A Hint of Mischief

 
Courting Trouble by Katie Rose
(Bantam, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-553-58139-2
***
Courting Trouble has a setting, which -- now that I think about it -- is remarkably uncommon in the romance genre. How come medical settings abound, but this is the first romance I have read that takes place in a courtroom? In Courting Trouble, Katie Rose has used the structure and drama of the trial as a framework for a romance between attorneys.

The year is 1874, and only a handful of women in the United States have applied for admittance to the bar. None have graduated from a law school. Twenty-year-old Winifred Appleton has met with nothing but rejection in her attempts to gain acceptance to Harvard, Princeton and Yale, as well as lesser known Eastern law schools. Fortunately for Winnie, her good friend, Charles Howe, comes to her rescue after her latest rejection.

Charles Howe heads the New York state attorney's office and he offers Winnie an apprenticeship. In fact, in the 1870's such apprenticeships were still the most common way would-be lawyers prepared for the bar exam. When Charles offers Winnie the opportunity to work in his office gratis in exchange for training, she accepts gratefully.

Charles' motives are not altruistic, however. He believes that once Winnie experiences the reality of working in a law office -- "endless paperwork, terrible hours, and tedious research" -- she will quit in discouragement. In the meantime, he will have a golden opportunity to court her and to win her on the rebound from her dream of becoming a lawyer.

In fact, Winnie is very attracted to the handsome and intelligent Charles. As a woman working in a profession, I tend to judge even historical characters through the prism of what I consider professional behavior. Viewed that way, Winifred's behavior is most unprofessional, and yet…she is only 20, she has no role models, and no one to advise her on how to act in an office setting. Is it unrealistic when Winnie allows Charles to kiss her passionately when she works late one night? Perhaps not. I do wonder, however, whether her responsiveness is believable, given that she is an innocent 20-year-old, caught alone with a man in a deserted office. In fact, I found Winnie's whole sexual initiation less than convincing.

Winnie and Charles end up on the opposite sides of a case when Winnie leaves Charles' office to work with another attorney who is defending a woman accused of poisoning her husband. I very much liked Rose's portrayal of the defendant. The evidence against Monica Black is over-whelming, her strongest defense being that her husband drove her to try to kill him. "Poor Mrs. Black," as the papers term her, is shown to be a flighty, not very intelligent woman…hardly the ideal poster girl for a domestic-abuse defense. Even so, Winifred manages to convince the reader that, given the state of the law in the 1870's, Mrs. Black's actions were understandable, if not laudable.

Overall, reading Courting Trouble resembled a roller coaster ride. I liked parts of it very well indeed; other parts jarred. I found the way Charles gradually came to understand Winifred's reasons for wanting to become a lawyer convincing. At the same time, one scene in particular -- the first time the two appear in court on opposing sides -- seemed, paradoxically, to make the point that men and women can not work together without their hormones overwhelming them. The court case, and the outside events influencing its course, held my interest, but the way the case was brought to a hasty conclusion detracted from its credibility.

Katie Rose's writing style is grammatical but unpolished, and she has a tendency to misuse words: such as having Mr. Black's doctor speak of his "viral complaint" 25 years before viruses were identified. Like her plot, Rose's writing style had me on a literary see-saw, unbothered one moment, distracted from the action the next.

Overall, weighing Courting Trouble on the scales of Justice, I rated it three hearts, a book whose defects balance out against its virtues and result in a pleasant but unmemorable reading experience.

--Nancy J. Silberstein


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