Once in Paris by Diana Palmer
(Mira, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 1-55166-470-4
***
Remember those old Harlequin romances where the beautiful young virgin (usually English, employed in some low-paying, nonprofessional job, and always with a perfect complexion) becomes involved (usually in some sumptuous semi-tropical locale) with a much older, wealthy and powerful man (usually of some exotic foreign descent)? This is an updated hybrid version. The hero and the international setting are not much changed, but now the heroine's a spunky American (with all the good lines) and the plot includes global intrigue and possible ecological catastrophe.

While skipping school to tour the Louvre, eighteen-year-old Brianne Martin spies L. Pierce Hutton, nearly twenty years older, a business acquaintance of her stepfather. Pierce's wife has died three months earlier, and he is still grieving deeply. The irrepressible Brianne strikes up a conversation with him.

On her nineteenth birthday, Brianne goes to a Parisian bistro where she again encounters Pierce and takes him back to his hotel when he's too drunk to manage himself. Brianne undresses him (a great opportunity to check out his assets) and puts him to bed. As she leaves, she tells him she's waiting for him to recover from his grief.

Brianne spends the summer in Nassau where her mother and stepfather live. Pierce lives nearby. When her stepfather throws her into the company of Philippe Sabon, representative of an Arab country with untapped oil supplies who frightens Brianne (he has a scandalous reputation involving a perverted desire for virgins), she increasingly seeks out Pierce. They spend time as friends becoming better acquainted.

When her stepfather makes it clear that he is going to force Brianne into marriage with Philippe in order to solidify his economic position, Brianne asks Pierce to take her virginity so that Philippe will no longer be interested in her.

In spite of his reservations about her youth, Pierce complies but also insists they marry so that she will be completely unavailable. Pierce still feels married to his late wife, but he is irresistibly attracted to Brianne, to her beauty and her vivacity. Whenever he makes love with Brianne, he feels as though he is being unfaithful to his first wife. It is his intention that Brianne get a divorce as soon as she is safe from Philippe.

But everything changes when the conspiracy between Philippe and Brianne's stepfather spirals out of control and Pierce and Brianne find themselves at the center of a potential American and global disaster.

In spite of the preposterous plot, there's a lot to enjoy in this book, and practically all the credit goes to Brianne.

I remember getting extremely irritated at those old Harlequin heroines. They demonstrated no spirit or backbone whatsoever; their sole attraction seemed to be their innocence and purity. Gag. At least the bitchy "other woman" had some personality.

As for the hero: why would he ever want to spend a lifetime with this spineless wimp? How long after the wedding night is his worship of her innocence and purity going to last? He'd be better off tying the knot with his "pillow friend" and trying to reform her character. At least he wouldn't die of boredom in a short time.

Pierce, who in spite of his name is half-Greek and half-French (the name discrepancy is explained), is generally a hero in the old tradition. He's extremely wealthy, nearly two decades older than the heroine, and turns up in a lot of exotic settings. He does, however, differ in two marked respects from those earlier heroes: he doesn't have a bitchy mistress in the wings, and he actually talks things over with the heroine. Definitely an improvement on the old aloof, promiscuous autocrat. The back cover blurb describes him as "mesmerizing." That's a stretch, but he's a nice, decent hero and real catch if you like rich, good-looking, industrial magnate-type heroes. (And who doesn't?)

But the real improvement from the good old days is the character Brianne.

She's intelligent, loyal, level-headed, and has a great sense of humor. It's easy to understand why she wins Pierce's admiration; she's no idolizing doormat this is a woman (barely) with a personality. She may seem too mature and rational for her stated age of nineteen, but circumstances have forced her to depend on herself so it's possible her behavior isn't beyond belief.

It's hard to understand why it takes the otherwise intelligent Pierce so long to psychologically bury his first wife (he does seem obsessively faithful) and appreciate his good luck in getting Brianne, but without that conflict there'd be no story.

Incidentally, Philippe is more than a caricature villain. It's through her interaction with him that the reader gains additional insight into Brianne.

As for the international conflict aspect of the plot, I don't recommend spending too much time trying to figure out the details. I have my doubts that it makes much sense. But who cares? It's primarily a device to give Pierce a new appreciation of Brianne's resourcefulness, and she's a character worth appreciating.

For a reader who's looking for an entertaining book that doesn't require much emotional investment, Once in Paris could be a good choice. It's also an opportunity for readers to discover how romances have developed in the past couple of decades. Farewell to those old-style heroes and heroines. With heroines like Brianne, the good old days are now.

--Lesley Dunlap


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