Again the Magic

It Happened One Autumn

Lady Sophia's Lover

Secrets of a Summer Night

Someone to Watch
Over Me

Stranger in My Arms

Suddenly You

When Strangers Marry

Where Dreams Begin

Where's My Hero

 
Devil in Winter
by Lisa Kleypas
(Avon, $7.50, R) ISBN 0-06-056251-X
****
Reformed rakes are among the most overdone types peopling romance land. They are also among the hardest characters to draw convincingly. Readers aren't as gullible as heroines (or at least we think we aren't). We aren't likely to accept the hero's word that he has changed; we need to see it, too. Though we get occasional glimpses of this development in Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent, the hero of the latest installment in Lisa Kleypas's Wallflower series, too much remains implicit to win over this reader entirely.

Evangeline Jenner is the shy, stuttering and self-effacing member of a quartet of Victorian husband-hunters. She needs to get married to escape from her cruel relatives, who are plotting to seize control of her fortune. Knowing that Sebastian wants to marry an heiress to restore his family fortunes, she offers him a bargain. After a quick trip to Gretna Green, they set themselves up in Evie's father's gambling establishment. Here, they must contend with different threats to their ownership and authority as well as decide whether they want to turn their marriage of convenience into one of true love.

The main problem is that Sebastian's conversion takes place too early in the novel for it to be plausible. He is immediately attracted to Evie. Despite his reputation as a hard-hearted, insincere and self- centered aristocrat and in flagrant contrast with his actions in the other novels in the series, he is incredibly nice to her during their trip to Gretna Green. Not only does he ensure her feet remain warm throughout the long and tiring coach trip, he also encourages her to take pit stops (or the Victorian equivalent) at frequent intervals.

Maybe Sebastian's actions would be more credible if I didn't remember that he is the same person who abducted and nearly raped Lillian in It Happened One Autumn. I also find it hard to accept that Evie would be so quick to brush this lapse under the carpet — especially since her close friend is directly concerned. No, Sebastian didn't go all the way, but neither did he have too many scruples about going as far as he did. Given that, it's hard to believe he agrees to complete abstinence in exchange for Evie's eventual favors.

To Kleypas's credit, Sebastian's reformation doesn't depend entirely on the love of a good woman but also on his preoccupation with something other than himself, namely Jenner's gambling establishment. His new job showcases his latent strengths and allows him to develop into a responsible authority figure. And the gradual revelation of his backstory (clichéd thought it may be) makes his behavior slightly more acceptable.

Evie is not as outspoken, outlandish or independent as the average Kleypas heroine, but she has her hidden depths. These emerge in one or two particularly well-written scenes. And so, while I remain skeptical of Sebastian's reformation, I can see why Evie might intrigue him.

One of my favorite things about Kleypas is the way she depends on minor details to add historical authenticity. In previous novels, she dwelt on showers and toothpaste, soaps and cosmetics, country fairs and backstage life. Here, we have descriptions of coach trips, dinner menus and tuberculosis treatments. I was nevertheless slightly disappointed to hear the hero tout a version of germ theory (hardly an accepted part of mid-nineteenth-century medical practice) and to see other characters have medical foresight more typical of the twenty-first century.

Despite these shortcomings, Kleypas is experienced and talented enough not to disappoint readers too much. And for all my misgivings, I confess that I am waiting impatiently for the next and final story in the Wallflower series, which, judging by the few available extracts, promises to be delicious.

--Mary Benn


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