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To Catch an Heiress by Julia Quinn
(Avon, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN: 0-380-78935-3
***
I truly believe that writing humorous romantic fiction is the most difficult of all undertakings. The challenge is enormous: to create funny situations and dialogue while at the same time creating characters whom the readers can like and admire. There is such a fine line between a funny figure and a figure of fun.

I am afraid that in her latest Regency historical, Julia Quinn offers us not a funny heroine but rather a heroine who verges on becoming a figure of fun. Indeed, Caroline Trent, the heiress of the book's title, rather than coming off as winsome and charming (which was undoubtedly the author's intention), seems to this reader to be very nearly TSTL or "too stupid to live."

. Moreover, given the background created for her by the author, her attitude and behavior do not necessarily make sense. Let me explain.

Since the age of ten or eleven, Caroline has lived with one unpleasant guardian after another. She has been left to servants and governesses, treated as an unpaid drudge, and finally, as her 21st birthday approaches, is nearly raped by the nasty son of her most recent caretaker. (The idea is that rape will force her to consent to marrying said "suitor," thus keeping the money in the family.) The book begins rather promisingly as Caroline shoots the loathsome Percy. I do like a heroine who takes matters into her own hand

. Since Percy has no more desire to marry Caroline than she him, he conspires to help her flee the Prewitt household in the dead of night. As Caroline makes her way to Portsmouth, she is accosted by an armed rider who accuses her of being the notorious spy, Carlotta De Leon. (It turns out that the nasty guardian is not merely a scheming guardian but also a smuggler and a traitor.)

The mysterious rider is Blake Ravenscroft, an agent for the war department, who is seeking to bring Oliver and his associates to justice. Seeing a female skulking away from the Prewitt residence in the dark of night leads him to the not completely wrong headed conclusion that this woman is the infamous spy. He takes her to his nearby estate, determined to force her to reveal the details of her nefarious plans.

Caroline decides that this mistaken identity can work to her advantage. She will now have a place to hide for the six weeks until she reaches her majority. Knowing that she has nothing to tell her handsome captor, she coughs herself voiceless. There follow some scenes meant to amuse the reader.

When Caroline's real identity is uncovered by Blake's friend and confederate, the Marquess of Riverdale, the two men conclude that they should provide Caroline refuge. Caroline decides to make herself useful by rearranging Blake's garden, "organizing" his library, and generally making a nuisance of herself. Again, I gather we are meant to be amused.

Blake is torn by conflicting feelings. He is attracted to Caroline but feels he shouldn't be. It seems that he feels responsible for the death of his betrothed and fellow agent some years earlier and has vowed never to marry. But there is something about Caroline.

I guess the problem for me is that I can't figure out what there is about Caroline. As a character, she doesn't make sense. There was nothing in her unhappy upbringing to explain the kind of person she is. In fact, there is all too little character development.

Blake is a prototypical "tortured" hero, who for reasons good or bad, has eschewed marriage and love, only to be forced to reevaluate his position by the irresistible attractions of the heroine. His angst is not completely convincing.

The plot which involves the attempt to prove that Caroline's guardian is a traitor and includes housebreaking, kidnapping, and murder does not seem to jibe with the original tone of the novel. Indeed, the melodramatic conclusion seems somehow out of place. It is almost as if there are two separate books within one cover.

I have enjoyed several of Julia Quinn's earlier novels. I have overlooked the anachronistic attitudes and behavior of her characters because I found them engaging and amusing. For some reason, these characters and this story did not work for me. Perhaps other fans of romantic comedy will find To Catch an Heiress genuinely humorous. But I find that I can rate this no more than an acceptable novel.

--Jean Mason


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