The Arrangement by Joan Wolf
(Warner Books, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-446-60479-8
*****
In the interest of creating conflict between the characters, authors sometime forget to make them likable. It's a lot easier to establish conflict if the hero's a bastard and the heroine's a bitch, but frankly in that case it really makes little difference to me if they achieve the happily ever after. If I don't care about the hero and heroine, I don't care about their romance.

Joan Wolf never forgets. Even if her characters are less than perfect, have personality flaws, or even sometimes are a little foolish, they're nice people that I come to care about. In Gail Saunders and Raoul Melville, Wolf has created two of her best.

Set in 1818 England, the story begins when Raoul, Earl of Savile, arrives at Gail's home during a snowstorm. Gail, who is widowed, lives on the brink of abject poverty with her eight year old son Nicky, supporting the household by running a riding school. Raoul informs her that he has been made executor of his cousin George's will and that the will includes a bequest for Nicky. Snowbound for several days, Raoul becomes acquainted with the members of the household and their modest, hard-working lifestyle.

Gail accompanies him back to his estate for the reading of the will where she meets other members of the family including George's widow, his wealthy father-in-law, and the purported heir to George's title. They are enraged when they learn about Nicky's inheritance, but to everyone's astonishment Gail refuses to accept it. She resents the inference that everyone has drawn that she had borne George an illegitimate child, but is primarily fearful that someone might inquire more deeply into the matter.

Although she wants to return to her own home and previous life, when Gail loses the lease on her property, she and Nicky temporarily join the various family members at Raoul's estate. Gradually Gail and Raoul become attracted to each other. Acknowledging the disparity in their social positions, Gail becomes his mistress even though she knows that their arrangement can only be temporary. A rash of accidents endangers their lives, and Gail is frightened for her son's safety. But are they really accidents?

Written in the first person as are many of Wolf's novels, all the characters are seen though Gail's perspective. This point of view may limit the insight into other characters' attitudes and actions, but it provides a deeper understanding of Gail's background and motivation. And Gail is a character worth knowing. She's courageous, unapologetic, and warm-hearted, but she's not above delivering a scathing remark when she's provoked. It's easy to believe that Raoul could both desire and respect such a woman.

It's just as easy to believe that Gail could desire and respect Raoul, too. He's no cool, haughty aristocrat who's indifferent to the suffering of others. He's courteous, responsible, and adaptable. When he learns that Gail's in the process of painting a spare room, he picks up a paintbrush and pitches in.

The secondary characters are equally well-drawn with distinct personalities and motivations. It's not easy for a writer to juggle so many characters in so many scenes and keep them separate and distinctive. Wolf does it seamlessly.

The mystery in the plot is more complex than many in similar books. It's introduced early and develops gradually as the story progresses. Usually I've worked out the secret well in advance of the final revelation, but this one had a twist I don't mind admitting I didn't figure out. Because I'd come to know the characters, I didn't have any problem believing they'd act as they did.

The Romance Reader reviewers don't award five heart ratings lightly. A five heart book has to have it all: plot, characters, technique, romance. I've enjoyed Joan Wolf's writing for years, and The Arrangement is a model of the quality she's capable of. This is a well-developed, entertaining, occasionally humorous book. The only thing I'd change is the length: I was not ready to bid farewell to Gail and Raoul at the end. Heroes and heroines like them are what give romance a good name.

--Lesley Dunlap


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