Forbidden is a book I know many readers will not like. It has a controversial premise for a romance and a hero and heroine whose actions are often anything but heroic. At the very least, you have to give this husband and wife writing team credit for pushing the envelope, even if it is into territory uncomfortable for many readers. Normally I would agree with them, except the author keeps the story so compelling that it remains a strong read.
No man had ever affected Leah Dubois the way J.T. West did. He’d been her first lover when she was sixteen, the bad boy stealing the heart of the sheltered judge’s daughter. He reappeared in her life more than a dozen years later, tempting her into an extramarital affair that destroyed her marriage. Sixteen months later, she is still in the process of putting her life back together. She and her husband are in couples therapy, discussing the possibility of him moving back into the house. And then J.T. West comes back to town once more.
J.T. has nothing to offer her. Wrongfully accused of murder years before, he’s on the run, with no permanent home and no close relationships. But he can’t stay away from Leah, anymore than she can resist him.
This isn’t a story I can really say I liked or enjoyed in the usual sense. But it is a fascinating, very different type of romance that never failed to hold my attention. It has a moody, brooding tone befitting the intensity of the characters’ relationship. What exists between J.T. and Leah isn’t a simple matter of hormones. They have a nearly obsessive attraction to each other, and the authors’ tone reflects that. It’s dark, it’s intense, and it’s all-consuming.
As a result, the characters do act in some very selfish ways, focused only on their feelings and desires for each other. Leah’s affair and the subsequent divorce turned her daughter into an angry, sullen little snot. For much of the book, Leah’s preoccupation with J.T. causes her to neglect her daughter. She certainly won’t be winning any Mother of the Year awards. J.T.’s disregard for the impact his pursuit of Leah would have on other people is utterly selfish. Many readers will have difficulty empathizing with either of these people. At the end of the book, Leah voices the book’s message when she wonders why more people don’t listen to their hearts instead of their heads. In her case, I think it’s because most people would think it’s not a good idea to cheat on your husband.
In real life, and indeed, in most romance novels, I would have no tolerance for this kind of behavior. But there’s something about this book and this story that made it an engrossing read. Much of it is the book’s tone, and the way the author portrays J.T. and Leah as two people with tunnel vision for one another. It’s easy to get sucked into the dark intensity of their attraction for each other. At the risk of beating a dead horse, I think this is the kind of relationship Anne Stuart was trying to write in last year’s Into the Fire, except without the rampant cruelty and stupidity. They don’t just want each other. They crave each other.
As much as I couldn’t really empathize with the characters’ actions, they remained compelling people to read about. It was interesting to see characters this flawed, particularly in a Harlequin. They’re not perfect – far from it. But the emotions they’re feeling are very human and watching them deal with them made for interesting reading. They aren’t a hero and heroine. They’re just people. I also have to respect that the author didn’t whitewash the characters’ actions. She did cheat on her husband. He did have sex with a married woman (heck, the woman he was accused of murdering was also married). That may be why it was somewhat annoying when the author resorted to a standard-issue cop-out to make the heroine look better in the end. The story’s happy ending may also not be entirely convincing, although it’s probably the best one the author could have delivered with this scenario.
One of the hardest things about being a reviewer is writing a review you know many people will disagree with. This is one of them. I found Forbidden to be such an unusual, compelling read that I had to give it a grade that reflected that. By no means does that indicate it’s recommended for everyone. But for readers open to unusual stories and deeply flawed characters, you may find it as fascinating as I did.