It is, I understand, a simple to thing to write romance. After all, it’s just a formula, right? I am reminded that romance novels are the kind of easy that defines the word whenever I read a book by Loretta Chase. In fact, her novel, Mr. Impossible, is a case study in formulaic historic (Regency-era) romance.
Let us review the formula of this novel: a sexually repressed widow hires a disreputable rake (as opposed, I suppose, a reputable one) to help her find her kidnapped brother. Along the way, she discovers there’s more to the rake than people realize. Also that she’s one lusty lady. They find the brother, vanquish the bad guy, fall in love, and live happily ever after.
It is such a simple formula that I am tempted to wonder why more starving writers don’t copy it. It’s like connecting the dots; do them in the right order, and you too can be a romance author. In fact, I am thinking of printing the simple recipe for romance on cards and handing them out to people who tell me they’re thinking of dashing off a romance novel in their spare time.
In Mr. Impossible, widow Daphne Pembroke, a sheltered, somewhat naïve intellectual, takes off for her much-loved and much-dreamed-about Egypt upon the demise of her husband. I want to point out that Daphne’s innocence comes from lack of world experience; she adjusts rapidly to new information. When her brother is kidnapped, she immediately moves to find him. Rupert Carsington, sent to Egypt by his father, encounters the local authorities (getting into trouble is not much of a challenge for Rupert) and is thrown in jail. The English authorities, hoping to survive Rupert’s Egyptian adventure, assign him to keep Daphne out of trouble. By this they mean, “Keep her safe in Cairo until her brother stumbles home from the brothel.” Implicit in the suggestion is that Rupert should keep himself safe in Cairo as well.
Daphne is not your garden-variety intellectual. She is adept with languages and working to unlock the secrets of hieroglyphics (a pastime that was all the rage among a certain set in 1821). Unfortunately, she inhabits a world that doesn’t take kindly to women with brains – her not-so-dearly departed husband crushed her self-esteem until this lesson was learned – and deceives the world by pretending that her brother is the family genius. This approach works just fine until brother Miles purchases a papyrus rumored to hold the key to treasure.
Daphne and Rupert work out an arrangement: she will be the brains, he will be the brawn, and they will rescue Miles. Rupert, possessing far more intelligence than the world gives him credit for, understands immediately that they will be departing Cairo. Chase delights in playing with Rupert’s apparent denseness – he raises Daphne’s blood pressure by willfully misunderstanding her, he fools local authorities, and he uses the exasperation of others as time to concoct plans. If he were a woman, he’d be accused of being a dumb blonde. I mean this as a compliment because willful stupidity is not easy to pull off under pressure.
It is a given that Daphne, being a widow, had bad sex in her first marriage (see the formula, it’s there). Her husband, clearly lacking in the physical prowess department, played upon her ignorance of man-woman relations to convince her that she was unnatural and unwomanly – all those passions, all that thinking, what man would want that? To this day, a lot of women have…interesting…misconceptions about sex (no, Virginia, doing it while standing up does not prevent pregnancy), and the notion that “ladies” don’t enjoy themselves hasn’t quite died the appropriate (stake to the heart) death. Chase’s resolution of this issue plays right into the classic romance formula – proving once again that there’s a difference between formula and execution.
This being a road trip mystery, much of the story involves traveling to and fro, seeking clues and putting pieces together. Readers of Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series (especially the early ones) will smile knowingly at the near-misses and mishaps endured by Daphne and Rupert. Chase feels like she’s paying tribute to the Master of Egyptian mystery. Dual (and dueling) villains pull strings behind the scenes, and if the final resolution of the mystery feels weak, well, it is a bit on the predictable side. The bad guys in Mr. Impossible would have benefited from better character development, no doubt about it.
Chase tries to balance the romance of early nineteenth century Egypt with the real dangers unleashed by the European ravaging of an ancient culture. Crocodiles swim hopefully in the Nile after discovering that people are crunchy and tasty. Vipers nap under slabs of hieroglyphs. Greed makes men violent. And Englishmen, no matter where they are, long for good old-fashioned British food. Chase uses Rupert as a gentle stand-in for European prejudices as he struggles over the Egyptian language and decides English is the best of all possible language choices, only to discover that Egyptian donkeys and mongooses don’t understand him. I prefer addressing this cultural divide, even in such a low-key way, to pretending that all Europeans assimilated without a second thought. It is a tradition to only allow the bad guys to long for Cornish pasties, you know.
Interestingly, for a longer romance, the focus remains tightly on Daphne and Rupert, though Chase wanders off to check in with Miles every now and then. This approach was not as claustrophobic as you’d think. Strong dialogue and excellent character chemistry kept me from growing bored with just two people. The cast of secondary characters grows as the story continues, leading Rupert to the realization that he is, improbably, the father of the whole bunch. It is a disconcerting thought for the most irresponsible of Carsingtons, and it changes Rupert’s view of himself.
A key aspect of Chase’s work is the fact that she uses humor effectively. In fact, she had me at “paper rice”, which is to say almost immediately. I am a fan of witty banter, despite being assured that real people don’t talk that way, and can read clever, intelligent dialogue for hours. I am also a fan of authors who clearly enjoy their work, and it’s obvious that Chase does.
Another point before I send you off to read this book yourself. Men are visual creatures (unless it’s something they don’t want to see, like, oh, a pile of laundry), and Chase takes on the formulaic heroic ogling by making it a natural part of her character. He looks, he likes to look, and he’s not ashamed to admit it. I’m not talking leering here, just good old-fashioned appreciation. I like that in a character. I like that in a writer.
Mr. Impossible is possibly the best romance I’ve read in the past year. In fact, I didn’t even feel the slightest bit disgruntled during the next-Carsington-to-hit-the-altar setup in the epilogue; heck, I didn’t even get disgruntled by the epilogue. I even went back and dug out this book’s predecessor, Miss Wonderful – a book I’d tossed aside due to a godawful cover. I trust Loretta Chase to take me just about anywhere. I do not trust books with insipid pale blue covers.