Dearest Max by Barbara Miller
(Sonnet, $6.50, R) ISBN 0-671-77452-2
When a book takes me three days to read, when I find myself cleaning the kitchen rather than reading, then I know something isn’t working. Sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint what is wrong. But after some thought, I have concluded that inconsistent characterizations, stilted dialogue, and improbable plot devices diminished what might have been an interesting story.

Dearest Max is “Lady” Veronica Stark’s cousin and her father’s heir. (Viscounts’ daughters do not have courtesy titles so the book got off to a bad start.) The two had been boon companions in their youth but twelve years earlier, Max had been driven from the family estate of Byerly when his nasty cousins set him up as supposedly having seduced or raped Cousin Mercia. Veronica’s father had believed the lie and his heir had fled.

In the intervening years, Max had kept in contact with Vee and her governess Flurry, but had not returned. He had made his fortune by trading with India and China and had been a valuable secret agent for the British government. Two months earlier, Vee’s beloved father had died and now the family is gathered to await the heir’s return. Those present include Vee’s aunt, “Lady” Margery Steeple, her two sons, George and Freddy, and her daughter Mercia. Also present is Max’s mother, Dora, a former actress. A nastier bunch would be hard to imagine.

Max finally arrives, and the group shows their true colors. Lady Margery and her family have been battening on Vee’s father for years; they want the largess to continue, despite the fact that the estate is in bad shape. Dora wants her son to take his place in society so that she can attain the status she has always aspired to but never achieved. Vee wants to be free of the responsibility for the estate so that she can travel and perfect her artistic talent. She also wants to see her dearest Max again.

The plot of Dearest Max has three parts. First, there is the suspicion that Veronica’s father was murdered by one of the family members who had been at Byerly for Christmas. Secondly, there is the search for a treasure that had consumed the father’s last months. Finally, there is the romance between Max and Veronica and the complications arising from the fact that eleven years earlier, Max had signed a contract to marry Henrietta Eustace at his mother’s insistence. Therefore, he is not technically free to marry Veronica.

At thirty, Max -- with a successful career in trade and government service behind him -- comes across as remarkably immature and surprisingly uninteresting. He should have been a great hero, but somehow he isn’t. Veronica, at 23, is a gifted artist (why does it seem that every other Regency heroine I encounter is a gifted artist), but she seems strangely lifeless. The secondary characters seem to change personality as the shifts in the storyline demand rather than having any real consistency.

The storyline itself had problems. I could well understand the romance that quickly developed between Max and Veronica. After all, he had been her childhood hero and she had been his defender and friend. Once Max got over his shock that Veronica had grown into a lovely young woman, that they should fall in love seems eminently plausible. I suppose that their quickly moving to consummate their love is not too farfetched, though Veronica’s enthusiasm to throw off all maidenly modesty does seem contrary to her upbringing.

Less plausible is the nature of the impediment to their marriage. A contract signed eleven years earlier by a young man who had not yet reached his majority and who was under duress could not possibly have been enforceable at law, especially since Max had no real contact with his betrothed in the intervening years. Max’s mother’s motivations in attempting to enforce the betrothal, especially given their centrality to the plot, did not strike me as compelling. In short, the plot did not work well for me.

Finally, I found the dialogue remarkably unconvincing. I don’t expect the characters to talk like the people in Jane Austen’s books, but I like to at least have a feeling that they are British aristocrats. When Max, for example, speaks of “ditching” Henrietta, I could only shake my head.

Dearest Max came across to me as a hurriedly written book, one without much continuity in character, setting or plot. Perhaps I am being unfair to the author, but I do know that I did not enjoy reading this book. So I must issue a warning that Dearest Max did not work for this reader.

--Jean Mason

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