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To Catch an Heiress

 
How to Marry a Marquis
by Julia Quinn
(Avon, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-380-80081-0
****
The best thing I can say about Julia Quinn's How to Marry a Marquis is that roughly eighty percent of it is delightful. Taken as a whole, this is a very fun, occasionally funny book with an extremely likeable pair of lovers. The writing is natural and effective, and the secondary characters have well-developed personalities that add a lot to the story.

So what about that other twenty percent? I'm taking off lots of points for a dire lack of conflict in the book that forces the reader to wade through pages of silly and annoying behavior on the part of the main characters. It's a pretty big sour patch in an otherwise charming story, but it wasn't quite enough to convince me not to recommend the book.

Miss Elizabeth Hotchkiss needs a husband. Since the death of her parents five years ago, she's been caring for her three younger siblings, acting as mother, sister, teacher, and breadwinner for the family. But her job as a lady's companion one of the few acceptable occupations for a woman of the English gentry barely brings in enough money to feed the family, leaving nothing for expensive necessities like sending her brother a baronet to Eton. The only solution is for Elizabeth to marry for money. Unfortunately, there aren't many marriage prospects in her corner of Surrey, and she obviously lacks the funds for a London season.

Along comes help, of a sort, in the form of a marriage manual entitled "How to Marry a Marquis." This is sort of a Regency version of "The Rules" which Elizabeth unexpectedly finds in the library of her employer, Lady Danbury. The book contains a number of "edicts" instructing a lady on ways to catch a rich husband vague and useful things like "be unique, but not too unique." Elizabeth finds the book silly and confusing, but since she can use all the help she can get, she decides to give the book's advice a try.

And who better to practice on than Lady Danbury's new estate manager, James Siddons? He's a handsome gentleman who seems agreeable enough, although he's not marriage material for Elizabeth since he's fallen on hard times and certainly doesn't have the money to solve her financial problems. With comically disastrous results, Elizabeth tries out her edicts on James.

The ironic part is that James Siddons is actually James Sidwell, the Marquis of Riverdale. He's also Lady Danbury's nephew and a former undercover agent for the War Office. Lady Danbury has asked him to pose as her estate manager while he seeks to discover the identity of a person who is blackmailing her.

Most of the book focuses squarely on James and Elizabeth and their developing relationship, and this is the delightful part of the story. They're both warm, intelligent, witty people who like each other almost immediately. As their relationship deepens, they're drawn to each other on every level, but Elizabeth knows she can't marry James because he doesn't have enough money, and James can't reveal his true identity to Elizabeth until he uncovers the blackmailer.

As the amusingly plainspoken Lady Danbury would say, "Hmmph." This is temporary conflict. Clearly, once James is at liberty to reveal his identity, there's no more problem. Unfortunately, there is more book. I won't give away too much of the plot, such as it is, but suffice it to say that at some point, Elizabeth is going to have to learn the truth about James' identity, and that is the point at which the book takes a sidestep into the Land of Irrational and Poorly-Motivated Behavior.

But by the end of the book, I'd decided to forgive both the characters and the author. There's just so much to like about How to Marry a Marquis that for me, its flaws weren't enough to steal away the pleasure of reading it. So this is a cautious recommendation, but a recommendation nonetheless.

-- Ellen Hestand


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