Must Be Magic
Lady Leila Staines is unhappy because, of all the Malcom family, only she is not a witch. This has troubled her all her life. Leila has an acute sense of smell, which she believes could be the key to unlocking her hidden talent. So she plans to grow roses and other aromatic flowers in order to make perfumes. But Leila is no gardener, so she approaches Dunstan Ives, the best agronomist in England.
Dunstan’s wife cheated on him and then got murdered, and everyone assumes he is the killer. Worse, his one youthful indiscretion resulted in an illegitimate child. As the younger son of a nobleman, Dunstan has no estate, and must go to work to support his son. He dreams of developing better, more profitable vegetable varieties.
Leila makes Dunstan a deal: she will hire him to grow her flowers. As well as a salary, a house, and servants, he can use her land to develop his vegetables as well. It sounds like a fair deal to me, one that Dunstan would be foolish to refuse. Dunstan refuses.
I’m leaving out a lot of plot and focusing on the characterizations, because they’re the reason this book fails. Leila is a reasonably nice character. She’s strong, independent, and she goes after what she wants in spite of obstacles. However, she doesn’t always make a lot of sense to me. For instance, she wants Dunstan’s respect and friendship. So what does she do? She throws herself at him, touches him, makes improper innuendoes, and basically acts like Marilyn Monroe at the President’s birthday party. This is not how I would treat a potential employee.
Though my reactions to Leila were mixed, my feelings for Dunstan were crystal. I hated him. Here’s the tormented alpha taken to an absurd extreme: angry, edgy, twitchy, paranoid. He openly despises and fears women, and has no sense of humor at all. My favorite moment is when he unexpectedly hears Leila’s voice and panics: “She was in his head!” No, she was in his parlor. Steady there, Dunstan.
There’s something fundamentally dishonorable about a person who takes money to do a job, and then doesn’t do the job. That is Dunstan. Desperation causes him to accept Leila’s offer, but he thinks that Leila is a stupid woman and that her dream of growing flowers is a waste of his valuable time. He immediately gets to work planting his vegetables, and repeatedly ignores her requests to work on her flowers. Leila sends him little notes, asking to talk to him, which he throws away. She practically has to beg to get him to do any work on her gardens at all. Page 144: “He’d already compromised his turnips by helping her with the gardens, when he should have been persuading her to give them up.”
I had four words for Dunstan: “You are so fired.” And, perhaps, a suggestion about how he might further compromise his turnips.
Here’s another weird thing going on. The first several times Dunstan sees Leila, she’s wearing fashionable clothes: powdered hair, elaborate corseted gowns, etc. He then runs into her a couple times, wearing ordinary clothes and with her hair down. He is attracted to her in both guises, but – stay with me here – thinks she’s two different women. Leila acts exactly the same towards him: she’s a dyed-in-the-wool flirt, regardless of what she’s wearing. She lets Dunstan think what he wants, and when he asks for her name, she says, “Lily” – could be a clue. Dunstan doesn’t pick up on it. He thinks of Lily as Leila’s “diametric opposite,” even though they look, sound, and act the same. He doesn’t catch on even after they make love.
I thought he was an idiot. Leila figures him out: sex with a country girl like Lily is one thing, but Dunstan fears involvement with Leila because he thinks she’s (yawn) exactly the same as his faithless deceased wife. “It’s bigotry and prejudice to lump all women into the same shallow mold,” Leila says. I clapped. Dunstan promptly walks out on her, and Leila goes back to wanting him and trying to wheedle him into doing his job.
Leila’s prime motivation is a mystery for the first half of the book: why does she need to plant flowers to figure out her paranormal abilities? She can smell emotions. That’s pretty paranormal. We’re 200 pages into the book before we learn that she doesn’t know other people can’t smell emotions. Why does she not know this? And why didn’t the author tell us sooner? Suddenly halfway through the book, Dunstan decides to clear his name. He has no plan at all, but whatever he means to do, he must do it in London (once again abandoning his job, but I’m the only one who cared about that). Leila humbly asks his permission to go with him. If I had ever had any sense of who either of these people were, at this point it flew out the window, never to return.
In London, the book’s plot is entirely taken over by the subplot of Dunstan’s wife’s murder, which involves about a dozen secondary characters, none of whom I cared about enough to keep straight.
I think I know what Patricia Rice was trying to do: to present a complicated, non-rake hero who has heavy responsibilities, has to work for a living, and must honestly face his prejudices. I respect the attempt. However, this man is a condescending, ignoble misogynist whose change into a bearable human being starts way too late. I did not like or respect him. I liked Leila, but her feelings for Dunstan are incomprehensible. The romance belly-flopped and drowned.
I think Rice has a lot of talent, and she likes to take chances with her characters – I wish more authors did that. But there’s no way I would recommend Must Be Magic; its promise only makes it that much more frustrating and disappointing.