A Valentine for Vanessa
by Kathryn Kirkwood
(Zebra, $4.99, G) ISBN 0-8217-6462-4
What does one say about a story that had lots of potential to be a truly compelling emotional read, but which doesn’t quite live up to its potential? I guess one says that it is an average Regency romance, but not one that I can recommend. The teaser holds real promise: “A mystery man may sweep a lady to romance--or to ruin...” But, unfortunately, not much sweeping of anything took place in A Valentine for Vanessa.

Vanessa Holland is an overly tall (it seems to be the season for tall heroines) daughter of a gentleman who is both a renowned botanist and a healer of some repute. Thus, the Earl of Bridgeford seeks out Mr. Holland’s advice about what to do for his sister. Lady Millicent (not Lady Thurston!) is seventeen, but has never left her home. It seems that her nurse and her governess conspired to exaggerate her supposed sickly nature to retain their posts and her disinterested parents ignored her. Now, Stephen, having assumed the title, finds that his sister has retreated into almost complete silence.

Vanessa volunteers to become Millie’s companion and to help the girl overcome her distressing shyness and sense of inferiority. This brings her into the Thurston household and into the company of the one man in the neighborhood who is tall enough and charming enough to catch her attention. Unfortunately, Stephen is also married although his wife’s chronic illness has forced her to seek refuge in warmer climes than England.

Now, Vanessa has spent three years with Millie and the girl has improved immensely. While Stephen visits Bridgeford Hall only occasionally, the two have inevitably become close. Vanessa knows full well the foolishness of developing a tendre for the handsome earl, but sometimes the heart will not listen to the head. Vanessa’s height and her strong personality have meant that she has not had any admirers -- except one. She has received several letters from a secret admirer. Two Valentine Days earlier, he included a lovely gold chain in a letter. The past year, he sent her a lovely gold heart to wear on the chain. Not knowing who has sent these most inappropriate gifts, Vanessa cannot return them. They and the letters have come to mean a good deal to her, since she now believes that there is someone who believes she is lovable. But who is her secret admirer?

Much of the story revolves around Millie’s final emergence from her cocoon and the decision to give her a London season. Stephen pops in and out of the picture as he apparently journeys to and from the continent to visit his ailing wife. It becomes clear that Stephen’s feelings for Vanessa are not at all brotherly but, with one exception, both behave in an exemplary fashion. A bit too exemplary for there to be much romantic tension, I fear.

Thus, I come to my original point. Kirkwood has an interesting premise: two people who cannot marry who nevertheless and understandably fall in love. I suppose that given the common constraints of the Regency subgenre in particular and romance in general, she had to be very careful in her handling of the situation. But in her care not to transgress the conventions, Kirkwood is left with a romance without much romance. And her final denouement is simply a bit too pat and, shall I say, conventional?

So, despite the fact that I liked the heroine quite a bit and admired the hero, I fear that I cannot recommend A Valentine for Vanessa.

--Jean Mason

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