Mr. Impossible by Loretta Chase

mrimpossible.jpgIt 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.

You can buy Mr. Impossible here or here. You can find Loretta Chase here.

14 thoughts on “Mr. Impossible by Loretta Chase

  1. I am reminded that romance novels the kind of easy that defines the word whenever I read a book by Loretta Chase.
    Is there something missing in this sentence, or am I just too tired to read it right???? 🙂

  2. Good catch! It was a whole sentence in the original version(s). Clearly my proofreader was tired, too (this is the flaw with hiring a calico to do a tabby’s work). “. . .are the kind of easy”. I’ll fix it.

  3. I just read this last week, and pretty much agree with everything you say (except, it’s not as good as The Unknown Ajax, which I also read this past year).
    —L.

  4. I knew I’d blogged about this one in the past but it took me several days to get time to dig through my own archives and find the exact post – http://bevsnotes.blogspot.com/2005/04/chase-loretta-mr-impossible.html. I wanted to find it because I couldn’t remember exactly what I’d said and more precisely just what my feelings were about the book after that initial reading. On reflection the thing that stills stands out in my memory about it was how Chase played with Rupert’s intelligence or apparent lack thereof. THAT was very well done and primarily what kept me reading. Other than THE MUMMY flashbacks. (VBEG)

  5. Geez, I must really be a different sort of creature than the average romance bear. Totally different. EVERY majority-type, traditional romance reader I’ve heard of has loved this book that I found wholly predictable, cliche and boring, albeit satisfying in a formulaic romance sort of way, I guess. Didn’t you all know EXACTLY what was going to happen next?
    It is slightly different, but stil falls firmly within formula (Rupert ACTS dumb, but we know he’s really perfect, as is the heroine). Perfect, perfectly sympathetic and wholesome despite the stylized romance-type of flaws (heroine too smart and caring, hero too dashing and a second son–gasp!). Ick.
    This is the epiphany that maybe one should not be writing these sort of books nor seeking these sorts of readers. Damn it all, maybe lit fic is more up my alley after all.

  6. Hehehe, Monica’s reaction is almost EXACTLY the way I felt after reading Chase’s LORD OF THE SCOUNDRELS and then discovering that it seemed like every romance reader online thinks it’s the best romance of all time. I kept thinking, well, it was o-kay, but best of all time?
    Uh, no. I didn’t think so. Then or now.
    Seriously, I’m still shaking my head over that one, primarily because most of the people who raved about it kept saying things like how unique it was and how original it was and I thought it was very formulaic, just with a few twists to it that kept things interesting.
    Same as this one.

  7. I’ve been meaning to read something of hers for quite a while, since everyone gushes so much about her. But I’m surprised when I go to the book shop and there’s not a Loretta Chase book to be found. I guess I’ll order one.
    Great review!
    R.W.

  8. I liked Lord of Scroundrels, primarily because of it’s humor and it has one of the best “first meeting” scenes I have read, but I wouldn’t say it was the greatest thing to ever fall off the apple cart.I think that the raves and faves it got on the net probably lead me to expect something a little deeper than what it was,but I still thought it was fun, well written and worth my time. And I will read this too, and most likely enjoy it if her past work is any indication.
    Sam

  9. As I stated right at the beginning, this novel hits every point in the formula — but like any recipe, a formula is a guideline. How it comes together is what makes it worthwhile. I’ve been reading romance since high school (actually, before, if I’m going to be honest). I have an excellent grasp of the variations on the romance themes, and while there are authors who surprise me, it’s the stories and the characters that keep this genre fresh.
    Loretta Chase is clearly borrowing from classic stories and recent movies in building this story — this is, to me, what art should do. A little bit familiar, a little bit different. I never did fall in Mummy love (tried, will try again), but adore Elizabeth Peters. And for many of the same reasons I so enjoyed this book — there’s a certain attitude and confidence splashed on the page that really appeals to me.
    My first Chase was The Last Hellion, and I was, “Huh? What in the world are these lunatics raving about?” Then I read Lord of Scoundrels and thought, “Oh yes, I think I get it.” I should probably reread Hellion when I have time (and I think I might have time within the next fifty or so years, if my TBR pile suddenly decides to self destruct).

  10. Hmmm, it just occurred to me that what I said in my last post could be taken that formulaic is bad and that’s not what I meant at all. Formulaic is exactly what genre, any genre, is all about – as long as those twists are there to keep things interesting. Both of the Chase books, well most of her books, are really good solid reads that do both, which is really all I ask for in an entertaining read.
    And it also just occurred to me to mention that while the plot, setting and general, um, ambiance of MR. IMPOSSIBLE greatly reminded me of the new MUMMY movies, the truly strange thing is that when I first saw THE MUMMY I immediately thought Rick and Evelyn reminded me of a classic Jayne Ann Krentz pair.

  11. I am of the opinion that most readers enjoy formula — it’s a good thing. Experimental fiction can be enjoyable (it can also be irritating to the extreme), but I am one who likes to know there will be a happy ending in my stories. I will probably have certain credentials revoked soon, but there’s a certain comfort I derive from this knowledge.
    So, yeah, I didn’t think you were coming out against formula.
    Ah, Jayne Ann Krentz…

  12. I think formula is okay–up to a point. I hate non-happy endings too. But I think romance aficianados seek more than formula. In my opinion romance above all is a feel-good genre, a comfort genre.
    The reader must be able to put herself squarely in the heroine’s shoes. This is the most important part of characterization. If you can make your Mary Sue interesting, all the better, but she best be near-perfect and her flaws charming and cute. The reader may be thrilled and chilled, but she must not be made uncomfortable. The hero must be desirable by the reader.
    This is the part of the formula that bugs me–the static characterization and tone required. A slight variation is hailed as fresh, but it must be slight. There’s NOTHING wrong with this, it’s just why I personally can’t read much of the genre and find much of it boring. I think it’s simply a matter of preference.
    That’s the reason why it’s necessary to segregate romance. Different strokes. I don’t particularly want to identify with heaving-chested, beauteous (with some cute flaw, of course), bluestockinged and feisty Loretta Chase-type heroines when I do decide to read a romance.
    Give me a heroine who’s a real bitch though, and I’m so there.

  13. I can agree with the near-perfect idea up to a point — Wendy and I were discussing this when we talked about Anyone But You. Readers of genre fiction have very set expectations and, as you say, variations must be slight. Or breathtakingly original and well-done. I do believe that readers want to be challenged more than they are, but publishers aren’t as comfortable with this idea. Publishers like what sold the last time, and that consciously or unconsciously filters down to the reader.
    I think the less charming, less cute, less perfect heroines are the ones we remember. The rest are designed. I don’t believe in creating throwaway fiction, but so often the romance genre focuses on quantity ove quality. That disturbs me.
    I am a firm advocate of more bitches in romance. I’m not talking about get up on a wrong side of the bed cranky, but truly not a nice person. Then again (talking out of both sides of my keyboard), I want to see a positive outcome with the characterization.

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