estella. Really, it’s like clockwork: they’ve share an intimate moment, they’re both relaxing and behaving in a fashion that approaches normalcy and then…wait for it…bam! He discovers or notices something that gets his goat and…he’s outta there. He is also quite given to making pronouncements to her in an overbearing (and not very smart) fashion. Of course, it’s possible he’s so bossy because he is apparently “past 30” and she is a mere 19 – a few too many months between them to be attractive. In short, she’s a ninny, he’s a bully; please, don’t let them breed.

Finally, there are simply barrels full of annoying anachronisms, many of which would not have been difficult to avoid. There is much lighting and carrying around of matches, and Estella continually refers to her fear that her father was going to be “framed” for a crime. Perhaps the author can be persuaded to write one book at a time in the future; that might give her time to Google this type of reference. Until then, save your money. With The Untamed Earl you do not get three books for the price of one – you get one hefty one that will make a bit of a dent when you heave it against the wall.

--Laura Scott

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