The heroine is 16. The hero is 30. Got a problem with that?

Forbidden Affections is a novella by Jo Beverley that has been published in a couple of different anthologies, including A Spring Bouquet (Zebra, 1996). I read the Kindle version, reissued by Zebra (Feb 2011)  in the anthology An Invitation to Sin.

I’ve been looking for a romance that would make a good companion to Eliza Parsons’ The Mysterious Warning for a panel I’m on this spring and @JanetNorCal, a big JoBev fan, suggested this one, since it has Gothic overtones. Beverley is a solid read for me, and this novella — once I rewrote bits of it in my head  — is no exception.

Anna Featherstone, age 16, relocates from Derbyshire with her family to a London townhome for the season, so her 19 year old sister Maria can make her debut. Anna is thrilled to discover that her new bedroom is an exact replica of the bedroom prison of her favorite heroine, Dulcinea, from the “revolting novel” Forbidden Affections by Mrs, Jamison. The elaborate bed is carved with “grinning skeletons and contorted gargoyles”, the wallpaper design includes coffins, and there are skull shaped ivory knobs on the armoire. Even better, Anna discovers a secret passage by the fireplace that takes her next door, to the home of the Earl of Carne.

It turns out the bedroom once belonged to Mrs. Jamison — really the very married Lady Delabury — who was found dead in the Earl of Carne’s bed some eight years prior. While the Earl was not in residence at the time of the death, his heir Lord Manderville was. Manderville, who eventually became the Earl of Carne, went abroad, under a cloud of suspicion, never to be seen or heard from again.

Naturally, Carne does return, and he and Anna have a midnight encounter in his library as she snoops for reading material and more information about the suicide of her favorite author. Carne, drunk and tired from his travels, mistakes Anna for a servant, and they have the kind of interaction that was not very enjoyable to read. Whenever you have a hero saying things like “I’m no rapist…” you know you’re in trouble:

He eyed her over the rim of the glass, studying her dispassionately from tousled head to naked toes. “Very Pretty. How old are you.”

“But sixteen, milord.”

“There’s no use putting on that servant’s burr again, sweetheart. Sixteen’s a good age.” He drained the glass and placed it on a table by his elbow. “Come here.”

<snip>

He raised his brows. “I could threaten to dismiss you tomorrow. Yet why do I feel that wouldn’t sway you? So, I’ll make another threat. If you don’t come here and be kissed, my sweet mysterious Maggie, I’ll come to you and do much worse. And you have my word on that, too.”

After a moment, he added, “that trembling innocence, the hands over the mouth, the eyes wide with panic, will not sway me. It’s actually quite arousing, you know.

“You’re as tasty as a rosy apple, sweetheart. I think I’ll call you Pippin.”

At that use of her father’s pet name, it was as if he were here, witness to her shame.

Luckily, Anna escapes with her virtue intact, but she does have to brain him with his own brandy glass.

Eventually the Earl figures out she’s a gentlewoman, living next door, and he contrives to get an invitation to her home (she’s not “out”, so meet-ups are not easy to arrange.).  She’s attracted to him, and he to her, although he tries to tamp it down in the interest of protecting her virtue. They develop a friendship over their mutual interest in working out the mystery of the secret passageway and Lady Delabury’s death, in which, of course, he played absolutely no part. Recognizing that Anna is too young for him, the Earl lets her go back to Derbyshire, having shared only a kiss. But in the end, he comes to her and proposes.

Anna, with her curly dark hair, round body, and ruddy looks, is contrasted sharply in the text with her willowy blond sister and mother. Anna is practical, steady, enterprising, and mature for her years, while they are vapors-prone and obsessed with fashion and society. Anna often refers critically to the heroines in her favorite novels, and her complaints are so similar to those that can be found even this week on any romance message board, that this novella almost serves as a meta text:

One of the things about the book that irritated Anna was that Dulcinea’s escape from his wicked plans was not of her own doing. Anna could think of any number of ways the silly creature could have escaped but of course Dulcinea had waited for the handsome Roland to find the secret door and rescue her.

Later, on the same subject:

[The book] is a little like Scherazade, my lord, except that Dulcinea does nothing to change her fate. She just faints and weeps.

Or how about the Earl’s mother’s critique of the novels Ann loves:

“She has often declared that they turn young ladies into weaklings, inclined to faint at the slightest thing. I will delight in telling her how wrong she is.”

I loved the plot of this book, and think it would have made an excellent novel, with an older heroine and a hero who was more fleshed out. But I could not get over the heroine’s youth. I wondered what would draw a man who had lived life to the fullest in London and then traveled for nearly a decade to such a young girl from the country. Thankfully, there were no sex scenes, but I did wonder, also, what would motivate an author in 1996 to write a 16 year old heroine and a 30 year old hero, given the obvious squick factor. Sixteen was not the usual age for betrothal, as Anna’s own family and her suitor make clear in the text.

I really enjoyed the interweaving of the “horrid novels” and the Gothic elements, but as a romance, this one didn’t work for me.

Monday Stepback: Big News! Links! And way too many Opinions!

The weekly links, opinion, and personal updates post

Links of Interest

Macmillan’s new Romance site is up. It’s called Heroes and Heartbreakers, and yours truly will be blogging there on occasion, along with a bunch of other folks:

Heroes and Heartbreakers is a community website featuring daily content for serious fans of the romance genre in all of its forms.  Not everyone can understand the desire to argue for thirty minutes about Dain vs. Derek, to challenge the casting for the latest Jane Austen movie, or to debate whether the True Blood love triangle worked better on paper or on TV.

Heroes and Heartbreakers understands the woot! and the squee! of all of that.  Add in the original short stories and excerpts from upcoming romance novels, and it’s like a romance enthusiast’s paradise (the kind with extremely attractive men bringing you umbrella drinks).

Like our science fiction/fantasy sister site, Tor.com, we are publisher-neutral in our selection of books, authors and materials for coverage and discussion. We don’t play favorites because we think a real romance community site should be all-inclusive.  You don’t want to miss a thing, and neither do we.

Advertising Age has a story on Heroes and Heartbreakers, and similar sites such as eHarlequin. It’s 100% snark free! Apparently romance is “future proofed” (via @jafurtado):

It helps that romance was well prepared, in many ways without trying, for the challenges that would come. Its fans like to talk to one another, to the eventual advantage of the romance sites and social-media plays that have now emerged. And its books were typically priced pretty low. There’s more free content every day, but romance publishers are proving that cheap can be pretty persuasive, too.

*****

The program has been posted at Teach Me Tonight for the International Association of Popular Romance Studies conference this summer in NYC, and registration is now open. I’m so excited for this!

*****

Borders True Romance blog (Please don’t close your Bangor store. Please don’t close your Bangor store. Please please please.)  is giving away tickets for RomCon in Denver in August. I went last year and had an amazing time. Highly recommended.

*****

SFF author Carolyn Crane is offering tips to stay on track at her blog.

4. Social media like twitter has to be a decision, not a default mode. I can’t just go on twitter or whatever because I’m between things.

I think that one could be a life changer for me.

*****

At Things Mean a Lot, Ana/Nymeth has a Sunday Salon post, Not All Readings Are Created Equal, where she tries to balance respect for literary training and expertise with an acknowledgment that no degree or credential is required to say something important about a book:

The reason why I believe in democratising critical discourse is not because I think every single person in the world will make incredibly insightful, relevant and well-argued points about literature at all times (however you define those). It’s rather because I believe that we should recognise who does and does not make sense based on what they’re saying, not who they are or who they associate with. I’m not arguing against anyone’s right to take some viewpoints, readings or interpretations of a book more seriously than others; merely against following a pre-packaged formula to decide who you take seriously or not. It saddens me to see intelligence and insight be defined solely by the right sort of allegiance. This inevitably results in the dismissal of a lot of excellence points, and also in a lot of badly disguised idiocy being treated with subservience.

*****

At the Book Bench, Reviewers on Reviewing

I was at an event last week featuring an interview with Zadie Smith, co-sponsored by N.Y.U. and Harper’s, where Smith has just become the reviewer for the New Books column, at which she said many interesting things about book-reviewing. She insisted on being called a reviewer, in fact, and not a critic, a distinction I understood as being between an all-powerful and hoity-toity judge-type (the critic) and a sort of fellow-traveller (the reviewer), one who approaches a book in a spirit of camaraderie and aims to represent that book in a piece of writing as carefully crafted as the book itself (which is not to say “softly”). Smith cited Virginia Woolf, who reviewed whatever caught her fancy—trashy romances, if she wanted—and whose reviews were as much about her own perceptions of the world as they were about the book.

Do you know, did Woolf ever review a “trashy romance” (note the suggestion there is no other kind)? I would like to read that.

But a comment on that blog post caught my eye. It’s a call for authors to fight back:

My recent experience as an author of a book with a malignant review on Amazon was very instructive, and suggests that these reviews shouldn’t be taken lightly or ignored. Amazon is the largest single source of consumer information by review on the Internet. Like it or not, we authors of other than bestsellers have to understand an Amazon review as a sign of warning or encouragement right at the most important point of sale of our intellectual product. …  In the case of my bad review I responded to the review in a signed comment that diplomatically suggested another way of looking at the reviewer’s complaints. In return, the reviewer rewrote the review to make it worse, reduced it to one star and made it appear to be the original version of his review instead of a rewrite. I returned the serve by adding a sentence to my comment noting and dating the evidently angry rewrite to which he responded by revising it again and taking it, as I expected he would, off the deep end and far beyond an image of just an old man railing at clouds. After a long struggle, Amazon finally agreed that it had to be taken down. I can see great advantages to Amazon for authors and I’m trying to get better at using them. But I think that those of us who write books have got to start taking back the night, so to speak, from the wild west that Amazon book reviews have become. [emphasis added]

Is this author just a bit nutty, or is there an author backlash against negative reader reviews? I’m thinking both. Witness the kerfuffle of last week, when an author took to her blog to rail against “unprofessional”, i.e. “negative” review sites (too many people wrote their own blog posts on this dustup last week to even begin to list them. Just Google the author’s name and you’ve got a solid 6 hours of opinions to read. Or maybe 5 minutes, since all the opinions except one are pretty much the same.).

Then you have Carla Kelly taking to the AAR boards to complain about an Amazon review she had removed (I’m not questioning whether the Amazon review should have been removed, only the need to vent in a reader forum with a post entitled “If you don’t like a book…”). And an author, Victoria Howard, correcting a reviewer at the site The Romance Reviews (a site which is GIVEAWAY! after CONTEST! after GIVEAWAY! and therefore not of much interest to me in general. YMMV.).

I wonder if, in the push to get authors to get out there among the digital fandom and promote their own books, to be savvy and skillful — but authentic! and real! –  social networkers, it was not inevitable that authors would turn around and use the same tools — blog, forums, twitter —  to, in their view, protect their reputations against “deranged”, “unprofessional”,  or “angry” readers. If it is important to use social media to enhance one’s reputation, does it follow that one should use social media to protect it?

Luckily authors who aren’t sure what do in these challenging times can just read Meljean Brook’s Internet Survival Guide for Authors. Most of her points are great for anyone on the internets, really.

*****

Looking for a short list of great SFF for the romance reader? Janicu put one together over at starmetal oak book blog.

*****

In case you missed the news, Charlaine Harris has announced the end of the Sookie Stackhouse Southern Vampire Mysteries series … after 2 more books. I think this is a good thing, and I’m a huge fan of the series.

Apparently, working on a video game has been taking up a lot of her time. I’m not a gamer, so I haven’t played the games based on works by Nora Roberts, for example, or the Harlequin games. TV is one thing — at least it’s still long form narrative — but if video games are taking an author’s time away from writing books, I’m not sure I approve.

*****

After following the threads on men, porn, and sexual dysfunction, I don’t EVER want to hear another word about the dangers of the high expectations for men set by heroes in romance novels:

When you watch porn, “you’re bonding with it,” Kuszewski says. “And those chemicals make you want to keep coming back to have that feeling.” Which allows men not only to get off on porn but to potentially develop a neurological attachment to it. They can, in essence, date porn.

Two women discuss this issue at the Hairpin:

The thing that makes me GROAN SO HARD about this piece is that Rothbart and his group of pouty-faced masturbators feel put upon by porn! A kingdom of women putting all sorts of things in all kinds of holes, and they’re the ones with the sour puss.

*****

More press for the new book Academically Adrift at NPR:

According to the study, one possible reason for a decline in academic rigor and, consequentially, in writing and reasoning skills, is that the principal evaluation of faculty performance comes from student evaluations at the end of the semester. Those evaluations, Arum says, tend to coincide with the expected grade that the student thinks he or she will receive from the instructor.

“There’s a huge incentive set up in the system [for] asking students very little, grading them easily, entertaining them, and your course evaluations will be high,” Arum says.

I find it very hard to believe that “the principal evaluation of faculty performance” is based on an assessment of teaching, let alone student evaluations of such. It certainly is not true at my university.

*****

Neil Gaiman has changed his tune on piracy (video). Quoted from Comics Alliance:

“You’re not losing sales by getting stuff out there. When I do a big talk now on these kinds of subjects and people ask “What about the sales you are losing by having stuff floating out there?” I started asking the audience to raise their hands for one question — Do you have a favorite author? And they say yes and I say good. What I want is for everybody who discovered their favorite author by being lent a book put up your hand. Then anybody who discovered their favorite author by walking into a book story and buying a book. And it’s probably about 5-10%, if that, of the people who discovered their favorite author who is the person they buy everything of and they buy the hardbacks. And they treasure the fact they’ve got this author. Very few of them bought the book. They were lent it. They were given it. They did not pay for it. That’s how they found their favorite author. And that’s really all this is; it’s people lending books.”

*****

Lots and lots of press for romance novels due to the Valentine’s holiday. This one about a new documentary on romance readers at The Telegraph had the usual good/bad (30/70%) mix, but I was interested to learn about Mr. Sanderson:

I’ve always found the characters unrealistic in their stereotypical attractiveness and conduct. However, lots of women – 1.3 million a month – never tire of the tanned hunks and usually sappy females (however “sassy-mouthed’’ they might be). And this is why Roger Sanderson, who has written almost 50 M&B novels under the pen-name Gill Sanderson, says he would never try to introduce a less than perfect Alpha male as the hero. “He’s got to have a good body, and there’s no way he can be fat or badly dressed,” he says in a new documentary, Guilty Pleasures, which explores the enduring phenomenon of M&B. “And I never have – and never will have – a red-headed hero.”

(via @lizfielding)

USA Today has done a bunch of articles on romance. I tend not to be such a fan of press on romance novels when it suggests that writing — or reading — romance novels makes authors (or readers) experts in relationships, because I’d rather see the books being taken seriously as fiction, not as how to guides. But maybe the line is finer than I like to admit: while I don’t think Margaret Atwood is going to be interviewed for a serious science article on genetic engineering, I could see her being asked to say something about the topic in a “lifestyle” or “health” piece, I guess. Anyway, I found this comment interesting in terms of its contrast to the quote above (although it’s about heroines, not heroes):

And the depiction of heroines as impossibly perfect beauties is an outdated image that “was always unbelievable and has changed and changed quickly,” [author Sarah] Wendell says. “The standard has become much more sophisticated and diverse.”

I’m not sure I would go as far as Wendell on this issue, but this was my favorite article of the bunch, with good stuff also from Nalini Singh and Beverley Jenkins.

*****

I really liked this post at When Falls the Coliseum on sentimentality versus emotion in art, with a discussion of the copout at the end of Inception:

So, here’s the thing, modern artists: it isn’t emotion that’s the sin in your work; it is the phony conjuring of emotion that is not supported by logic and “circumstances.”

Sentimentality thrives in pop songs when the forlorn lover says he wants to die when she’s away. (What if she’s just in the bathroom?) It haunts movies when poorly-rendered outcasts weep about their exclusion from the world. It surfs on every brush stroke of a painting of a pink dog with eyes the size of pizzas. The problem is not the emotion, it is emotion without intellectual or circumstantial justification.

*****

Did you know feminists aren’t allowed to flirt? Ayup.

Male or female, if somebody subscribes to the tenets of feminism, they’re shit out of luck when it comes to flirting. Because flirting is inherently objectifying, right? And yet even feminists get lucky sometimes. How does this even happen? Well, I have some guesses…

*****

Laura Miller comes to Jane Eyre’s defense in Salon (from back in January, via @Infogenium):

For a great novel, “Jane Eyre” has endured more than its fair share of misguided, condescending misinterpretations, but none quite so extravagant as an essay published in the British newspaper the Telegraph last week by novelist Sebastian Faulks. “Jane Eyre is a heroine,” he announces in the opening sentence, while “Becky Sharp, the main character of Thackeray’s ‘Vanity Fair’ (1847-48), is a hero.” Furthermore, “No one seems to question the distinction: it’s obvious.”

For Jane, the “fixed point and priority” of her life is not “her feelings for a man,” but the self-determination expressed in her ability to choose her own truth over those feelings and even, if necessary, over life itself. Her abandonment of Rochester is her coming of age. It’s hard to see how such a personality, and the drama of that personality reaching this apex of despair, clarity and fortitude, could be seen as un-heroic, especially compared to the adventures of a sociopath like Becky Sharp.

*****

Via Books on the Knob, now’s your chance to grab a free Kindle copy of Pride and Prejudice: Wild and Wanton Edition:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife . . . in bed. Unfortunately, you’ve never been able to see Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam indulging their every desire between the sheets–until now. In this deliciously naughty update of the beloved classic, you can peek behind the closed doors of Pemberley’s master bedroom–and revel in the sexual delights of your favorite couple.

Because really talented writers know that sex scenes have nothing to do with the text and everything to do with readers’ preferences. I’m looking forward to the time when, instead of different “lines” with different heat levels, we just have one book we can order however we want. ;)

Personal

We’re celebrating Valentine’s Day with a drive to Ellsworth and dinner with friends at a Mediterranean bistro we really like.

I am in grading purgatory this week.

I’ll have a review of Jo Beverley’s Forbidden Affections, a novella published … a long time ago (can’t find date. 1996?) … and just reissued by Zebra in the anthology An Invitation to Sin, which features a 16 year old heroine and a 30 year old hero. And a SECRET PASSAGE. (No, not that kind.)

HAPPY WEEK!

Review: The Dragon's Bride, by Jo Beverley

The Dragon’s Bride, published in 2001, is part of Jo Beverley’s Three Heroes series (aka the “three guys named George” series), based on three friends, all named George, who fought in Waterloo and return home to challenging circumstances. The other books are the novella “The Demon’s Mistress,” from the anthology In Praise of Younger Men (2001), and The Devil’s Heiress (2001). [Wow, that was a busy year for Jo Beverley!]

I listened to this one on audio, read by the irrepressible Simon Prebble, who performs loads of historical romance, by authors including Julia Quinn, Madeline Hunter, and Stephanie Laurens. I think Mr. Prebble gets more excited than just about anyone by purple love scenes. I am fairly certain he needs either a cold shower or smelling salts or both at several points during the performance. He is overall an excellent narrator, and even manages not to mangle feminine voices. Click this link, then click the bottom right of the page, for a sample.

Here’s how the author herself describes this RITA finalist novel:

Con Somerford, Viscount Amleigh, is not pleased to have inherited the Earldom of Wyvern and the monstrous house that goes with it. He’s even less pleased when the first person he encounters there is Susan Kerslake with a pistol in her hands. Susan and he have a past, a bitter one. The years in between, however, have been years of war. That must, surely, have armed him so he can resist her, and deal with the smuggling with which she is clearly involved.

Susan and her brother (children of a smuggling captain and a “loose woman”) lead a smuggling ring — which is excused in the book as a necessity for a village struggling under high government taxation — on the south coast of England. By day, she is housekeeper and he is a kind of estate manager at Crag Wyvern, a scary old castle with lots of secrets. For years the old Earl looked the other way, but Susan fears the new Earl will clamp down on the smuggling. To her shock, she discovers the new Earl is Con Somerford, her lover for a brief period at age 15. Susan had seduced him when she believed him to be the older son, and rejected him after discovering he wasn’t. Con joined the army and Susan remained at home, never marrying.

Here is an excerpt:

She seized the lamp to lead the way out of the constricting room.
“But I didn’t find everything in order.”
She turned back sharply, alerted by his tone.
He was still angry. After all these years he was still angry. Fear surged through her in a sickening wave. This was a man to fear when he was angry.
He frowned. “Are you all right?”
She’d probably gone sheet white. “Like you, I am tired. If you expected a better reception, my lord, you should have sent warning. Come along and I will see to your needs.”
She opened the door, wishing she hadn’t used quite those words. What was she going to do if he wanted her in his bed? She didn’t want to kill him. She didn’t want anyone else to kill him. She didn’t want to stir anymore trouble around here than they already had.
She didn’t want to bed him.
A slight but deep ache said that perhaps she lied….
Aware of stillness behind, she turned.
He was giving that excellent impression of a stone statue. “If I choose to act on impulse, Mrs. Kerslake, it is for my household, my servants, to accommodate me.”
“You inherited the earldom two months ago and haven’t seen fit to visit here until today. Were we to stand in readiness, just in case?”
“Since I am paying you, yes.”
She raised her chin. “Then you should have made it clear that you wanted to waste money. I would have had a banquet prepared every night!”

This excerpt pretty much showcases both the things I liked and the things I didn’t like about this book. On the plus side, the writing is more than solid. The interactions between the hero and heroine are compelling, and at times breathtaking. The heroine is an interesting character: she’s done bad things, she’s had lovers, she smuggles, she’s nobody’s pushover or fool. The setting is unique, and the smuggling is an integral and interesting part of setting, plot, and character.

On the other hand, way too much of the conflict rests on an event that occurred when Susan and Con were fifteen years old — over a decade prior. With all of their life experiences, how is it that they are stuck emotionally in a moment that happened when they were children? Yet the powerful connection between them must have been forged during the two week period of their acquaintance at age 15, since the present day action takes place over a mere three days.

To be fair, some conflict is generated over the smuggling. Susan is determined to retrieve a stash of smugglers’ gold hidden in the castle before quitting her post there. For some reason I never quite understood, she lets Con think she is trying to find the gold for her own enrichment, rather than for the “horde”. She generates a lot of internal tension over her fears that her repudiation of Con eleven years ago will turn him against the smugglers. I confess my thoughts occasionally strayed into “get over yourself, honey” territory.

I also felt that the balance of telling to showing was off. Con, for example, takes almost no action in the entire book. I found him to be quite passive overall. Yet readers are reminded how powerful and brave he is (see the line above: “This was a man to be feared”. Where is the evidence for that in that passage?). We are often told how perverted and evil the late Earl was, and of an evil that supposedly infects the entire castle Con has inherited, but while there was a fetish for deviant art (rape of a maiden by an unexpectedly well endowed dragon), and an intense unrequited love for Susan’s mother, the strong negative emotional reaction of Con to the Crag Wyvern is hard to fathom.

This book felt, to me, too long for the amount of plot, and too angsty for the amount of conflict, but with good chemistry, a unique setting and an unusual plot, I was (mostly) won over.

Other reviews:

The Romance Reader, 4 hearts

All About Romance, Blythe, B

All About Romance, Jennifer, C+

Review: A Most Unsuitable Man, by Jo Beverley

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Series?: Yes, published in 2005, this is the 7th Malloren (noble family in Georgian England) book. If I had a do over, I would have read its predecessor, Winter Fire, first, since the action in AMUM follows events and characters in Winter Fire so closely.

Setting: The Georgian (1763) setting is very refreshing, especially the importance of country estates, which provides a lot of time with a small group of people, something I happen to enjoy. Beverley talks about the importance of the country estate to the era here.

Hero and Heroine: Mr. Octavius Fitzroger is a penniless friend of the Marquess of Ashart, whom Damaris Myddleton — a “pirate’s daughter” and heiress in search of a titled husband who can provide her entree into the nobility — had hoped to marry. He’s honorable, though haunted by past scandal, and modest. She’s forthright, impulsive, and, at first, superficial.

Conflict: Damaris wants to marry a nobleman, and Fitzroger knows he isn’t good enough for her.

Fun Factoids: The cover won the two image contest at Cover Cafe in 2005, and AMUM was a RITA finalist in long historical (losing out to Liz Carlyle’s The Devil To Pay)

Word on the Web:

Dear Author, Jayne, B-

I love the world of the Mallorens. 18th century England, with the flamboyently dressed men and women, the age of reason, inventions, wigs, power and wealth. I like how your titled men in this series don’t go around spying for England but rather act as Marquesses and Earls of the age would have. They stay in England, they take care of their dependents, they go to court and hold public levees and try to influence the King. No smugglers, no spies, or anything of the sort. They are considerate of their servants but aren’t out marching for servants rights or allowing them to call their betters by first names. They have immense power and by gosh, they act like it.

The Romance Reader, 5 hearts

Mrs. Giggles, 63

Much has been said about Ms Beverley’s supposed exquisite skill in characterization and plot but A Most Unsuitable Man is a flimsy story with underdeveloped conflicts, tedious martyr blues, and an ensemble cast of secondary characters who are interchangeable because they are uniformly perfect.

Rakehell, Cheryl Sneed, positive

AAR, B

Audionote: I listened to this on audio. It’s about 12 hours, unabridged, narrated by the wonderful Jenny Sterlin.

Racy Romance Review:

So much happens in the opening scene of this book, to characters I felt like I was supposed to know already, that I was sure I had accidentally started playback in the middle of the recording. This made for a confusing, but very exciting start to what turned out to be a very enjoyable listen.

This is the story of the “other woman” from the previous Malloren book, Winter Fire. As it opens, Damaris Myddleton’s hopes for a union with the Marquess of Ashart are publicly dashed when he announces his engagement to someone else at the Rothgar Abbey Christmastide gathering. In embarrassment, she tries to flee, only to be detained and convinced to stay by Ashart’s friend, the barely dressed Mr. Fitzroger, who has caught up with her on horseback. This was an incredibly gripping opening.

As the story unfolds, Damaris grows out of her desire for a titled husband and falls in love with the entirely inappropriate Fitz. This happens slowly and maturely while other things — namely an apparent assassination plot against Ashart, whose family history may be more dangerously complicated than anyone realized —  are also going on. Since Fitz is Ashart’s bodyguard — a fact which is revealed to the reader, but not to Damaris or Ashart, very early on —  Fitz must keep Ashart safe while getting to the bottom of the plot.

It’s a bit jarring to read a Jo Beverley after reading so many other romances in which the hero and heroine are essentially adolescents on Adderal and Viagra. Damaris and Fitz are adults: they are interested in other people and activities besides each other, and while their story is romantic, and while they do give in to passion, they are not obsessed with it to the exclusion of every thing else.  Here’s an example of the forthright conversations they tend to have:

“You want to be a duchess”, he reminded her, unhooking her leg. “One of the grandest ladies in the land.”

But she clung onto his shirt. “I’m not sure I want to be mistress of a grand establishment.”

“Don’t take Cheynings as your model.”

“I’m not. I’m serious Fitz. I want a home. A real home.”

He tore free and left the bed. “You certainly won’t get one from me.”

She raised a hand to hum, tears in her eyes, silently pleading. He took it, but used it to pull her up and off the bed.

“You want to marry a man of title and position, and you should.” He tried to be harsh, but he had to wipe away one trickling tear from her cheek, and he wanted to take her back into his arms and comfort her. “Yes, there’s passion between us, Damaris, but it’s nothing important. If I let it trap you, you’d hate me all your days.”

He began to refasten her robe, but she snatched free and did it herself. “I might not.”

In this book, there’s a bit of a gender reversal, as Damaris is the rich confident one, and Fitz is the one with no prospects and no self-esteem. Damaris has fantasies of giving Fitz gifts and dressing him in finery.  I often despise the “I am not good enough for you” conflict, but in this case, Fitz was right. Damaris’s heart’s desire is to have access to George’s court, and, with the exception of Ashart’s family’s home, the scandal-ridden Fitz is not received anywhere.

There is much going on that I haven’t mentioned. In addition to the unfolding suspense plot, both Fitz and Damaris’s complex family histories are slowly relayed in ways that help move the story forward and help us make sense of their motivations personalities. When added to Ashart’s own genealogical expedition, a major theme of the book is the question of whether it is nature or nurture that make us who we are — to ourselves, and to society.

In looking at other reviews, I know some readers had trouble with Damaris. To be honest, she wasn’t totally likable. She was often superficial, impulsive and selfish, and not in a token way, but in a way that had really bad consequences. But those qualities are the other side of her determination, loyalty and honesty. To me, she was real.

Fitz was less distinct in my mind. A keen wit, a very decent honorable person, but a bit stuck and not a self-starter. I had a hard time believing he was a crack bodyguard.

MILD SPOILERS

How could he not have realized who the assassin’s target was after the cider incident? I figured it out and I had exactly the same information he had. And why was he unable to steal papers from a sleeping old woman without waking her up?

END SPOILERS

I was really impressed with the many plot strands Beverley managed to braid together into one very satisfying tale. With the one exception of Fitz’s enforced secrecy (he couldn’t alert Ashart to the danger he was in, or to his own role in keeping him safe), I never felt anything was forced.

Some romances keep me reading because I am so swept up in a larger than life romance. Others, because the plot grips me. Both the romance and plot worked for me here, but mainly I loved being in the world Beverley created. I just wanted to hang out with the Mallorens, hear them talk, go to a ball, take tea. Do the normal things aristocrats did in the day, as DA Jayne’s review sums up so well.

I can’t believe I hadn’t read a Jo Beverley prior to this one. I will definitely be reading (and listening) to more.

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