Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Mischief of the Mistletoe (Lauren Willig)

'In all the annals of romance, it was never the court jester who got the girl. It was always the knight in shining armor, dashing to the rescue in shining breastplate on a snowy white steed,' muses the hero in Lauren Willig's The Mischief of the Mistletoe. He has reason to -- he is more jester than knight, and it will definitely take more than his clashing clothes and social ineptitude to win the girl.

I've always enjoyed the Lauren Willig books for their mix of contemporary romance, historical romance and espionage. I guess after seven books, I've grown used to this mix. A friend pointed out that one of Ms Willig's plots was derivative of a Georgette Heyer title but that hasn't kept me from following her work. Fans of Ms Willig will note the absence of Eloise and Colin in this title but I didn't mind at all since there is still plenty to rave about here.

The Mischief of the Mistletoe is the fifth book in the Pink Carnation series, at least chronologically speaking (it was written after Books 6 and 7). It features Turnip Fitzhugh, a character who turns up in The Masque of the Black Tulip and is finally given a novel of his own. It is the holidays, and Turnip is visiting his sister at Miss Climpson's Select Seminary for Young Ladies, where he literally runs into Arabella Dempsey, the new instructress. In the rush of activity around the school, they come into possession of a Christmas pudding with a mysterious note. Their curiosity gets them embroiled not only in each others' lives, but also in a plot to save the nation's secrets from getting into the wrong hands.

In this book, Jane Austen waltzes in as Arabella's best friend. In fact, it is intimated here that Ms Austen's unfinished work The Watsons is inspired by Arabella's situation. She was expected to be adopted by a rich aunt, but when Aunt Osborne decides to marry someone half her age, Arabella is sent back home to the country. To augment her family's income, she takes a teaching job at Miss Climpson's, not knowing how this is about to change her life. I really enjoyed this device.

But what makes this a winner in my book is Turnip himself, certainly a different kind of romantic lead. He is far from the dark and brooding type, he dresses outlandishly, and he unintentionally creates humorous situations for himself. One of my favorite romance titles, Jude Deveraux's The Raider, features a similarly foppish character, but in that book, the colorful dandy is merely a front for the timeworn dark and brooding stereotype. But Turnip Fitzhugh is really cut from a different cloth. What you see is what you get: a genuinely endearing and guileless romantic lead. His manner of speaking is markedly different from other heroes in the Pink Carnation series. He is also a very learned man, but Ms Willig allows the readers to discover this for themselves, rather than have another character point out how clever he can be. I like that everyone else (except Arabella, of course) tends to dismiss him as a buffoon.

It's lovely to see a hero who can genuinely make a woman laugh and swoon. There were so many times that I smiled throughout the text. Not only did Turnip and Arabella get themselves into a lot of amusing situations, and bumbling through their encounters with French spies and their own feelings. Reading this was a heart-melting experience, not at all far from what I'd feel after seeing a cute dog. Very refreshing.

Arabella's wards at Miss Climpson's are also a delightful addition to the Pink Carnation family (and I do mean family -- a trio of friends here are the younger relatives of old Willig leads). I hope I'll see more from them in latter books, but since there are only two left, this wish might be a longshot.

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