The Seduction of Sarah Marks
The Seduction of Sarah Marks is the first in a new series from this author. It’s an enjoyable read overall, though some of the plot points were overly contrived and the writing, while generally good, felt rather rough-edged and unpolished in places. But the book did hold my interest, and there were some engaging characters clearly being set up to feature in future books that I may seek out.
The story opens with the eponymous heroine waking in a bed not her own next to a man – also not her own. But she can’t remember anything other than that her name is Sarah Marks (which isn’t actually her name, but I’ll refer to her that way for the purposes of this review). She has no idea where she comes from, where she was going, or how she came to be in this situation, and is, understandably more than a little panicked at finding herself in bed with a complete stranger.
Here’s where the first of the contrivances I mentioned comes in, because it turns out that this chap – who introduces himself as Augustus Malvern, Lord Eastleigh – is a fellow amnesia sufferer. And not only that, he has a personal physician residing at his home who is somewhat of an expert, having treated Eastleigh since he returned from the Crimean war several years previously minus most of his memories. In the intervening years, his memory has returned, although there are still some chunks missing.
Eastleigh tells Sarah not to try too hard to remember things about herself, as that’s likely to make things worse – and then suggests that she accompany him to his home in Kent. She is immediately alive to the impropriety of such a thing and tries to refuse, but as Eastleigh points out, he can’t leave her alone at a roadside inn, and as she has no idea where she lives, what other option is there? His physician, Doctor Hemphill, will likely be able to help her, and she can rest until she regains her memories and they can work out a more suitable plan of action.
Sarah agrees reluctantly, and although she is very wary of Eastleigh, she can’t fail to notice that he’s a very attractive man. The attraction is mutual – although most of Eastleigh’s attempts at friendly conversation are met with gentle and not-so-gentle rebuffs, as Sarah struggles with the reality of her situation. There’s the merest hint at the idea that perhaps her desire to keep a distance between them is stems from more than her disorientation and anxiety over her memory loss.
It’s difficult to say much more about the plot without giving too much away, because at around the 40 percent mark, there’s a twist I hadn’t seen coming – which puts a different complexion on the relationship between the two protagonists. We learn of Sarah’s unhappy past and the difficult and unpleasant home life which has caused her to become so guarded. At first, and under pressure, she begins to revert to type, but there comes a point at which she realises she has too much to lose and decides to fight for what she wants, which is an admirable trait in her.
Eastleigh is rather an enigmatic character to start with, although as the story unfolds, the reasons for this become clear, and I applaud the author for the way she manages to keep his speech and motives necessarily vague without making him seem unpleasant. He’s a likeable hero, possessed of much patience and compassion. A former soldier, he suffers badly from PTSD which manifests itself in the form of terrible “megrims” (what we might today call migraines) which can send him to bed for days at a time. We are given hints as to the severity of his illness which evoke sympathy, and feel for him when, after a series of particularly bad episodes, he despairs of ever being able to lead a normal life.
As this is the first in a series, we are introduced to the brood of Malverns who will no doubt feature in the books that follow. There are Eastleigh’s three brothers and four sisters – although one of the girls (Willamette) insists on dressing and behaving like a man and on being called Will – and his mysterious cousin, Rob, who lives on a neighbouring estate. The author paints a broad picture of a close-knit and loving family, presided over by a wonderfully eccentric matriarch named “Mum” – who is actually their grandmother. Mum – so named because she sometimes believes herself to be the Queen Mother – is warm and funny, preferring her tea laced with gin and being rather ahead of her time when it comes to matters of love and sex. She tells stories of her desert adventures and her nights of passion under canvas; she’s a lady modelled on Lady Hester Stanhope, the intrepid traveller and adventuress whose exploits became legendary.
The romance, while at first seeming like a bad case of mutual insta-lust, actually turns out to be quite sweet and well-developed. Sarah and Eastleigh learn to like and trust each other – which is especially important for Sarah, as she has to learn that not all men are cruel and manipulative. The dual-amnesia plot naturally throws up various obstacles; and while the plot device is contrived, the resulting emotional turmoil experienced by both protagonists grows naturally from it and makes sense.
I finished the book feeling, on the whole, pleasantly surprised. When I discovered that both main characters were suffering from amnesia, I rolled my eyes and wondered how long it was going to be before I became impatient with such an obvious contrivance. And while I maintain that it’s a bit much to swallow, Ms Roth does make the story work, especially when it comes to the big reveal, which is unexpected. She has also created two likeable characters in Sarah and Eastleigh, although there were times that Sarah in particular was hard to sympathise with because of her tendency to act as though she has a stick up her arse (as Mum gleefully points out) .
I’m giving The Seduction of Sarah Marks a very qualified recommendation because, while the book is engaging, there are times there is almost too much going on and the focus is lost. Some of the characterisation is inconsistent, and I felt that the writing could have been a little more polished. But I enjoyed the story enough to want to look out for future books in the series.