Lessons of Desire
Lessons of Desire is the second book in Hunter’s Rothwell Brothers series and details the complex relationship between the scholarly Elliot and Phaedra, the scandalous daughter of an even more scandalous mother.
Phaedra is the daughter of the infamous Artemis Blair, a brilliant Roman scholar and outspoken proponent of “free love.” Artemis spent most of her life in a relationship with Richard Drury, a radical Member of Parliament with whom she had a child, Phaedra, but never married. Phaedra adored her mother, fully espouses her mother’s beliefs and as a result, is quite scandalous herself. She inherited a small publishing business from her father who, on his deathbed, gave her a manuscript of his memoirs and extracted a promise to publish them unaltered. It is this manuscript that propels Phaedra and Elliot’s relationship.
Rumors about the contents of the manuscript have gotten out and there are quite a few unhappy prominent men afraid of what may have been included. One of these is Christian Rothwell, the Marquess of Easterbrook. There is a reported conversation in the memoirs which insinuates that the late marquess had his wife’s lover killed. It is something the autocratic and cold marquess was certainly capable of, but the Rothwells don’t want the family name besmirched any more than it already is. Christian sends his brother Elliot off to deal with Phaedra.
Phaedra has her own concerns about the memoirs, for in them her father states that Artemis took another lover late in life, a relationship which led to her death. Phaedra is determined to learn the truth of what happened to her mother and all clues point her to Italy. Elliot, a renowned scholar, was already planning a trip to Pompeii to do research for his new book, and so follows Phaedra to Naples where he finds her under house arrest.
Phaedra is a woman traveling alone, wearing her hair unbound, sharing her beliefs in free love, causing duels to be fought in her name – she is a menace in conservative Naples, her mere existence a flouting of all convention. Elliot arrives and manages to have her given over into his custody; the authorities are relieved that there is finally a man to whom she must submit. This completely galls Phaedra, and they move on toward Pompeii.
They agree to investigate the claims Phaedra’s father made against Elliot’s and if they can be proven false, she will excise them from the memoirs. They also seek the identity of Artemis’s lover and the truth of those allegations as well. What they learn shakes up their view and memories of their parents, and painful adjustments must be made – especially on Phaedra’s part. Along the way Phaedra’s lifestyle affronts more locals and drastic steps must be taken to ensure her wellbeing.
Phaedra isn’t as belligerent or “feisty” as the above may imply. She believes passionately in the equality of women and completely rejects the strictures society places upon women – especially the fact that in marriage a woman becomes a man’s property. She doesn’t trust any man to not eventually succumb to their baser instinct to possess. She doesn’t go about giving speeches and proselytizing, but she lives her life as she wishes and refuses to apologize for her beliefs. As an opponent to marriage and a believer in free love, she has had several “friends” in her life and so has declared her sexual independence as well. She causes an uproar just by being.
Elliot is a man who can sympathize with her beliefs. His childhood was an emotional battleground; he spent most of his youth with his emotionally unstable mother and saw the oppression she suffered at the hands of his ruthless father. But he also wants to save the family name and, he must admit it, he is starting to feel possessive toward Phaedra – the one thing guaranteed to scare her off.
Elliot and Phaedra’s relationship is complex and ever-changing. From adversaries to colleagues, from friends to lovers, Hunter unfolds the growing bond while highlighting the fundamental differences between them – seemingly insurmountable obstacles to a life together.
I enjoyed the Italian location; it made a nice change from the usual England. The atmosphere was richly detailed and Phaedra’s feeling of “not being in Kansas anymore” was well done. Conversely, when they returned to England for the last 100 pages of the book, there was a definite shift in the momentum. Much of these last pages felt like wheel-spinning to me, as the same arguments and searches and problems were hashed and rehashed and I found myself running out of patience with both Phaedra and Elliot.
So the last quarter of Lessons of Desire was a bit of a disappointment, though not completely so. There is much to recommend in Hunter’s smooth writing, her complex characters, and the unique situations and settings she provides for them.