The Art of Desire
Often, the essence of a “C” read is the way it blends strikingly good qualities with painfully bad ones. This romantic suspense has some excellent moments, but oddly, none of them have much to do with the romance or the suspense. While The Art of Desire falls short, the positive elements show enough potential to mark Selena Montgomery as an author to watch.
The story begins with a brutal power coup brewing in Jafir, a troubled African country. Zeben, a power-hungry religious madman, breaks out of prison in order to steal a sacred obelisk whose possessor is preordained to become ruler of Jafir. Time, however, is running short: the throne has been vacant almost 25 years, and within a month the monarchy’s property reverts to Jafir’s government. Zeben deputizes a minion to find the obelisk within the deadline and, while he’s at it, to execute an American accomplice-turned-traitor, Phillip Turman.
Phillip is a run-of-the-mill tortured hero. He’s plagued by nightmares of his two years of captivity in Jafir where he was a double agent, joining Zeben’s organization while working for the ISA, a supersecret US Government agency. His work cost him his fiancee, his seat in Congress, and his peace of mind. He balks whenever Atlas, his former superior, tries to draw him back into the game, but finally agrees to return a favor by protecting Atlas’ goddaughter Alex at a friend’s wedding.
Alex Walton is a likable feisty heroine, a dilettante trust-fund baby whose characterization is the highlight of the book. She’s beautiful, artistic, and self-confident to the point of arrogance, and yet within ten pages I went from heartily wishing she’d been stifled in her crib to rooting for her. There’s something about Alex’s cheerfully unrepentant love-em-and-leave-em attitude toward men that’s surprisingly charming. Alex knows how gorgeous and talented she is, and can’t help it that men fall at her feet. Usually, the good-time gal who’s never even heard of low self-esteem is the heroine’s best friend, not the star of her own show. Compared to that legion of shrinking-violet heroines, Alex is a refreshing change of pace.
Would that that were true of more of the book. The main problem with the romance, suspense, and hero can all be summed up in one word: superficial. All of the energy of Alex’s engaging characterization and Phillip’s adequate one drains away whenever the story turns to their romantic connection. Their lustful thoughts are completely generic, and have a strong cut-and-paste flavor that could be the aggregate of a dozen romances, with nothing rooting the attraction in Alex and Phillip’s personalities. This is not an uncommon flaw, but it’s especially glaring here.
In the beginning, the suspense plot isn’t so bad, and has a rather Brockmann-esque flavor. But where Suzanne Brockmann has become the standard-bearer is in more than just the colorful details of her plots, it’s also in the clarity with which she depicts even the most complicated activity. In The Art of Desire I often found the action difficult to follow. Details like what actually happened to Phillip, and how a young Congressman became a secret agent (apparently going on a dangerous mission while still in office) are obscure or never addressed. After a promising start, the plot makes a complete departure from reality. Even in the fantasy genre it’s hard to buy a plot that involves any ruler obtaining his throne not through merit, power, or even heredity, but by finding and redeeming the right sacred chotchkes. It’s completely implausible in a contemporary.
Despite these problems, I found several things to enjoy. In addition to Alex, occasionally there are unusual details that greatly enhance the book, like Alex’s description of glassblowing or Phillip’s reminiscence of a childhood scam that netted him his very own Millennium Falcon. Montgomery uses a vivid, complex vocabulary, and several of the secondary characters sound intriguing enough to make their own books worth a look.
My favorite passages in the book take place in high-society Atlanta. Perhaps it’s because the author is a lawyer, but unlike the Jafir setting, the rich-and-powerful ambience and the business-oriented details have a stronger-than-average flavor of realism. It’s still only about as believable as a Dynasty rerun, but at least it doesn’t read as though it had been researched by watching Dynasty reruns. I probably wouldn’t read another romantic suspense by this author, but I’d be very interested to see what she could do in a more realistic setting that plays to her strengths.