Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Review: Miss Wonderful by Loretta Chase

Miss Wonderful (Carsington Brothers #1)
By: Loretta Chase
Publisher: Berkley
ASIN: B000PC71M8


Alistair Carsington, third son of the Earl of Hargate, may be revered as a hero of the Battle of Waterloo, but currently he's the bane of his father's existence. The earl has tolerated the last of one of Alistair's famed Episodes of Stupidity, and so issues an ultimatum: find an occupation that can support his reputation as one of the most fashionable members of the ton, or failing that, marry an heiress. If Alistair cannot secure an income via work or marriage, the earl will sell holdings that would otherwise provide for Alistair's two younger brothers -- and seeing his siblings penalized for his notorious behavior is the one thing Alistair absolutely will not allow. Partnering with his best friend, Lord Gordmor -- and the man responsible for saving Alistair's life and badly wounded leg on the blood-soaked fields of Waterloo -- Alistair and sinks his remaining funds into Gordy's scheme to build a canal through Derbyshire that would transport coal from his mines, thus making Gordy's estate (finally) profitable. 

Determined to prove his worth to the business venture, Alistair travels to the wilds of Derbyshire to meet with local landowners in order to alleviate any concerns they may have about the proposed development. He resolves to begin with the Mr. Oldridge, the largest landowner in the area and as such, arguably the most influential -- if Alistair can win Oldridge Hall to his cause, surely the rest will meekly follow, and his -- and his brothers' -- future will be secured. But Alistair didn't count on Mr. Oldridge being more interested in botany than building projects, and is left to deal with the man's daughter Mirabel -- a titian-haired beauty whose smile turns his knees to jelly, even while her appalling lack of fashion sense drives him to despair. Alistair came to Derbyshire to escape the threat of romantic entanglements -- but when his biggest opposition turns out to be the one woman he doesn't want to live without, his first foray into the world of business promises to yield a richer dividend then he'd ever dreamed...if only Mirabel wasn't so distracting...

At thirty-one, Mirabel Oldridge has resigned herself to the life of a spinster. Following her mother's death, her father retreated into his love of botany and proclivity for scientific study, allowing her beloved home to fall into disrepair. But Mirabel was determined to save the home she loved, and threw herself into the very unfeminine work of running the estate, cloaking her form in hideously unfashionable clothes so as not to distract the men she must deal with, and so be taken seriously as a competent businesswoman. Her life may be lonely, but she doesn't regret her choice, until the devilishly handsome Alistair Carsington arrives with his plans for a canal -- a canal! -- that would wreck the quiet country life that has so long been her solace. But Alistair, despite his reputation as one of the foremost dandies of the ton, proves surprisingly tenacious -- and irresistible -- reminding Mirabel of a part of her life she'd thought long buried, the part that once hoped for a happily ever after all her own. But with Alistair as determined to see the canal succeed as she is equally determined to stop it, any hope of a future is surely out of the question...right? However, Mirabel never reckoned on the delicious chaos the unstoppable force that is Alistair Carsington would wreak upon her heretofore happily immovable resolve, for when the two collide sparks fly, and the only certainty is that neither will emerge unchanged.

As I've fallen in love with the Bridgerton series by Julia Quinn, I've found myself somewhat concerned as to what might possibly come close to Quinn's humor and sparkling characterization once I've finished her books -- and I'm happy to say if Miss Wonderful is any indication, Ms. Chase's novels will not leave me wanting. She has a wonderfully dry, understated sense of humor, a sarcastic bent that I absolutely adored, and her characters just shine. The chemistry between Alistair and Mirabel practically leaps from the page with a deliciously palpable intensity, as at first blush these characters could not be more dissimilar -- yet Chase takes great delight in proving just how wrong first assumptions can be.

Given Alistair's history of romantic entanglements, it would be easy to classify him as a heartless rake, one more in a long line of stereotyped romance heroes. It's a trope I can enjoy, don't get me wrong -- but the manner in which Chase turns one's expectations on their head is delightfully refreshing. Alistair is a man who, when he loves, loves whole-heartedly, committing his all to his amours even as the entanglement inevitably resolves into one of his famed Episodes of Stupidity. But everything changed after Waterloo, and the lame man who emerged from the battlefield masked his emotions and intellect behind the facade of one of society's foremost dandies -- dressed to perfection, always ready with a cutting quip, all to mask his loss of memory surrounding the battle and a soul-deep conviction that he is wholly undeserving of the accolades bestowed upon him by merely by virtue of not dying. Alistair's desire to prove himself in business serves as an unexpected catalyst in his journey toward emotional wholeness, putting him in a position through which he is finally forced to -- and able to deal with -- confront the physical and emotional impact of his battlefield experiences. Thanks to Chase's superbly-shaded characterization, Alistair is a character who proves to be cleverer than his acquaintance at large thinks he has any right to be, and watching him come into his own, driven to make his way in the world is a joy.

I loved Mirabel. Not only is she a spinster, but she's older than the hero by two years -- which isn't much, granted, but it's a refreshing change from the norm in romances of this ilk, wherein the hero is inevitably older, wiser, and more experienced than his romantic counterpart. While she may be completely, hilariously, clueless about fashion and hairstyles, Mirabel is passionate, smart, and dedicated. I loved her business acumen and hard-won respect as a woman choosing to do a "man's work," a choice born from a heartbreaking combination of desire and necessity. Out of this desperate combination of loneliness, desire, and attraction, Mirabel finds herself very much the initiator in her relationship with Alistair, which I loved for her gumption and vulnerability. And while it kind of broke my heart that she plunged into a physical relationship without any thought (initially) of the eventual emotional consequences, it's a testament to Chase's characterization that I still deeply empathized with her even as I couldn't quite support her willingness to give herself to what she is initially sure will only be a passing fling. 

Miss Wonderful proved to be a fantastic introduction to Ms. Chase's writing, and I cannot wait to explore her backlist further. Her sense of humor is laugh-out-loud funny, and her gift for wry, hilarious understatement makes her prose positively shine. Alistair has to rank as one of my favorite heroes in recent memory -- not only is he wonderfully sarcastic and impeccably turned out at all times, but he's positively addicted to emotional vulnerability. *wink* While Chase's leads are polished perfection, fantastic examples of characters whose experiences run the emotional gamut over the course of the novel, her supporting players leave something to be desired, the notable exception being Mirabel's delightfully quirky father. However, the hint that both sets of parents may have had a subtle hand in introducing their offspring? -- a delightful, well-played surprise. Unlikely lovers Alistair and Mirabel's relationship sizzles with electric chemistry. Couple their engaging relationship with a fast-paced plot and a gentle examination of the effects of PTSD in Alistair's life, balanced with warmth, compassion, and laugh-out-loud humor, and the result is a frothy, funny romance that is a sheer joy to read -- Miss Wonderful proves very wonderful indeed.

About the book:

Alistair Carsington really, really wishes he didn't love women quite so much. To escape his worst impulses, he sets out for a place far from civilization: Derbyshire -- in winter! -- where he hopes to kill two birds with one stone: avoid all temptation, and repay the friend who saved his life on the fields of Waterloo. But this noble aim drops him straight into opposition with Miss Mirabel Oldridge, a woman every bit as intelligent, obstinate, and devious as he -- and maddeningly irresistible. 

Mirabel Oldridge already has her hands full keeping her brilliant and aggravatingly eccentric father out of trouble. The last thing she needs is a stunningly attractive, oversensitive and overbright aristocrat reminding her she has a heart -- not to mention a body he claims is so unstylishly clothed that undressing her is practically a civic duty. 

Could the situation be any worse? And why does something that seems so wrong feel so very wonderful?


Heidenkind said...

I remember being a bit disappointed in this one, actually. Chase has written novels a lot better than this one. Her old Regency novels are simply brilliant. The book after this one, Mr. Wonderful, is also really entertaining.

Unknown said...

@Tasha - Really? Interesting. I did notice that reviews seemed to be very mixed. I was just stupid entertained by it all (especially Alistair), but it could be because this is my first novel by her? So I have nothing to compare it to?