Discovery of Desire
Susanne Lord impressed me last year with her début novel, In Search of Scandal, in which she crafted a strongly characterised, well-developed and angsty romance between a couple who were just a bit out of the ordinary. I have therefore been eagerly awaiting her follow-up novel, in which one of the secondary characters picks up a major plotline begun in the previous story. Seth Mayhew is an explorer and plant-collector who has worked alongside Will Repton (hero of In Search of Scandal) in the past, but was not part of the ill-fated expedition whose fate so haunted Will and during which Seth’s sister, Georgiana, an experienced botanical illustrator, went missing. Will had been about to mount another expedition to China in order to search for Georgie and the baby she is believed to have saved, but Seth insisted on going in his place; it’s his sister who is lost and it’s important that he be the one to find her.
Discovery of Desire opens as Seth arrives in Bombay to meet the guide and translator recommended to him by Will. Seth anticipates trouble from the start; Tom Grant is expecting Will Repton for one thing, and for another Seth’s plans to get out of Bombay and on the road after his sister don’t fit in with Grant’s need to remain in India. Seth wants to begin the search for Georgie right away and is prepared to do anything in order to find her, but it’s very quickly clear that he is going to be up against much more than difficult terrain and the potentially hostile environment he will encounter on his travels. Before he can get going, he has to navigate the political minefield that is the East India Company in order to obtain support and information from the more influential among “John Company’s” employees. Unfortunately, Seth’s outgoing, gregarious manner doesn’t win him many –if any – friends among the men who are, if anything, even more highly conscious of etiquette and social position than they would have been in any London drawing room.
Wilhelmina Adams is one of a large group of “venture girls” who have sailed to India in search of husbands. Her sister, Emma, has a fiancé awaiting her while Mina has a sort of understanding with Tom Grant, and is quite ready to marry him, even if it’s only so she can be near her sister. The problem is that the moment she sets eyes on Seth Mayhew, she recognises a sudden and potentially dangerous temptation to deviate from her purpose. With his six-foot-three frame, laughing green eyes, naturally flirtatious manner and genuine concern for others, Seth is a far too gorgeous a distraction for a woman intent on marrying to provide security, both for herself and her six sisters.
As for Seth, well, he falls for Mina practically the minute he lays eyes on her as she rallies all the other young ladies and tries to bolster their spirits as they get their first sight of the country that will be their home and the strangers who are to be their husbands. But even if Mina hadn’t been there to marry someone else, Seth can’t afford to support a wife and family, and his way of life isn’t one that’s conducive to matrimony. He tells himself she’ll be better off with Tom. Now he just needs to convince himself – and Mina – that it’s the truth.
I admit that I had a bit of trouble getting into the story. It’s slow to start and while Seth and Mina are both admirable characters, it took me a while to warm to them. Seth is a large, open-hearted and affable man who doesn’t always think before he speaks or acts, and at times, he comes across as a bit dim. I found it difficult to equate the man we were told had risked life and limb on numerous occasions, surviving because of his quick wits and intelligence with the Seth that was presented to me on the page. He’s a lovely man, no question; he’s caring and compassionate, genuinely interested in Mina and what she has to say, and he really does want the best for her (even though it might not be what she wants for herself) – but for all his kindness and goodness, his thoughts are often disjointed and he is, for want of a better expression, all over the place.
Fortunately for Seth, Mina is a “managing type”, and determines to help him in any way she can. She does this in quiet, subtle ways, such as involving the other ladies of the “fishing fleet” (the somewhat derogatory name given to the groups of young English women who regularly sailed to India in order to seek husbands from amongst the employees of the East India Company) who in turn ask their new beaux for help, or by simply helping Seth to organise his thoughts and himself a little more. In that way, they complement each other perfectly; they are attuned to one another from very early on and the attraction between them is very well written and developed. The conflict in the story and in their relationship really stems from just two things; Seth’s lack of funds and Mina’s need for security for herself and her family. This is a very genuine concern at a time when there were no financial “safety nets” for people who were not well off. If they didn’t support themselves, they starved, went to workhouses or resorted to illegal activities in order to survive, so a couple who can’t be together because of a lack of money is completely plausible. But … it’s a bit prosaic for a romance novel. I recognise that the line between not enough drama and too much of it is a fine and difficult one to tread, but I’d have welcomed a little more of it here.
The pacing in the last third of the novel picks up and does supply a little more of the drama I’d been craving, as Seth and Mina return – separately – to England and Seth seeks to overcome his money troubles sufficiently to be able to ask Mina to marry him. But this leads me to what is probably the novel’s biggest stumbling block. Seth, while he’s a handsome, kind and caring man just doesn’t cut the mustard as a romance novel hero. He’s not particularly pro-active; all the good things that happen to him happen as the result of the actions of others and I can’t help feeling that had he been left to his own devices, he’d have spent the whole book trying to drum up support and getting nowhere in Bombay. He’s also a bit too self-deprecating and as a result, he’s quick to accept defeat, whether it’s in his financial dealings towards the end of the book or in the way he feels himself unworthy to ask for Mina’s hand, and that’s partly because he lacks the self-confidence to believe he deserves anything better.
On the positive side, I really liked Mina. She’s level-headed and loyal, and I liked the dynamic Ms. Lord has created between her and her sisters, especially Emma who is obviously a little bit fragile. The relationship between Mina and Seth is also incredibly well written; the emotional connection between them is strong and the sense of despair they both feel at having found “the one” only to realise they can’t be together is just as heart-breaking for the reader as it is for the characters.
For a second novel, Discovery of Desire is extremely accomplished and Ms. Lord’s ability to convey strong and complex emotions is what elevates it into the above average bracket. But it’s a book I am appreciating with my head rather than my heart; the writing is terrific, the protagonists are wonderfully supportive of each other and well-matched, the secondary characters are well-drawn and intriguing, the historical background is interesting and I loved the setting. But as I tend to be a hero-centric reader, I can’t get past my disappointment over Seth’s lack of agency – which is why, in spite of all the things the book has going for it, I can’t rate it more highly. I do, however, remain convinced that Susanne Lord is an exciting and talented new voice in historical romance, and will certainly be on the lookout for her next book.