Appetites & Vices
Felicia Grossman’s début historical romance, Appetites & Vices makes use of a setting I’ve not come across before in historical romance – 1840s Delaware – and boasts a couple of interesting, though flawed, central characters who enter into a faux engagement in an attempt to better the social standing of the heroine so she can marry the man of her choice. There are some things about the plot that didn’t quite work and some odd writing tics that took me out of the story on occasion, but overall it’s a solid outing and I’ll be keeping an eye out for more of Ms. Grossman’s work.
Ursula Nunes is twenty-one, beautiful, clever and wealthy. By rights, she should have society at her feet, and she would, but for two things. One, she says what she thinks and has no social skills whatsoever. And two – she’s Jewish, which, in Delaware in 1841 puts her pretty much beyond the pale. She and her dearest friend Hugo Middleton have decided that it would be preferable to marry each other than to marry strangers, but the Middletons are one of the oldest families in society and with Hugo’s father intent on securing personal advancement, won’t countenance Hugo’s marriage to a Jew, no matter how rich she is.
John Thaddeus Truitt V – Jay – comes from a family that is even more prestigious than the Middletons, but that doesn’t mean life is any easier for him. The only son of a disapproving father who always believes the worst of him, Jay is well aware he’s a disappointment all round and wants nothing more than to take himself off to Europe and never come back. When he witnesses Ursula and Hugo in intense, whispered conversation and then overhears Ursula muttering to herself about ways she could ingratiate herself with the Middletons , he finds himself fighting back laughter at the incongruity of the idea of a woman as strong and vibrant as Ursula paired with a man so clearly unsuited to her as Hugo. But then inspiration strikes – and he has the solution to both their problems. In spite of his blackened reputation, the Truitt name still counts for something, and if he and Ursula pretend to be engaged to one another, her association with him means she’ll be able to move in the exclusive social circles to which she is currently denied entrance. And when she jilts him publicly,
“A good faux broken heart will be enough for my parents to stop trying to make me into something I’m not.”
That’s the set-up for the story, and the author does a really good job of exploring the prejudice Ursula encounters because of her birth and the difficulties she faces because she has so little patience with the superficiality of high society. She wants so badly to belong, but she doesn’t fit in anywhere, not in Hugo’s world, certainly not in Jay’s… and not even in that of her own (Jewish) family.
Jay is a very troubled young man who feels that nothing he ever does will be good enough and is so weighed down by guilt that all he wants to do is to escape into the drug-induced haze that is the only thing he’s found that will enable him to forget and lay down those burdens. The truth of Jay’s addiction isn’t sugar-coated; although the author doesn’t come out and directly say Jay is an opium addict – instead hinting at it – until some way into the book, his cravings are clearly and convincingly described.
There’s a lot to like about this novel, not least of which is the humour and snappy banter between the two principals, and the way the author shows the understanding that develops between them; I particularly enjoyed the scenes where Jay uses the game of poker to try to teach Ursula how to read people and situations. Their chemistry isn’t the strongest I’ve ever read, but it simmers nicely, and the love scenes are well written. BUT. I don’t know a lot about American society of the time, but I’m guessing the rules that governed male/female interaction were pretty similar to those in England, so I was surprised at how often Ursula and Jay were able to sneak off to have sex – in her house with family members (her father!) and servants around (there’s an explanation of sorts given towards the end, but that seemed like a convenient afterthought), and please, can we stop it with the virgin heroines who can give championship blow jobs at the first attempt and deep-throat the hero like a professional? I get that Ursula is curious and uninhibited, but I just don’t buy into that whole she-knows-how-to-do-it-just-by-instinct thing.
I also found some of the plans and situations rather convoluted – there were a few places where I had to stop and go back to re-read – and there’s quite a lot of woeful introspection on the part of both protagonists that got to be a bit much. The middle of the book is repetitive, and the way the secrets held by various characters are foreshadowed is quite heavy-handed. There are also some grammatical constructions that really bugged me and kept pulling me out of the story. I won’t go into huge detail, as I know not everyone is a grammar-nerd like me, but one thing I will mention is the use of contractions with names. Instead of ‘Lydia would’ or ‘Rachel did’, we get ‘Lydia’d’ or ‘Rachel’d’. Now, sure, they’re both fine on occasion, but in some places, sentences and phrases are so littered with them that they become unnatural and clumsy. If read aloud, they’d sound pretty odd. Some of the dialogue felt ‘off’ for the time period, and for some reason, Jay decides to shorten Ursula’s name and calls her ‘Urs’, which is a really ugly diminutive, and sounded far too close to ‘arse’ whenever I heard it in my head. If you don’t like your protagonist’s name, then use a different one!
Speaking of Ursula (I refuse to call her ‘Urs’!), I confess that for all her spark and originality, I found her difficult to connect with, and sometimes felt her behaviour to be quite immature (and she cries a lot). On the other hand, I did like Jay and warmed to him more easily; he’s damaged, witty, dangerously charming and possessed of the kind of emotional intelligence that Ursula lacks.
Even with the reservations I’ve expressed, I’m giving Appetites & Vices a recommendation, albeit a cautious one. The story at its heart – a woman who wants to belong and a man who wants to be seen for who he really is – is a good one, Jay and Ursula are well-matched, and both character and romantic development are well-done.