I discovered the prolific Joan Smith through a list of favorite authors at Good Ton, a Regency romance Web site. Smith has written more than 80 Regencies, a few of which I promptly ordered from Paperback Swap. Good Ton particularly recommended Memoirs of a Hoyden, so when it arrived first, I began reading it as soon as I tore open the package.
This humorous, highly entertaining novel may not linger in my memory long, but I sure had a lot of fun while I was reading it. It livened up a cold, rainy, dismal Sunday, spiriting me away to the coast of England for a story featuring a coach robbery, spies, smugglers, a handsome and capable hero and a stubborn, forthright and funny heroine. (Oh, and also a cleric who keeps naughty drawings hidden in the pages of a book of sermons.)
Miss Marion Mathieson has recently returned from her travels in the East and is giving lectures in England to promote her new book, A Gentlewoman's Memoirs of the Orient. When highwaymen hold up her coach, she suspects they are after more than money or jewels and throws herself headlong into an effort by the Marquess of Kestrel to catch a ring of spies intercepting military orders dispatched to the coast.
The suspense plot is somewhat cliched, but Smith's characterization of Miss Mathieson is where the book really shines. Marion, the story's narrator, thinks very highly of herself and wants to give everyone else the benefit of her superior expertise. She reminded me quite a bit of Amelia Peabody from Elizabeth Peters's series about a family of Victorian Egyptologists. Marion simply cannot keep her nose out of other people's business if an adventure is to be had (even though she may exaggerate just a tad when it comes to recounting her own hair-raising escapades in the East.)
In the wrong hands, Marion could have been incredibly annoying. Instead, she reminded me of an eccentric aunt whom you can't help but love because she's always saying or doing something completely outrageous, and you just have to know what she'll do next. Marion was a classic unreliable narrator, amusing instead of exasperating because of Smith's light, humorous touch, which encouraged the reader not to take Marion too seriously.
Miss Mathieson fell a bit short, however, of Amelia Peabody as a character because I was never convinced she was Kestrel's true equal. She simply wasn't as smart as Peabody. She and Kestrel fall in love, of course (this is a Regency romance). In a story where a couple's adversarial relationship eventually leads to love, I want to see a meeting of equals, in which neither individual is able to get the better of the other for long. But Kestrel was quietly competent and perfectly capable of catching the spies without Marion's "assistance." Every deduction Miss Mathieson made about the identity of the book's villain was wrong, and at one point she did something so boneheaded I rolled my eyes in exasperation. Although Smith allowed her to "save the day" at the end, Kestrel never would have been put in a dangerous position without her "help." I wish Marion had been right at least some of the time. It would have made her a stronger character.
Still, Memoirs of a Hoyden was enjoyable and the perfect length (170 pages) for an afternoon's escape. It had so many little sparkling touches that made it funny and appealing. My grade: B