When I read a romance, I’m looking for characters who act like adults, not overgrown, silly, sulky adolescents. Unhappily, the cast in Mistletoe Mischief comes across as teenagers trapped in grownup bodies, and even the addition of a paranormal element couldn’t save it for me.
Lady Evangeline Radcliffe has a secret reason for hiring Megan Mortimer as her companion. Megan (and really, is that a name one immediately associates with the Regency?) has been sacked from her previous position, because her employer’s married son made a pass at her, and of course the family prefers to think it’s Megan’s fault. Evangeline is on her way to Brighton, where she’s going to spend the last Christmas at her house there – it happens that the Regent, in his desire to expand his pavilion, has made Evangeline an Offer She Can’t Refuse.
Megan quickly discovers that her new mistress already has a constant companion: the ghost of Rollo Witherspoon, a Restoration-era actor (although from his speech, it sounds as if he lived during the Renaissance). He needs Evangeline’s help in reuniting with his love, Evangeline’s several-times-removed ancestress. Of course, no one else around Evangeline can see or hear the ghost, so they all think she’s just a bit bonkers. When her two nephews Sir Greville Seton and Lord Rupert Radcliffe show up, things get more complicated. Rupert’s in love with Chloe Holcroft, but hasn’t found the nerve to offer for her, so she’s encouraging the advances of Oliver March, who just happens to be the Evil Cousin who cheated Megan out of her home and inheritance. Evangeline and Chloe’s widowed father Sir Jocelyn, a one-eyed naval hero, have loved each other for a long time, but neither has admitted it. To top it all off, Greville loathes all female companions, ever since his father ran off with his mother’s companion lo these many years ago. And given her experience with “gentlemen,” Megan doesn’t trust Greville. So how can they fight their growing attraction?
The story suffers from a surfeit of plot lines. There’s the romance between Megan and Greville, the romance between Chloe and Rupert, and the romance between Evangeline and Jocelyn. Throw in the mystery of Rollo, the mystery of Evangeline’s interest in Megan, the tragedy of Rollo’s lover’s death, the threat of Oliver’s presence (will he come between Rupert and Chloe? Will he unmask Megan? Will Megan bow to his blackmail, or reveal him as the Dastardly Cur he is?), and the unnecessary inclusion of an annoying neighbor family, the Garsingtons, whose members are assembled straight out of Central Casting, and I found myself hard put to care about anyone or anything in the book.
To add to the challenge, the author presents the reader with a series of lectures in the history and development of Brighton. I appreciate historical information in an historical novel, but it’s most effective for me when it’s integrated into the story; in this instance, it seems to have been surgically inserted. Then there’s a tedious Countdown to Christmas, the deadline for Evangeline to come to Rollo’s aid. Perhaps the aim was to heighten the tension for the reader, but continuous reminders of the date and day of the week (“She was awoken [sic] the next morning, Saturday, December 20”) served only to pull me out of the story.
At one point I came perilously close not just to dropping the book to the floor, but to flinging it across the room: when Evangeline finally confesses her love to Sir Jocelyn, his response is, “Ditto, my dearest.” Ditto? Ditto? The only reason I kept going past that point was my desire to get to the bottom of Evangeline’s interest in Megan, which turned out not to be so very compelling, after all.
The characters’ behavior is incredibly juvenile, from Megan’s dithering to Evangeline’s flightiness, Greville’s sulks, and Oliver’s infantile scheming. There’s a scene at a dance that I swear reminded me of nothing so much as a junior-high mixer, complete with malicious gossip and a scandalous kiss that ends with a crushed miss rushing off the dance floor. And oh, the head-hopping! Go ahead – call me a grinch and say I didn’t get it. I contend that there was just too much to get. Too many story lines involving uninteresting people, a lack of period feel, and heavy-handed insertion of extraneous background information made this an entirely unpleasant read.