|Benjamin, Earl of Sinclair, needs a new secretary. Young, fresh-faced J. Quincy is his latest candidate. The interview reveals that Quincy is a skilled forger and could therefore take over much of Benjamin’s correspondence, and he agrees to give Quincy a trial run. He leaves Quincy in his office for several hours to see what he can accomplish. When Benjamin returns, his study is much improved. Therefore, he hires Quincy.
J. Quincy is actually Josephine Quincy, who lives with and financially supports her grandmother and her sick sister. She has been dressing and working as a man for years, with no one the wiser. Benjamin is different, however; thanks to Quincy’s “fine female derriere,” he soon sees through the façade.
Women dressing as men is a literary device older than Shakespeare. A reader’s appreciation of this Shirley Karr’s What an Earl Wants is likely to depend on a tolerance for this type of plot. Some suspension of disbelief is required to make it work, but it works for me throughout much of the book.
Quincy strives to make herself indispensable to Benjamin, and she soon uncovers evidence that his former secretary embezzled from him. In the meantime, Quincy discovers that she is drawn to Benjamin. However, she knows that her masquerade makes her ineligible, as it did in the past with her ex-fiance:
“She should be grateful to Nigel. He’d taught her a valuable lesson, one she would never forget. In taking on a man’s role, she had made herself unsuitable to be a man’s wife. Ever.”
At the same time, Benjamin becomes attracted to Quincy, but the scandalous actions of his father left him with an aversion to gossip and controversy: “Courting Quincy would be courting scandal, and he’d been through enough scandal to last two lifetimes.” But in spite of Benjamin’s best efforts, he’s enchanted with Quincy.
What an Earl Wants is Shirley Karr’s debut, and she creates a winning hero with Benjamin. He’s witty, complex, and troubled. His journey to loving Quincy is fun to watch.
In most respects, Quincy is his match. While her desire to care and provide for her family isn’t a unique one, she is also a complex heroine. I admit to being baffled by Benjamin’s description of her faint lemon scent, which doesn’t seem particularly masculine. In any case, the first two-thirds of the book are quite strong.
The last third of the story is less enjoyable. Quincy takes a frustrating if understandable position on an issue. Her goal is to avoid hurting Benjamin, but the story evolves in such a way that she does exactly that, and she clings to her decision too long. In addition, too much is occurring in this final section of the book. Benjamin and Quincy are separated, they confront their demons, and Benjamin’s ex-fiancee has a subplot. It’s simply too much.
What I wanted from this book was a good story, and in many ways it succeeds. It was a delight to watch Benjamin and Quincy get to know each other, come to depend on each other, and fall in love. But the misunderstandings and noble sacrifices at the end of the book keep it from being a better-than-average read.