Hope Tarr was on the verge of something really great with her latest book, Tempting, but instead, she settled for something good. I’d hoped she would explore the problems the hero, Simon Belleville, faced being a self-made Jewish man in Victorian London, but she downplayed that aspect. While there was some internal conflict on Simon’s part, it was not prominent, and at the climax of the book, she settled for a showdown with a cardboard villain. Still, Simon Belleville was a fascinating character and Christine Tremayne, a brave and endearing heroine. Although I wished the book had taken a different turn that would have rendered it more original, still the wonderful characters made it a very good read.
Simon Belleville’s grandfather is an earl who disowned his son when he married a Jewish servant girl. Simon’s mother was also disowned by her family for marrying a Gentile. It would be nice to say the marriage was a success, but it wasn’t. Simon’s father was no worker and they were very poor. When he died, young Simon, his mother, and sister tried their best, but they sometimes had to sleep in the street. When Simon’s sister was raped by a couple of young bucks, he was filled with rage and guilt. Shortly after, Simon’s mother married a good man, the tailor Mordechai, and Simon took himself off to India where he made a fortune.
Years later, Simon is a respected man. He has joined the Church of England and is a protégé of Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, who has appointed him head of Her Majesty’s Morality and Vice Commission and wants him to stand for a seat in Parliament. When the Commission closes a notorious brothel, Simon finds a young woman confined in the attic. Something about her defiant attitude intrigues and touches him.
The woman is Christine Tremayne. Her mother and father ran a dairy in the midlands. They were never rich, but they were able to provide all the necessities and some comforts for Christine and her brothers and sister. When they died, the dairy was taken over by a cousin, Hareton, who ran it into the ground, and squandered what money he made on gambling and vice. Hareton beat Christine. When he tried to assault her, she struck back and apparently killed him. She ran off to London with the idea that she would find work. The naive Christine was taken in by the brothel keeper and confined to the attic in the hope of breaking her spirit, and there she was when Simon found her.
Simon initially takes Christine to the school for young ladies operated by his good friend and former lover, Margot. He plans for Christine to stay there and have her speech and manners polished up (much as Margot polished up Simon years ago) and then she will be eligible to find work as a ladies maid, or housekeeper. But Simon finds himself missing her. He also feels responsible for her – a byproduct of the guilt he still feels for his sister’s rape. So, Simon takes Christine to his home where he passes her off as his cousin, and there he takes over the role of Professor Higgins to her Eliza Doolittle.
Simon Belleville and Christine Tremayne make a wonderful pair. He is older than she, and the age difference between them is quite accurate for the time period. Fans of dark heroes will simply adore Simon. He broods, he angsts, and he tortures himself for what he sees as his guilt regarding his inability to protect his sister years ago. That guilt is what attracts him to Christine and makes him want to protect her. But over time, he begins to be attracted to her for her cheerful spirit and the joy she takes in life. But being the tortured soul he is, for a long time Simon does not feel he deserves any happiness.
Christine Tremayne is a delight. She is a country girl, proud of her hardworking family and not afraid to work herself. She is lively, intelligent and perceptive. Christine is sometimes cheeky, but never silly, feisty, or foolish. She’s simply a darling girl, with a kind and loving heart. The scene where she gives Simon a puppy for his birthday and then holds him when he breaks down in tears over his first real present caused me to tear up myself.
While the characters were practically perfect, there were a few aspects to the story that were not quite as satisfactory as they could have been.
The question of Simon’s Jewish background was pretty well dismissed. He has joined the Church of England, but we never are privy to his feelings on the matter. Even though Benjamin Disraeli was baptized very young, he faced prejudice throughout his life because of his Jewish origin. Simon never does. His constituents love him, Society takes him to its bosom, and he becomes quite a member of the Establishment.
When Christine moves in with Simon, the only chaperone they have is his housekeeper. Even though she is posing as his cousin, the mores of the time would not allow an unmarried woman to live in the same house as a man, chaperone or not. Add to that, the fact that Simon is planning to stand for a seat in Parliament, and the situation is even more unlikely. There is an incident at a party where Christine is snubbed by some of the local gentry’s wives, but it is introduced, dropped, and nothing more comes of it. Then too, there’s the villain of the book. He is stupid, brutal, ugly, and evil. If he had had a bit of charm or, well, character, he would have been more interesting. Instead he was tissue paper thin.
It is the characters of Simon Belleville and Christine Tremayne that make Tempting something special, and they are very special characters indeed. Given the choice, I’ll take an imperfectly plotted story with excellent characters any day of the week. Hope Tarr has definitely got the knack for creating memorable characters and when the day comes – and it will – when she creates a memorable story to go with her fabulous characters, I will be the first to stand up and shout “Brava!”