The Pursuit of Pleasure
The Pursuit of Pleasure is an interesting historical romance. Its author, Ms. Essex, who has an undergraduate degree in Classical Studies and Art History and a Masters degree in Nautical Archaeology, writes with such clear sense of place that her setting, pre-Regency Dartmouth England, leaps from the page. Her hero and heroine are somewhat harder to visualize, however.
The novel opens with Lizzie Paxton saying to a friend, “I do say I’ll never marry, but I have always wanted to be a widow.” Lizzie feels extraordinarily boxed in by the conventions for women in her time and believes that only by being a widow would she have the independence she craves. Her wish is overheard by her childhood love Captain James Marlowe, who has just returned to Dartmouth in order to begin a dangerous assignment for the Navy. James, for reasons he is not honest with Lizzie about, promptly proposes to her, telling her he expects to die on his coming mission. Lizzie, after a day’s thought, says yes. It’s clear that she and James are strongly sexually drawn to each other, although the reasons they both give for marriage are, initially, exclusive of their desire. (The childhood relationship between the two is given such short shrift that their current feelings for one another seem abrupt.)
The two marry and then immediately ride to Glass Cottage, the lovely coastal home James has bought with money he’s made from his successful sea career. There, after a very passionate and well-written seduction, James tells Lizzie he must leave for his deadly mission and makes her promise not to move into the house. The reasons James extracts this promise from Lizzie involve smugglers and the truth about his work for the Navy, and therein lies the rest of the tale. It’s a good tale, albeit rather predictable and a little too hastily resolved at the story’s end.
I liked James and Lizzie but had a hard time understanding why they made the choices they did. James, in the name of his work, allows Lizzie to suffer tremendously while claiming to love her. Lizzie, bedazzled by sex with James and still hell-bent on being independent, behaves in ways that are at times unsympathetic and flat-out self-destructive. And for all the thinking they do about each other — and Ms. Essex spends a good deal of time relating her characters’ thoughts — neither really sees the other very clearly until, perhaps, the end of the novel. This lack of unambiguous relationship development combined with too little information about their pasts left me feeling unsatisfied. I wanted more clarity, more information, and more unguarded interaction between the two.
That said, this is a lovely book to read. Ms. Essex has a true gift for language and description. Her knowledge of the speech and mores of late 18th century England is patent and used to great effect. She does a fabulous job of making James and Lizzie physical people — as they move through the novel, both together and apart, I could see them clearly. Her sex scenes — the first of which takes place over 50 some pages — are exquisitely written and palpably sensual. Ms. Essex is a “show not tell” writer and clearly believes her readers are smart enough to follow her complex prose.
The Pursuit of Pleasure is Ms. Essex’s debut novel and, for a first effort, it’s terrific. I look forward to her next novel, A Sense of Sin which is to be published this spring.