Scandalous Lovers features as its centerpiece the Men’s and Women’s Club, an actual club existing in 1880s London, formed to discuss “sexology,” or issues between the sexes, in a scholarly fashion. In Schone’s novel, the tenor of the club’s discussions takes a drastic and personal turn with the introduction of a new member.
James Whitcox, 47-year-old-widower, is a famous criminal barrister who specializes in winning un-winnable cases. He joined the club in search of answers to questions that have troubled him about his marriage and relations between the sexes. After two years of superficial albeit scholarly discussion, he confronts a strange woman who wanders into the meeting room by mistake with his frustrated questions: What does a woman desire? Do women have sexual needs? Can sex be more than simply release and duty? He knows that duty was all his wife felt during the few years they were sexually intimate, he knows that she never enjoyed sex, he knows that he never really knew – or even thought to ask – what his wife felt or wanted, and now that she is dead, he will never know. His guilt and regret fuel his search for answers. The stranger responds to his questions with courageous honesty and sparks in him a need for more; the need to understand passion.
Frances Hart, married at fifteen and recently widowed at 49, has spent the past 34 years living entirely for her family. She has been a wife, a mother, and a grandmother – but never a woman, never her own person. She has come up to London from the country for herself, to try and find out just who she is and if she even has an identity apart from her family. She is startled by James’s questions, but in her desire for knowledge and honesty, answers him.
James invites her to join the club, and her presence spurs a change in the subject matter of the club. Instead of the lecture on marriage and divorce laws James was scheduled to give, he leads a discussion on French postcards. They take a field trip to an underground pornographic bookshop, each buying an item to show and tell at the next meeting. James’s insistence on discussing the personal and the passionate transforms the group. Some are angry, but most are intrigued, finding their own bravery, revealing themselves and, after two years together, getting to know each other for the first time.
James and Frances are on their own passionate course outside the meetings and their encounters are sizzling long before they have sex. Their conversations are painfully candid and their raw vulnerability is almost astonishing, making these encounters even more intimate than their sexual ones, in my opinion. However, sometimes I felt they were too honest, for example when Frances tells James – on more than one occasion – that she could feel a trickle of his sperm seeping from her during the day after a night of passion. I really didn’t need to know this and didn’t find it at all sexy. Those familiar with Schone’s writing know there can be a bit of an “ick factor” in her descriptions, and it is certainly present here.
But, do James and Frances have a future together? Frances’s time in London is just a holiday, after all, and the pull she feels between being a woman and being a mother is sometimes wrenching, and accompanied by guilt as she reads her granddaughter’s letters and is visited by her son – an event which has dire ramifications and spurs the dramatic action of the last third of the book. However, I felt the book, at 464 pages, wound up being a bit too long with an ending too pat and almost sappy.
I know that many will want to know if Schone’s writing style is still
which drove some readers…
I am pleased to say that there are very few one word paragraphs here. Plenty of one sentence paragraphs, but not so much as to be overly distracting. However, her chapters are incredibly short – many being just three or four pages long – and read more like scenes than chapters, and give the book a choppy feeling at times.
Even so, I enjoyed this book. Frances and James’s intimacy was riveting – even if it wasn’t always agreeable – and I found the Men’s and Women’s Club members and meetings every bit as enjoyable as the primary romance. Scandalous Lovers isn’t for everyone, but it worked for me.