Lady in Red
I’d heard good things about Ms Claremont’s début novel (The Dark Lady) and as I’m not averse to a romance with a large dollop of angst, I settled in to read Lady in Red with fairly high expectations. The story centers around Lady Mary Darrel, the eighteen year-old daughter of the Duke of Duncliffe, who, three years prior to the beginning of the book, has been placed in a mental asylum by her abusive and controlling father where she has been repeatedly raped, beaten, and force-fed laudanum to ensure her docility. Ms Claremont does not sugar-coat this side of Mary’s experiences, and indeed, it was not an uncommon event for a woman to be branded insane and locked away by her male relatives on the slightest pretext at the time in which the novel is set.
The story opens as Mary, battered and bedraggled, has escaped from the asylum and arrives at the high-class brothel run by a dear friend of her mother’s (who had also been a high-flying courtesan before her marriage) seeking refuge from her keepers and her father. That same evening, she is seen by Edward Barrons, the Duke of Fairleigh who, despite her emaciated appearance, is immediately attracted to her, both physically and emotionally. Yvonne (the madam) immediately realizes that she will not be able to protect Mary from her father and suggests instead that she should become Fairleigh’s mistress. Being of the same rank as her father, Edward will have a better chance of keeping her safe and he has already expressed his interest in Mary and extended an offer of protection. Given the terrible degradations she has suffered at the hands of the male attendants at the asylum, Mary is naturally not keen on the idea of becoming any man’s mistress – but she can see the sense in Yvonne’s argument and agrees.
But Edward, too, has his own dragons to slay and it’s clear from the outset that his interest in Mary is as much to do with helping himself as it is with helping her. He is looking for someone to save, someone who will enable him to divert his thoughts from his own inner darkness – and thus, someone who will set him free from the horrors of his past.
It’s fairly obvious that that kind of willful self-obfuscation isn’t the best basis for a relationship. And the waters are muddied further when Edward, believing it to be the best way to help Mary to heal, offers to help her to destroy the man who did this do her and sets her on the path to revenge. To help her with this, Edwards enlists the help of his friend, Viscount Powers. Edward has helped Mary to hone her skills with a pistol, but for the instruction in hand-to-hand combat, she needs someone else, and Powers is the man. Mary immediately recognizes a fellow addict – and at first it’s open hostility between them. But Edward says they need him, so Mary acquiesces, and she begins working with the enigmatic viscount.
Powers is physically imposing, gorgeous, incredibly sarcastic, and frequently unpleasant – and I felt that his addition to the dramatis personae caused a severe imbalance in the book. It’s never a good thing when the secondary male “hero’s friend” character is more interesting than the hero and I have to say that there were times when Powers made Edward seem insipid. Once he appeared, there was more sexual tension between him and Mary than there was between Mary and Edward; to such an extent that I wondered if the three of them were going to end up hitting the sheets together!
As the story progresses and Mary begins to regain her strength, both physically and mentally, the focus shifts slightly to Edward and the inner demons he is continually trying to fend off. What he hasn’t realized – and doesn’t for quite some time – is that for him to be able to help Mary, he needs to let her help him ; but he’s so intent on protecting her from his shameful past that he won’t let her in.
But there comes a turning point for Edward when he realizes that he’s done a terrible thing in setting Mary on a quest for revenge, telling her that it will destroy, rather than free her and begging her to turn aside from it. There’s a truly poignant moment when she tells him that by saying that, he is stealing back the hope he had given her – and in which she realizes that he will never be able to give her the love she wants and needs.
There was much to enjoy in Lady in Red, not the least of which was the author’s stylish prose and the emotional punch she packed in certain scenes. I enjoyed seeing Mary gradually regain her sense of self-worth and taking back the control of her self to the point where she is able to confront her father boldly and without fear.
But I did have issues with certain aspects of the plot. Mary was repeatedly abused in the asylum – sexually, emotionally, and physically – and while it’s true that she does not (at first) want to be touched and is uncomfortable around men, it’s not very long before she is looking at Edward with sexual interest. Now, I’m no expert and am certainly not going to say that it’s impossible that a woman who has been brutalized as Mary was could never regain an interest in sex – just that it seemed to happen rather more quickly than I would have thought. In fact, the events related in the book seem to take place over days and weeks; I would have found Mary’s recovery to have been more realistic had it taken place over a longer period of time.
Which brings me to another issue, which is to do with Mary’s addiction. She was plied with Laudanum in the asylum, and yet is able (apart from one lapse early on) to stop taking it with hardly any ill effects.
The biggest stumbling block for me, however, was the fact that I never connected with either of the main characters, and didn’t feel anything resembling a real emotional connection between them. Although Edward was kind, protective and quite intuitive, and the horrible events in his past had served to badly mis-shape his view of himself, he never seemed more than two-dimensional; and while I sympathized with Mary and was cheering her every step of the way as she pulled herself back from the edge, she remained a character in a book rather than someone who came to life in my imagination.
I’m not completely sure whether my disappointment in Lady in Red is due to the fact that my expectations were too high, because it’s by no means a bad novel. It’s well written; it’s also clear that the author is able to create memorable characters and that she is able to craft an interesting storyline. But somehow, this ended up being one of those books where the sum of the parts unfortunately proved to be greater than the whole.