The Lady’s Proposal by Patricia Waddell
(Zebra, $5.99, PG -13) ISBN 0-8217-6993-6
Throughout time, people of completely different social and political philosophies have miraculously found common ground on which to fall in love. But is their love compelling, convincing, or likely to last when the common ground is little more than mutual physical attraction? Patricia Waddell’s new book, The Lady’s Proposal, unwittingly lets you be the judge.

A social reformer with little use for the trivialities of the ton, the Lady Clarissa Pomeroy has used her sizable fortune to secretly establish and maintain a home for unwed mothers. So when her project, Haven House, is imperiled by a stipulation in her grandfather’s will that decrees she must marry quickly or lose all access to funds, desperation moves her to propose to the man she has long loved from afar: Simon Sinclair, the ultra-conservative Earl of Sheridan.

Simon is the last man on earth to neglect his duties, and acknowledges that marriage and an heir rank chiefly among them. Too, Clarissa is attractive, intelligent, and well born: in short, she suits him perfectly, save her obvious tendency to strain the bounds of propriety. Still, he is convinced of his ability to tame her, and so accepts her proposal as well as her equally unusual condition - that is, one-fourth of her grandfather’s estate and a generous allowance to do with as she pleases, no questions asked.

Crisis averted, Clarissa resigns herself to marriage with Simon, who she fears will steal her heart completely without ever forfeiting his own. As she does her best to resist utter and total submission in matters of the heart, Simon commences a campaign not only to win her bodily passion, but also her submissive obedience. The latter, Clarissa is unable to give him, and even as the immense attraction between them spirals upward, so too does the tension bound to result from a match of two utterly different natures and belief systems, threatening the implosion of a love too new to be called by name…

Clarissa, a bright, practical, satisfyingly strong-willed heroine, spends the first twenty-seven pages nervously meditating on how little she knows of Simon Sinclair. Then, once she has proposed, we are suddenly told that despite this, she is in love with him. A disconcerting revelation that makes the previous pages seem unfair and deceptive, it creates a single question in the reader’s mind: Why do you love him if you know nothing about him?

The lack of an answer is this book’s greatest flaw. Clarissa finds Simon extremely attractive, but they disagree on every issue except whether to have sex, and where. Clarissa and her funds have apparently single-handedly kept aloft the political party that Simon seeks to crush. Whereas she risks her good name to help advance the lot of unfortunate women, Simon scoffs at women’s rights and considers it his husbandly prerogative to spank Clarissa if she misbehaves. Moreover, his jealous suspicion of his close friends’ utterly benign attentions to Clarissa (including a simple compliment by Simon’s best man on the bride’s beauty as she approaches the altar!) also reek not of true affection but of a disturbing insecurity. Combined with a rigid, uncompromising social conservatism, a belief in corporal punishment, and a determination to make Clarissa “submissive and obedient,” Simon seems more suited to the role of domestic abuser than that of Lady Progressive’s dreamboat.

If their love seems unlikely, it is not aided by prose riddled with clichés and made jarring by its tendency to include details where they are least needed. One example of many:

Although she had responded to Simon, and he to her, with an uninhibited passion that had frequently caused the posters of the double bed to shake, there was no reason to assume that his feelings toward her had changed.

Bucking-bronco-bed posters aside, Clarissa is still a winning girl, and her character carries the story not too painfully to its conclusion. How long her marriage will survive after that is not a concern for either the author or the reader, though perhaps the fact one wonders about it at all is a positive mark for A Lady’s Proposal, if not simply for the powers of human imagination.

--Meredith McGuire

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