A Passion for Pleasure
With a title like A Passion for Pleasure one could be forgiven for thinking that this is a story about a dissolute rake and his reluctance to give up his thoroughly enjoyable debauched lifestyle – until, of course, he meets the love of his life and realises it’s time to abandon his bachelor ways and settle down.
No. Once again – and I seem to have read several books recently about which I’ve said the same – the title of the book fails completely to give the potential reader any clue as to its content. As it happened, the story was certainly none the worse for turning out to bear no relation to the title. But it’s something which I find annoying nonetheless.
The hero of A Passion for Pleasure is Sebastian Hall, renowned concert pianist and composer who has recently returned, under a cloud, from his position at the Weimar court, whence he was invited by none other than Franz Liszt. Ostensibly, his reason for leaving is because of artistic differences, but in reality, he has lost the use of his right hand – possibly due to an arthritic condition, although this is not explicitly stated – and has come home with his tail between his legs and full of self-pity.
The second son of an earl, Sebastian receives a modest allowance – but now that he has lost his income from performing and composing, his allowance is not enough to cover the medical bills he has incurred in seeking treatments for his hand. He does not want anyone to know of his infirmity and will not therefore approach his father or brothers for the money; instead, he accepts a paid commission from his brother Darius (whose story will presumably be told in a future book, but who, from the sounds of it, is some kind of spy or secret agent) to find the plans for a mechanical telegraphy device which could be of use in the war in the Crimea.
Sebastian is given to understand that these plans are in the possession of Mr. Granville Blake, a renowned British maker of automata who is exhibiting many of his mechanical creations in London in the hope of attracting a wealthy sponsor who will enable him to continue with his work. Blake’s niece, Mrs Clara Winter, a widow with a young son, is surprised to encounter Sebastian, cynical and dishevelled, during the preparation of the exhibits. She had been a pupil of his a decade earlier and recalls a kindly, handsome young man of sunny disposition with whom she was more than half in love – and though she senses something bad must have happened to him, she does not press him further, for she has serious troubles of her own to contend with.
When her husband died, he left the custody of their son, Andrew, to Clara’s father, the Earl of Fairfax and not to Clara. The earl swiftly removed the boy from Clara’s care and now refuses to let her have any contact with him and naturally, she is desperate to find a way to get him back. She has only one possible recourse; to trade a property her father has long coveted for Andrew, but there is a problem. The only way she can legally dispose of the property is for her to transfer it to her husband who can then sell it on. So she needs a husband – and offers to help Sebastian find the plans he’s after if he will accept her proposal of marriage.
I thought the best thing about the story was the way in which the relationship between Sebastian and Clara was rooted in honesty. Even though they have not known each other very long before entering into marriage, there was a strong current of attraction between them from the outset, and they are both open with each other as to their reasons for marrying – Clara needs to get her son back, and Sebastian needs to get married in order to continue to receive his allowance. But theirs is to be no marriage of convenience – Sebastian makes it clear from the outset that he expects Clara to be a wife to him in every sense, which it’s already clear is going to be no hardship for either of them. The thing that didn’t work though, was Clara’s rather odd belief that allowing herself to fall irrevocably in love with Sebastian would mean that she would forget how much her son meant to her.
Otherwise, I thought the story worked very well, and I liked that it was somewhat of a departure from the normal historical romance plot. Sebastian and Clara marry early on in the story, and embark on a mutually satisfying sexual relationship, but they still have things to learn from and about each other. I especially enjoyed the relationship that developed between Sebastian and Clara’s son. Sebastian is able to allow Andrew to have some personal space in a way that his mother isn’t (due to her overwhelming concern for him) and Andrew’s interest in the piano helps Sebastian to find his way back to the music that he so loves.
The only other false note struck in the story was Clara’s inability or unwillingness to trust Sebastian completely in the latter part of the book, when she devised her plan to recapture Andrew before her father could take him out of the country. After everything they had already been through together, and the way that Sebastian had proved his devotion and trustworthiness several times over, it didn’t make sense to me that Clara could still be prepared to throw aside his love for her – and hers for him – and shut him out of her life.
There are a number of secondary plot strands running alongside the main one, one of which features Sebastian’s reconciliation with his mother (who ran off with a young lover some years before), and another which is to do with the death of Clara’s husband. I imagine some of the other plot elements – such as what Darius is really up to, and the mystery surrounding Sebastian’s other brother, Nicholas, will be addressed in future books as this is only the second in this particular series, but there are no real loose ends left at the end of this one, so it can be read as a standalone.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading A Passion for Pleasure and would certainly consider reading more by this author. The story is well-paced and unusual for the genre; and the romance, while it does develop quickly, feels genuine and surprisingly unhurried. Sebastian is a very sympathetic hero who, while his life has been turned upside down by his disability, is still able to find it in him to want to help someone else and to be upfront about his problems and emotions. I found Clara a little more problematic due to the fact that she seemed to think her capacity for love was somehow ‘compartmentalized’ , and that loving Sebastian would mean not loving her son as much as before or vice versa, and as I’ve said above, her actions towards the end of the book felt rather out of character.
Those small reservations apart however, there is much to enjoy in the book and I’m giving it a solid B.