Do you have a favorite author whose imagination seems perfectly in tune with yours? Someone whose books always take you gently by the hand and lead you to places you are delighted to go? Well, I do: Joan Wolf. Her writing is some of the most intelligent prose in the genre. Her style is so smooth and authoritative that I remember blissfully finishing two of her pre-histories before I realized that I had been completely captivated by hunter-gatherer characters who expressed themselves with the psychological insight and cognitive complexity of university graduates! That’s the kind of writer she is: she can make even the improbable seem inevitable.
Golden Girl is her sixth Regency historical for Warner Books and I inhaled it in one greedy gulp. The characters are vintage Wolf: a fine man struggling to meet crushing responsibilities, and an intelligent, sensitive woman trying to balance loyalty to others with loyalty to herself in a social situation that affords her little freedom to maneuver. These two people approach each other with typical Wolfian good sense and integrity: misunderstandings and hurt feelings are dealt with through discussion and disclosure, and once they form a bond, no apparent treachery can shake their faith in each other. In addition to the difficulties in a relationship born out of financial necessity, they must contend with mysterious accidents, which threaten the heroine’s life and implicate the hero.
Was this a good book? You bet. Unfortunately, it was not as good as any of the three previous books which have similar characters and plot elements.
In Golden Girl, Sarah Patterson, granddaughter of a fabulously wealthy merchant, is pursued by Anthony Selbourne, Duke of Cheviot, as a means of rescuing his family from utter ruin. Although this course of action is repugnant to him, Anthony has no choice since he has a stepmother, two half-brothers and an enormous heritage dependent upon him. Anthony is intelligent, fastidious, and heartbreakingly handsome. Rather than watch his father squander the family fortune, he has spent his young adulthood with the Duke of Wellington as both a soldier and a diplomat.
Sarah is reserved, somewhat plain and an extremely talented artist. She expects to be snubbed by the aristocracy and is charmed by, but wary of, the Duke’s attentions. When her grandfather reveals the truth about the courtship he has agreed to on her behalf, she is deeply offended; only the most adroit diplomacy by Cheviot -- and a promise of support for her art -- convinces her to go along with the scheme.
Sarah and Anthony are made for each other, however, and are busy finding this out in their own sensible way when they are obliged to visit Anthony’s ancestral home, Castle Cheviot, and encounter his less than loving family. Here the plot thickens to include an attempt on Sarah’s life that his stepmother is only too willing to blame on Anthony, and the arrival of Neville Harvey, a rejected suitor of Sarah’s.
It would be impossible not to like these characters with their sensitivity, open-mindedness, and calm clarity of thought. Both Sarah and Anthony are a pleasure to observe as they negotiate their way through the bigoted, heavy-handed maneuverings of the lesser mortals who surround them. Both are unfailingly gracious, self-deprecating, yet determined and effective as they chart a course for themselves and their unexpectedly rewarding relationship. Wolf does a wonderful job conveying the characters’ bemused gratitude for finding such emotionally attuned and physically fulfilling companionship in a marriage of convenience, thus acknowledging the reader’s inevitable reaction: how lucky can two people get?
Really, the only disappointment for a long-time fan is that too much of the author’s wonderful prose is sacrificed by condensing story elements from three other books into this one. Readers familiar with her work will recognize The American Duchess, A Double Deception, and The Arrangement as antecedents of this work, and will probably notice that many ideas or descriptive elements, fully developed in those stories, receive only a brief mention here. Too much of this story is told as dialogue, with skimpy descriptions of setting and background. Rather than paragraphs of interior monologue, emotion tags are used to introduce or follow up statements in conversation, and there are way too many of the increasingly ubiquitous one or two sentence paragraphs.
The particular beauty of a Joan Wolf book has always been the rich emotional and cognitive lives of her characters, often reflecting larger social and political issues, set against a historical background brought to life with an abundance of carefully conveyed, accurate detail. To a reader familiar with her work, the unique Joan Wolf flavor is very much in evidence in this book, but the lack of depth in description and narrative makes it, regrettably, Joan Wolf Lite.