A Hint of Mischief by Katie Rose
(Bantam, $5.50, PG) ISBN 0-553-57771-9
***
I liked this book and I don't know why. I shake my head in confusion over it. Maybe I'm just in a really good mood because the weather on the East Coast has been a ridiculously unseasonable 80 degrees. Or maybe because in the midst of some very silly plot turns, way too many implausible situations, and more than a few historical inaccuracies I found a couple of characters who appealed to me. Don't get me wrong, they're silly. But they're silly in the nicest possible way.

It's 1872 and Jennifer Appleton and her two sisters are living on the fringes of New York society, eking out a living by holding seances. Victorian society is currently enthralled by all things paranormal, and since Jennifer has certain "gifts" she naturally uses them to provide for her sisters and their elderly aunt. Operating out of a crumbling manse complete with cobwebs on Manhattan's Upper East Side (a distinction I'm not sure was being used in the 1870s), Jennifer's "ghosts" drop a little friendly advice and then move on. The seances are harmless and provide great comfort to ladies looking for some sort of closure in their lives. But the arrogant son of one such customer takes a dim view of his mother's beliefs.

When Gabriel Forester descends on the Appleton sisters he is determined to put an end to their "otherworldly" career. Jennifer's plan, (and a thin one it is) is to distract him by making him fall in love with her. Which of course he does…big surprise. He's attracted to Jennifer's quirky outlook on life, her strength and her natural enthusiasm. This despite the fact that she breaks into his house, steals his appointment book, follows him all over town, kidnaps him, and almost shoots him. Like I said, silly people.

The fact that Jennifer and her sisters tended to act without thinking would normally drive me crazy. They're supposed to be such intelligent women, yet they resort to ridiculous antics in order to secure their position in society – a society populated by Vanderbilts and Morgans and which, if Edith Wharton was correct, would never have admitted the likes of the Appletons in the first place.

When the sisters are arrested and charged with fraud, society briefly rally's 'round the notorious Appletons. But when the charges are dropped, they are too – and the girls are dismayed to discover that they are all persona non grata in the drawing rooms of Fifth Avenue. For social climbers, they seem to know very little about how New York society operates. I can't quite decide who is to blame for that – the characters or the author.

Historically speaking, A Hint of Mischief is mixed bag. Some of the details, including the Victorian-era fascination with the occult, seem well researched. Yet there are inaccuracies as well. For instance, when Jennifer and her sisters are taken to jail, the scene includes dozens of photographers taking pictures. Jennifer's photo appears in the newspaper the next day. In 1872? I think not. I'm not an expert on photographic history but I do know that the duotone process necessary for the press printing of photographs wasn't even invented until sometime after 1890. If memory serves, woodcuts and illustrations were used in those days.

The largest inconsistency, however, is Jennifer's inappropriate behavior for a woman of the time. We are talking the height of Victorian sensibilities here and Jennifer thinks nothing of bedding down with Gabriel and then refusing to marry him afterward. Again, she doesn't think, she just acts. It is a trait that is both beguiling and annoying, to both Gabriel and the reader.

There were the story lines that began and went nowhere, there was a ridiculous wrap-up straight out of a Disney Channel movie, and there was some dialogue that would have been completely out of place in the 1870s. At one point someone enthusiastically exclaims, "That's great!" and I couldn't get the image of Tony the Tiger out of my head (yes I know he said, "They're great," but the image stuck nonetheless.) Still other lines cried out for editing – "Gabriel Forester was handsome, but more than that, he did something to her." No further explanation or more in-depth examination. Just "he did something to her." How vivid.

My favorite line occurs early in the proceedings where the author manages to condense a chapter's worth of background story into one sentence. Speaking to her sisters, Jennifer says, "Thank God for us all that I read that newspaper account of how popular spiritualism has become. Otherwise, I don't know how we would have kept body and soul intact after our parents died, we were so poor." I just had to laugh!

So, after reading all of this outward criticism you may very well be asking yourself why in heaven's name I'm not completely trashing this book. Like I said at the top of the page – I don't know why. It has something to do with author Katie Rose's soft and easygoing style of writing. There is a natural sweetness to the proceedings that is hard to ignore. Rose's characters might be silly, but they're not brainless idiots – they're just sort of misguided. There is a lighthearted charm to Rose's writings, and she instills these same qualities in her characters who, despite all their faults, somehow manage to make you smile.

--Ann McGuire


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