In FANCY PANTS, veteran author Cathy Marie Hake (BITTERSWEET) spins a cutely-conceived historical comedy, lush with romance, of a high-bred lady who disguises herself as a man and journeys from England to Texas to work on an uncle’s ranch.
It’s a catchy idea (even if it’s been done in variations before). Hake begins her story in 1890 with the orphaned 20-year-old Lady Sydney Hathwell still mourning the death of her father a year previous. She travels with her chaperone Aunt Serena Hathwell from England to New York to meet her fiancé, the despicable Rexall Hume. Hake ensures that readers will despise him from the very first page (his scowl, in the first sentence, would rival “a gargoyle’s”). Rexall is after her title and the business she will bring his way, although why she will is never really convincing. Nevertheless, readers will cheer when Sydney decides to escape his clutches by dressing up as a man and disappearing. Her Uncle Fuller, who she has never met --- and who believes Sydney is a boy! --- has promised her a position on his Texas ranch until Sydney can decide what she’ll do next.
Employing different points of view, Hake uses the first half of the novel to let Sydney masquerade as a boy, then the second for her to “come out” as a woman. Few females can pull off disguising themselves as men for long, and the housekeeper/cook sees through Sydney’s ruse from almost the first moment. However, she helps keep Sydney’s gender a secret. The tough Tim Creighton, who runs the ranch in her uncle’s unexpected absence, is both exasperated and put off by the “fancy pants” prissy fop foisted on him. The other ranch-hands --- Bert, Pancake, Juan, Boaz, Gulp and Merle --- are also concerned. Tim puts Sydney to work doing the worst ranch tasks: shoveling manure, plowing a garden with a horse.
Lots of fun lurks between the covers of this book, from Sydney being taken out for a night on the town with the boys (in which she must navigate too much beer and a brothel) to having to fend off the attentions of a passel of local and eager eligible women. Romance with the right guy is telegraphed from the early pages, so readers won’t be surprised by the novel’s concluding nuptials.
Hake is a competent writer, and the story unfurls with just enough events to keep the narrative moving. However, a little judicious shortening and tightening would have helped the pacing; by page 300, you already know who Sydney is going to end up with, and you’d just like to see it happen. Lines such as Sydney wearing “lady’s boots that constricted her feet only a fraction as much as Tim’s words constricted her heart” are a little over the top. And for a historical novel, this is more heavy on romance and lighter on the historical details.
Readers who like their inspirational novels to clearly and thoroughly outline the plan of salvation will appreciate the lengthy section toward the end of the book where Tim helps Sydney understand the difference between formal “go-through-the-motions” religion and the idea of a personal, grace-filled faith. Others who like their faith elements to be more subtle may not find this as much to their liking.
However, Hake’s book is a fun read, and if it seems improbable that a beautiful girl like Sydney could disguise herself as a man for this long --- well, this is fiction, right? So suspend disbelief and enjoy this comedic historical jaunt.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on November 13, 2011