Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Mischief of the Mistletoe by Lauren Willig

La! What fun I've had reading this weekend! Or should I say, "fa la la la la," since the book I've just finished reading is Christmas-themed?

Long-time readers know that I am a huge fan of the Pink Carnation books, commencing with The Secret History of the Pink Carnation and progressing through The Betrayal of the Blood Lily. The books, for those not yet familiar with them, are a combination of modern-day romance involving Eloise Kelly and Colin Selwick (moving slowly across the course of the series) and a string of Regency romances involving a variety of French and English spies, many of whom have floral names (from the Purple Gentian to the Pink Carnation to the Black Tulip to the Moonflower). They are light-hearted yet still compelling, tend to include a large number of allusions to Shakespeare, Elizabethan poetry and other literature popular during the Regency era, and tend to be well-researched and well-written.

The Mischief of the Mistletoe is set entirely in Regency times, with no mention whatsoever of Eloise and/or Colin, in part because Willig has set it in a time period she's already covered - sometime between the end of The Seduction of the Crimson Rose, and immediately prior to (and slightly overlapping in a Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead kind of way) with the very beginning of The Temptation of the Night Jasmine, meaning that we get a peek at the start of Charlotte's story from the perspective of our main characters in this book: a rather beleaguered Arabella Dempsey (based in premise on the character of Emma Watson from Jane Austen's unfinished novel, The Watsons) and Reginald "Turnip" Fitzhugh, first introduced in the second book of the series, The Masque of the Black Tulip as a good-natured, good-looking, extremely wealthy man - ordinarily immediate romance hero material, except for his being perceived as bumbling, with poor taste in clothing and a complete lack of mental faculties.

Where Lord Vaughn, the intriguing man who winds up being the reluctant hero of The Seduction of the Crimson Rose, is so oblique as to be completely opaque, Turnip Fitzhugh is almost completely transparent. But it turns out that when one spends time and gets to know him, he is not, in fact, the dimmest bulb in the string of heroic lights after all. Where some of the male characters in the series - Vaughn, Miles Dorrington, Richard Selwick and Robert Lansdowne, for example - are able to mask their emotions, at least on occasion, Reggie Fitzhugh simply cannot. He is cheerful and earnest and completely sweet, unless, of course, he is coming to Arabella's defense, in which case he can be quite intimidating. *swoon*

Arabella is the eldest daughter of a widowed vicar, now unable to maintain his parish duties as a result of terrible health. She had been taken under the wing of a wealthy aunt for nearly a decade. It had been expected that her elderly aunt would adopt her and she'd be an heiress; instead, her aunt married a fortune-hunter half her age (and a man who had led Arabella to form a bit of a tendre for him). The book opens with Arabella telling her good friend, Miss Jane Austen, about her plans to work at a local boarding school for young ladies - something Arabella prefers to returning to live with her aunt and her new "uncle", or to living in the cramped quarters with her father and three younger sisters. Jane Austen decides to write about Arabella's story, renaming Arabella "Emma Watson". (Janeites will be delighted with the happy fictional reason provided for Austen's abandonment of The Watsons, which is so preferable to the raft of decidedly dour propositions that are generally put forth.)

Turnip and Arabella meet because his younger sister, Sally, is a student at the school where Arabella is to teach - as are the younger sisters of Alex and Jack Reid (from Blood Lily) and Jane Wooliston (from Pink Carnation) - in a story line that involves several Christmas puddings, a notebook, a trellis, a Christmas pageant, and a party at a country house. It is entirely charming and engaging, and also very PG-rated (not always the case with Willig's books). I find it charming, witty, clever and, occasionally, hilarious. And so, I suspect, will you.

Also? Further good news for Pink Carnation fans: We get to see the heroes and heroines of books one through five in this one, but we do not get to see Jane Wooliston (or either of the Reid brothers).

Also-also: The Orchid Affair hits shelves in January of 2011, and one of several author's notes at the back of Mistletoe implies that romances will be coming for all three of the younger sisters mentioned in this one. Squee!

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