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The Rival by Brenda Joyce
(St. Martin's, $6.99, R) ISBN 0-312-96621-0
***
This is undoubtedly one of the best-written books I have ever disliked. It is a meaty book, full of sinister and enigmatic characters, a complex, tortured hero and a gifted, long-suffering heroine torn between her daughter and her lover. The story, anchored deeply in the fabric of Georgian England, includes a lost heir, a black sheep, wickedly perverse villains, and the ruthless pursuit of dynastic goals in a society that valued the conservation of appearances over persons.

When I started the book I relaxed with a sigh of relief into the kind of dense, detail-rich prose that is so often lacking in historicals. The scenes were vivid, the descriptions of places and things forming a substantial background for characters whose inner lives were as much a part of the narrative as the dialogue and action. It was so easy to get involved in this story.

The book begins with the disappearance of the hero's older brother, Lionel De Vere, heir to the Earl of Stanhope. The hero, Garrick De Vere, was the last person to see Lionel alive. Fourteen years later, Garrick returns to England from self-imposed exile in Barbados. He is a man who is at odds with his father, contemptuous of the society that suspected him of his brother's murder, and mistrustful of anyone who claims to care for him. His father, who wants him to marry and produce a legitimate heir, has betrothed him in absentia to the daughter of a compliant baronet with a fortune from trade. This baronet's daughter has been befriended by the heroine, Olivia, wife of Arlen Grey, Earl of Ashburne.

Olivia has the gift of Sight: she senses the feelings of others and occasionally has visions of future events. Her gift has made her a pariah. Ostracized during childhood and shunned by her parents as soon as they were able to marry her to an unsuspecting husband, she makes the mistake of revealing her abilities shortly after the marriage. Her husband is frightened and repulsed by her disclosure and then enraged when their child is born female and blind. For eight years they have lived virtually apart as Olivia tries to raise her daughter in the protected environment of their country estate, and conceal from Arlen that her daughter's gift is even more powerful than her own.

Even before she meets Garrick, Olivia senses disaster and identifies him as the source of it the moment she sees him for the first time. Garrick is immediately intrigued by Olivia, at first mistaking her for the fiancée who is being forced upon him; when he discovers that she is married and living apart from her husband, he assumes that she is available for an affair. Their first torrid encounter takes place at Garrick's engagement party where they are observed by the wrong people and events are set in motion that will result in some truly horrific suffering before they finally attain the requisite happy ending.

Olivia's dog-in-the-manger husband and his depraved sister conspire against her and Garrick. The situation becomes complicated by the appearance of a man claiming to be the lost heir of Stanhope – Lionel De Vere. The mystery of this man's origins and his present purposes becomes hopelessly entangled with Garrick and Olivia's efforts to accommodate their passionate attraction and free her and her daughter, Hannah, from Arlen's dangerous power. Although confirmed mystery readers will probably have no trouble figuring out the plot, it kept me turning pages long past the time I wanted to stop.

And I very soon wanted to stop. Unfortunately, as well as it is written, I cannot think that this was a very pleasant story. In fact, much of it made my skin crawl. This portrayal of Georgian society is unrelentingly dark and vicious and the characters' feelings of hopelessness and desperation are oppressive. Garrick De Vere is a very problematic hero. Although his feelings for Olivia evolve from arrogant lust to something the author is calling love, his actions throughout display almost no real concern for her happiness or welfare. Because of his pursuit of her, she is exposed to abusive treatment by her husband and her daughter's life is put at risk. In spite of repeated promises to protect and defend her, he is easily manipulated by others and invariably absent or incapacitated when needed.

Olivia is certainly his soul mate. While brutally aware of the dangers, she allows herself to pursue an affair with Garrick and to be discovered in her adultery. Her fatal gift of sight seems to leave her ignorant of crucial information, while increasing her anxiety and fear to almost unbearable levels. Once she succumbs to Garrick's pursuit, she seems unable to control circumstances or herself at all. In fact, both these characters are curiously powerless throughout much of the story.

Neither of these characters displays much capacity for rational thought. Both are creatures of passion and instinct, as much in thrall to their own natures as to the villainy around them. Although there are several very hot love scenes and the sexual tension between them is omnipresent, their actual conversations are almost inept, and their interactions – except for sex – are halting and tentative. They have strong feelings and great sex, but their relationship never advances much beyond that.

The more of this book I read, the worse I felt. The "love" that these two characters purportedly share seems to make their lives worse instead of better. When they are finally free to pursue their happiness, it's a relief, but not a fulfillment. I realize that these criticisms are highly subjective; obviously this author's imagination does not appeal to me. Some readers may find a story like this intensely satisfying. If you do, you're in for a treat, because this one is so well written you will feel like you are part of the story. As for me, it's an experience I can do without.

--Bev Hill


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