|Edith Layton seems unable to write a bad book, which is a blessing for her many fans. The Return of the Earl isnít her finest, but itís still an entertaining read and worth a look.
The story opens with a man and three young boys being transported to Australia for supposed petty crimes committed in England. (Do I smell a trilogy here?) The man is obviously of good family, and as the ship departs, he spies two men on the dock and tells the oldest boy to remember their faces. This plays into the story later on.
Fifteen years later, one of the young boys has returned to England, claiming to be Christian Sauvage, the new Earl of Egremont. This comes as quite a nasty shock to the other Sauvage family members, especially Hammond Sauvage, who is next in line for the title. Seems that several previous earls have died under rather suspect circumstances. Hammond is not about to meekly step aside. His fiancťe, Sophie, decides to enlist the help of an acquaintance, Julianne Lowell. Julieís late brother was one of Christianís best friends when they were children. Surely sheíll remember something about Christian and can verify this strangerís claim?
Julie, whose family is respectable if not wealthy, finds that Christian is disturbing. He seems to know things that only the real Christian would know Ė or has he simply done some careful research? In any event, she and Christian are very, very attracted to one another. Then Sir Maurice Sauvage, a baronet and family relation, arrives to have a look at Christian, and itís soon apparent he has no intention of letting Egremont fall into the hands of a parvenu.
Christian and Julie are charming characters, and Layton does a good job of not telegraphing the plot. Is he the real Christian? Or isnít he? The answer isnít immediately forthcoming, and most of the questions arenít answered until right up to the end of the story.
But while the mystery is adequate, the romance really isnít up to Laytonís usual standards. Long stretches of the middle of the book seem to drift, with little happening. Julie believes heís the real Christian. Then somebody plants seeds of doubt in her mind. So she tests him some more, and he passes. So he must be the real Christian. Then someone plants seeds of doubtÖ
Then the action shifts to London, and Christian disappears out of the story for stretches. With this sort of structure, itís hard to get the two leads together to build a romance, and their one love scene took place under fairly contrived circumstances. It just didnít satisfy.
Yet, the characters are nicely drawn and quite intriguing. Christian, faced with an overwhelming attraction to a woman in the middle of his carefully-laid plans, is the picture of stunned bemusement. At the same time, once he understands what is going on, heís not about to let Julie get away. I liked that. Layton has a knack for writing strong heroes who arenít afraid to face the fact that theyíve fallen in love, which is a refreshing change from the many angst-filled, navel-gazing heroes wandering around in Romance Land and declaring theyíll never love again. Julie, for her part, is no simpering miss, but a twenty-five year old woman with a good head on her shoulders. Theyíre well-matched.
The secondary characters are more than stereotypes, though not all of them are sympathetic, which adds a nice touch of realism to the story. And Christianís adoptive brothers seem destined for their own stories, which will be quite an interesting trick if Layton can pull it off, as they start out the story as guttersnipes.
The Return of the Earl doesnít rank in the very top tier of Edith Laytonís work, but sheís such a talented author, itís still worth a readerís time. Christian Sauvage may well steal your heart.