Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Harlow Hoyden by Lynn Messina

Note:  I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
My Experience:  B
Synopsis:  Miss Emma Harlow hasn’t earned the reputation as a hoyden for nothing, so when the Duke of Trent discovers her in his conservatory stealing one of his orchids, he’s isn’t surprised—charmed, delighted and puzzled, yes, but not surprised. It is Emma who is amazed. She has naturally concluded that the man reading in the conservatory must be the country cousin (who else in London would actually read?) and is quite vexed to discover that he is the Duke of Trent himself—imagine, stealing the duke’s prize Rhyncholaelia digbyana under his very nose! 
But her vexation doesn’t last long. For Emma is a practical young lady with a mission: to end her dear sister Lavinia’s engagement to the villainous (and dreadfully dull!) Sir Waldo Windbourne, and she thinks that the famous libertine is just the man for the job. If he would only seduce her sister away from Sir Waldo…. Well, not seduce exactly, but flirt mercilessly and engage her interest. Perhaps then Lavinia would jilt the baron. The Duke of Trent is resistant, of course. Despite his reputation, he does not toy with the affections of innocents. And besides, it’s not her sister he longs to seduce.

"Oh, what good is a libertine if he won't toy with your sister's affections and then ruthlessly drop her!" ... "I'm a bachelor, not a libertine." And so begins the Regency romp of the Harlow Hoyden, Miss Emma Harlow, and her Most Trusted Ally, Alexander, the Duke of Trent. Yes, it's another tale of twins but our author boldly proclaims her usage of the current cliché with a dollop of comfort that made me laugh out loud. "Don't look so horrified, my dear. Lavinia and I are twins. What good is an adventure about twins without a case of mistaken identity?"

Amidst a subplot of Napoleonic intrigue, our hoyden is determined to end the betrothal of her twin sister to the utterly unsuitable fiancé, Sir Windbag, uh, Windbourne. Despite a dance card that is generally empty and few willing to acknowledge her beyond the cautiously distant nod any hoyden deserves, Emma plots a course with two minor complications. Number one, she doesn't actually know any libertines, personally. Number two, convincing one to turn her sister from the Windbag, without breaking her heart or ruining her reputation. For while Emma is quite content to live on the fringe of her family's good name, she knows her sister would not find this at all comfortable.

Oh, and one other tiny detail hadn't occurred to her. Resolved never to marry - what heroine worth the title in our modern tropes of fiction isn't - Emma also never expected to find her own affections engaged. Fortunately, she's full of schemes to handle that difficulty as well.

Alexander, at first persuaded by her pursuit of a list of libertines, then by her sister's enjoyable friendship, eventually agrees with Emma. Lavinia deserves so much better than Windbag. He sets about showing Lavinia her worth and knocks holes in Emma's schemes to remain indifferent by also engaging her admiration for his plotting. When Lavinia figures out what's going on, she doesn't fly off the handle or sink in to despair, she begins her own machinations. With the duke's assistance, she gently stirs the cauldron to disguise her design to unite Emma and Alexander.  Everyone is doing all this for each other's own good, so that makes it all right, or it does in the end, refreshingly without protracted angst.

I confess, like Emma, I wanted Alexander and Lavinia to end up together. They had common interest and an easy going friendship that gave me hope. Unfortunately, they had no spark. So completely was this demonstrated, that I gave up my foolish hopes, just as Emma did. But I think it broke my heart a bit.

Obviously, the secondary characters have substance and our sympathy from the very beginning. Aside from the abrupt injury to the brother and his miraculous recovery, I felt the novel was not only well paced but also well written. The dialog was witty, both internal and external, and there was no chance for dust to land on anything. There are a few phrases that plucked at my ear but nothing that destroyed the energy of the story. Though the novel has a breathless feel, the romance was not rushed.

Most of all, I admired Ms. Messina's not ignoring the facts of propriety, though I do think she stretched them a bit, even for a romp. Emma was tolerated, not embraced by society, and though her family was personally indulgent, they were at times, very embarrassed and acknowledged this. She never became a Mary Sue, winning everyone over, reigning as queen of the drawing room as well as the curricle race. I doubt even the duke of Trent will be able to make some of her exploits acceptable. I'm so very, oh so very glad of that.

A life spent facing the consequences of Emma's actions is just what Alexander deserves. I mean, come on, the man wooed by mothers, courted by fathers and nearly smothered by debutants, still has time for dancers and mistresses and charming widows. He also had time to develop his prowess in the manly sports, not to mention his benevolent attention to his tenants, the poor and his nephew - the hayseed from the country. Yet he was led by his fascination for Emma from one scrape after another and loved every minute, finally realized it was her, not the novelty of it all, that he loved.

Quite how they'll ever settle down I can't imagine. For Emma, that's precisely what she wanted as well, freedom to live fully with a good friend. Learning that friend could also be a lover and a husband is what prevented her from being just another hoyden with a twin and it is what makes this book a keeper.

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