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The Wife Test

 
The Book of True Desires
by Betina Krahn
(Jove, $7.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-515-14170-4
****
The Book of True Desires is for armchair adventurers who like a strong dose of humor and an exotic locale mixed in with the traditional quest. Krahn captures several elements of the late Victorian adventure tale (Rider Haggard, anyone?). As is fitting with this kind of romance, she places a strong and fiercely independent female lead at the center.

Cordelia O’Keefe believes she has finally found the location of King Solomon’s mythic mines, but doesn’t have the finances for an expedition. Despite a long-standing family feud, she approaches her wealthy and miserly grandfather. He promises to fund her research if she will first do something for him: travel to Mexico and locate the Mayan stone carvings known as the Gift of the Jaguar. He also wants to protect his interests, so he insists his British butler, Hartford Goodnight, tags along.

So off they go, first to Cuba in the early throes of its revolution against the Spanish; then to Central American jungles where they meet with beasts; and finally to a small Mayan village, which has been the keeper of a sacred secret for centuries. Unfortunately, there are other contenders for the prize. In addition to dealing with jungle creatures, pregnant burros and poisonous plants, Cordelia and her group must also face up to particularly vicious two-legged creeps.

On the way, Cordelia, who has been looking down on the bumbling butler even as she fights her attraction to him, learns to appreciate a very different kind of treasure. Goodnight is, in fact, a trained pharmacologist who is interested in exploring the medicinal value of jungle plants. He immediately hits it off with the village healer and becomes a key figure in finding the gift of the jaguar.

I was truly delighted with the reversal of roles, but I imagine there were significant risks involved. No one wants a weakling for a hero: consider what would happen if Kathleen Turner did all the rescuing in Romancing the Stone or if Brendan Fraser, rather than Rachel Weisz, was possessed in The Mummy. Which is why Krahn deserves all the more credit for her careful balancing act.

Despite his absent-mindedness and his preoccupation with folding socks, Goodnight’s size and strength ensures he is no geeky wimp. His growing involvement in protecting members of Cordelia’s expedition as well his scientific savoir-faire more than make up for his original servile status. As he takes on a stronger role, he begins to overshadow Cordelia’s independence and feistiness. They take turns rescuing each other, which ensures that despite the unusual circumstances, they are well matched. A host of minor characters, from Cordelia’s maiden aunt to a lustful crone, from burro managers to a Yankee gun runner, are also delightful.

I do have some quibbles with the last fourth of the book. The romance loses some of its edge; things fall together a bit too nicely and too conveniently; and I couldn’t help feeling that the ending was rushed. I was left with a few questions about the motivations of one character, whose involvement with the villains isn’t completely elucidated. The novel also draws a very clear line between the good and the bad. But that’s romance, and I wouldn’t have it otherwise.

Jungle lore, Mayan mythology, enthralling story and entertaining characters all make The Book of True Desires a highly pleasurable read.

--Mary Benn


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