A Valentine For Vanessa

 
A Townhouse for Tessa
by Kathryn Kirkwood
(Zebra, $4.99, G) ISBN 0-8217-6853-0
**
On the death of her beloved grandmother, Theresa Lockhard learns that she’s actually not a true member of the Lockhard family. When her mother was dying of consumption, she enlisted the aid of a vicar to place her four daughters with loving families. Her adoptive grandmother had brought Tessa into the family to comfort her husband who was grieving from the carriage accident death of his son, daughter-in-law, and little granddaughter. She claimed that Tessa had been found and raised by gypsies.

When she confides the truth of her birth, Tessa’s fiancé insists she break off their engagement. Rumor quickly reaches her vindictive aunt, and Tessa is driven from the only home she’s ever known.

A letter from her late grandmother tells her that on her eighteenth birthday in three weeks time she is to meet with a lawyer in London. Her uncle provides her with a purse, and Tessa travels to London.

She is denied entry to her cousin’s London house, but the housekeeper recommends a boarding house run by her sister. While walking to the boarding house, Tessa meets a handsome young man who identifies himself Harry, the hopeful publisher of a newspaper.

Waiting at the boarding house for the two weeks until her birthday, Tessa becomes acquainted with the friendly residents, particularly Daisy, an apprentice seamstress.

The lawyer gives Tessa a letter from her mother that tells her the truth about her origins. When her mother married against their wishes, she was disowned by her parents, an earl and countess. But the countess repented in her last days and left Tessa a small inheritance. She is the owner of a townhouse with a small rental property that will provide income. Tessa doesn’t reveal her origins to Harry because he once told her he didn’t like society misses.

Tessa and Daisy, now her companion, move into the townhouse. She soon discovers that her tenant is none other than Harry. Although he doesn’t tell her, Harry is actually an earl who is trying to bring attention to the applying living conditions of the poor through articles in his paper. Pretending to be the friend of a gentleman artist, Tessa arranges to do drawings for his newspaper that will lampoon foolish behavior at society events. She gains an entree to the ton by becoming the protégé of her natural grandmother’s friend, still keeping her society connections secret from Harry.

The writing tone of A Townhouse for Tessa is uneven; it seems to be trying to be light, but the subject matter of tossing a poor heroine out of her only home doesn’t lend itself well to that treatment. Moreover, the story touches on poverty, slum conditions, the exploitation of workers, the apathy of the privileged class - hardly the stuff of merriment.

There’s a sketchy, superficial feel to this story. It seldom delves below the surface and reads as though it were a synopsis rather than the story itself. Tessa thinks this. Tessa does that. Everything falls into place like magic.

Which is fortunate because Tessa is a most ingenuous heroine although she’s surprisingly independent given the attitudes of the period. A skeptic might think that her situation is a prologue to disaster. She’s been cast off by her family and stripped of her inheritance, but the reality-challenged Tessa hasn’t a worry in her head.

Think of the possibilities: Some unscrupulous denizens of the big city might take advantage of her trusting nature. In a matter of days she could be facing homelessness and starvation. After a privileged upbringing, she could be confronting social ostracism and a sharp dive to the underclass.

But no, Tessa - the Regency version of Alfred E. Neuman: What me worry? - lands in a boarding house which is entirely populated by hard-working simple folk with hearts of gold. She never once contemplates the need to find a position. She’s well-born - her mother and father were the offspring of nobility. And Harry’s no ordinary, regular sort of guy either; he’s the ninth Earl of Fallbrook.

Silly me. Those kind of problems could only happen to other people. Tessa’s going to sail through life without a care.

Harry has unrealized potential as a hero. He’s a nice guy with a social conscience, but his character is poorly developed. We never learn why he has embarked on a career as a journalist or why he’s turned into a closet social reformer. He has the promise to be a lot more than a one-dimensional character, but he’s wasted in this story.

We know how Tessa and Harry feel about each other because we’re told. “Harry knew that his feelings for her ran far deeper than simple friendship.” A romance should show the hero and heroine falling in love. This isn’t easy, however, because Harry and Tessa spend most of their time apart.

As a Regency romance, A Townhouse for Tessa is more Regency than romance. This paint-by-the-numbers, formulaic romance may aim at being light-hearted but comes across as only light-weight. Readers who are looking for a story that will touch their hearts are likely to be disappointed.

--Lesley Dunlap


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