One of the great things about ePublishing is that it has opened up a whole new world for authors. Ms. Tarr published this book ten years ago, but has revised and released it in electronic format only. Now, I haven’t read the original (now out of print), so I can’t comment on superiorities or inferiorities thereof. And rest assured, this would be a worthwhile buy even at your typical mass market price.
The book opens with a tragic, heartbreaking scene. It is 1848, and fifteen-year-old Simon Belleville is walking home with his sister Rebecca. They are impoverished and Jewish, two potential causes of concern in Victorian London, but Simon is hardworking and ambitious, and he is happy. His wages will bring Rebecca a birthday goose. But Rebecca never tastes the goose: They are waylaid by three men, who beat Simon, concussing him, and rape his sister before his eyes.
In the next nineteen years, Simon will travel to India and back, amass a fortune, and working his way up the political ladder, with his eye on the House of Commons. His latest post, and hopefully the last before a parliamentary appointment, is heading Her Majesty’s Morality and Vice Commission. So here he is, in front of Madame LeBow’s not-so-qualified establishment, with twenty brothel raids under his belt, and just one more to go before he commences his autumn campaign. But the madam’s attic holds an unwelcome surprise for him.
Christine Tremayne was only searching for work when she arrived in London one week ago. A dairymaid from the Midlands, she needs to support her younger siblings, but was deceived by Madame LeBow, who proceeded to starve Christine. But for some reason, the man who appears in the brothel attic does not want to assault her. Nor does he want her in his keeping. Instead, he takes her home, cleans her up, and delivers her to a friend’s finishing school, where her Midland vowels are rounded out and she learns to pour a cup of tea.
You may very well wonder why. Good question, is what I say. Why did Simon pluck her, of all people, and decide to remake her, Galatea to his Pygmalion? All that was missing were the marbles. It bugged me, because I could see no discernable rhyme or reason that he should be so attracted to her. Halfway through the book, I just shrugged my shoulders and accepted it was Meant To Be.
Which isn’t necessarily bad. I think we have a cultural tendency to over-analyse things, and we could do far worse than metaphorically lift the eyebrows and say, “It is what it is.” It makes me, the reader, more accepting; it does not make the story overly compelling. And Simon and Christine seem borne more of archetypes than actual characters – the young, innocent, spirited Eliza Doolittle, and the much-older, brooding Henry Higgins. Not to mention the Big Bad Cousin chasing after Christine – an archetype indeed.
That being said, there is plenty here to like. There is the firm grounding in Victorian times, with Disraeli making a few appearances. There is the fact that Christine and Simon know what good, honest work feels like, and have fought their way through life and lived through it.
There are also some other excellent secondary characters, namely Margot, the head of the finishing school (and Simon’s old mistress); Rebecca, who remains locked in a sixteen-year-old’s mind; and Simon’s stepfather, Mordechai, who does not approve of Simon’s decision to enter the Church of England. Their interactions with Simon reveal interesting depths (particularly the religious aspects), and I wonder at the book that might have resulted had Ms. Tarr chosen to refocus her story.
Overall, I liked Tempting. I read it through in one sitting, and as I said, it’s also a bargain. Nope, it’s not perfect. But it’s good.