I got a bit carried away with this months’ prompt of “Kickin’ it old school” and read several books which were published more than ten years ago. I’ve chosen to post reviews of two; one is a Traditional Regency which, unusually, tells the story of an older couple whose marriage has fallen apart, and the other is a perennial favourite in the AAR Top 100 although it’s clearly a “marmite” book – people love it or hate it.
The latter is Patricia Gaffney’s To Have and to Hold, published in 1995, the middle book of her Wyckerley trilogy. Its male protagonist, Sebastian Verlaine is twenty-nine, handsome as sin, rich and morally bankrupt and the whole story has some very dark overtones that make it hard to read at times.
Sebastian’s pleasure-seeking lifestyle has reached the stage where he’s so steeped in dissipation that he doesn’t feel anything anymore.
“But the older he got, the less fun he was having. It took more every day to divert him, and lately he’d begun moving gradually, with misgivings, into excess.”
Having agreed – while drunk – to take his place as local magistrate in the village of Wyckerley in Devon, he turns up at the hearings and discovers that he may have found his latest plaything – a widow called Rachel Wade who has just served ten years in prison for the murder of her husband. Mrs Wade, unable to secure employment, has been arrested for vagrancy, and even though she’s skinny, dowdy and very poorly dressed, Sebastian is surprised to find that she interests him sexually. He offers her a position as his housekeeper and, knowing straight away that won’t be the only “position” she is expected to adopt, Rachel agrees. It’s that or back to prison, so she really has no other choice.
Although he wants to have sex with her, what Sebastian wants just as much is to destroy Rachel’s outer shell of composure; he wants to “test her, push her, see how far he could go before she broke.”
What is already an uncomfortable power-dynamic is pushed even further when Sebastian eventually takes Rachel to bed. She makes it clear she doesn’t want it – but he doesn’t listen, and it’s not surprising that his behaviour here is a deal-breaker for many. He’s not violent, but this is non-consensual sex, and rape at worst – and shows the reader once and for all, that Sebastian really isn’t a good-hearted rogue deep down, like so many of the other so-called rakes that abound in historical romance. He goes about Rachel’s “seduction” in a very calculating way – wanting to force her to respond to him, and even though the scene is written completely from Sebastian’s point-of-view, the reader is in absolutely no doubt about what is going on in Rachel’s head. From a technical standpoint, it’s masterful and the writing is incredibly powerful.
Unfortunately for Rachel, Sebastian’s cruelty doesn’t end there. He’s begun to enjoy the quiet beauty of the countryside and to become interested in farming methods and the running of his estates, things which he can’t reconcile with his self-image as a heartless sybarite. To pull himself out of these odd fancies, he invites some of his most dissolute acquaintances to Lynton Hall for a short stay, and insists that Rachel serve as his hostess.
Once again, Rachel has no choice but to agree, knowing that she is to provide the entertainment during the course of the visit. It starts on the first evening, as Sebastian throws her to the wolves, watching from the sidelines as his so-called friends ply her with increasingly personal questions about her imprisonment and the indignities she suffered at the hands of her late husband. I found this scene harder to read than the rape actually, for various reasons, not least is the way Rachel actually allows herself to be affected in a way she didn’t during the earlier scene, when she made use of her coping mechanism of divorcing mind and body. And the stark cruelty of what Sebastian is doing by letting it happen is just stunning – it’s like train-wreck reading; horrible but impossible to look away from. At the last possible moment, when he finally realises that what he is seeing and hearing from Rachel’s tormentors is like looking in a mirror, he finally stops trying to pretend he hasn’t changed and intervenes. This is the pivotal point in the story, because after it, Sebastian spends days in a drunken stupor refusing to see anyone, until he finally emerges as a man who wants to live a different life –with Rachel at his side.
Reading all that, anyone who hasn’t read the book is likely to think – “why on earth would I want to read this when the supposed “hero” is such an arsehole?” – and I wouldn’t blame you. But there really is a lot to enjoy about the story, even when it goes to some pretty dark places. Sebastian and Rachel go through fire and rise from the ashes, if you will, and it’s not easy for either of them. Rachel learns to live again, and Sebastian finds purpose in caring for her and for his lands and tenants. He has to learn to be a decent human being, but we’re left in no doubt that he will get there, even though he will undoubtedly make mistakes along the way.
To Have and to Hold is a terrific read, even though I recognise that it’s not a book that will suit everyone. The writing is incredibly powerful and Ms Gaffney gets under the skin and into the heads of her protagonists in a way that many other authors just don’t manage to do. Even if you don’t baulk at Sebastian’s actions, there are a couple of things that didn’t quite gel for me in terms of the plot towards the end, but those really are minor points, and don’t take away from the overall impact and enjoyment of the story. A-
– Caz Owens
For my old school challenge, I decided to dip into my stash of older category romances. I was feeling nostalgic for the now-defunct Silhouette Shadows line, so I picked up a 1994 novel by Amanda Stevens (author of the Graveyard Queen series) called The Perfect Kiss. Though not my favorite Shadows book, this one was a fun read. I also like that it’s a standalone. Unlike many of the current crop of paranormals, the Shadows line had mostly standalone books and featured many different kinds of paranormal plots ranging from ghost stories to gothics to the more-familiar werewolves and vampires.
This story is a vampire tale with a bit of a gothic feel to it. The story opens as a popular young model, Anya Valorian, gets seduced and then turned by an evil vampire. Now fast forward ten years later. Anya lives in seclusion, and the hero, Zach Christopher, seeks her out to be the face of the advertising campaign he believes will rescue his family’s floundering cosmetics empire.
As I read, I found myself wavering between irritation and enjoyment. On the one hand, Zach pursues Anya pretty aggressively and I found him incredibly insensitive to her and overbearing on occasion. He comes off as cocky as he assures Anya that he just knows she will come around. In addition, while the story has a gothic feel, the narration does get laid on a bit thick at times. Oh, and since it was written in the early 90s, some of the fashion descriptions (Anya is a model, after all) will probably make readers snicker a bit. I certainly did.
However, Anya’s struggle feels poignant and real at times. She has no illusions about what she is and what vampires do, and yet she fights it. And as the story wound along, I found myself caught up in the drama and wondering if Zach and Anya would somehow find a way to beat the odds and end up together. If I hadn’t spend so much time wondering if Zach would also find a way to overcome his personality, I probably would rate this higher, but as it is, I’d still give it a B-.
– Lynn Spencer
My other choice was Married to a Rogue by Donna Lea Simpson, which was originally published in 2000 under the title Lady Delafont’s Dilemma. It tells the story of an older couple – he’s forty-two, she’s thirty-six – who were desperately in love when they married fifteen years earlier, but who have been living apart for the past five years. The author very thoughtfully explores the reasons behind the breakdown of the marriage and shows us how both protagonists – Baxter and Emily Delafont, the Marquess and Marchioness of Sedgley – come to realise that they both bear a responsibility for the break-up and that neither of them really fought for their marriage as they should have done.
As a second-chance romance, Married to a Rogue works really well. Baxter and Emily were very much in love when they married, had a lot in common, the sex was great – but after a few years when there were no children forthcoming, the rot started to set in. Emily began to withdraw, feeling that Baxter must be blaming her for her inability to conceive. He has no idea she’s blaming herself, but his poisonous mother’s constant needling over his lack of an heir and his unwillingness to tell the woman to take herself off to the dower house, plus the way Emily is gradually becoming a shadow of her former self – something Baxter finds difficult to watch and has no idea how to deal with – begin an insidious erosion of their relationship until, at its lowest point, Baxter more or less orders Emily to go to Yorkshire and stay there.
This aspect of the story is very well handled, and I thought was a splendid exploration of the way in which a relationship can break down for no one, big reason – like one partner having an affair – but through a series of smaller things and misunderstandings that are allowed to fester until eventually, they turn into wounds that are far too big to heal.
The couple’s reconciliation is just as well handled. I won’t say that they never fell out of love with each other, because I think it’s possible they did – but rather that their time apart has allowed them to gain a new appreciation for each other, without the strain of living together and the outside interference, and to prepare the ground for them to fall in love with each other again.
Where the book falls down is in its attempt to be too many things. As well as the central romance, there’s a secondary plotline in which Baxter’s work as a courier and part-time spy leads to several attempts on his life; Emily is considering a dalliance with a dashing young Frenchman, who may not be exactly what he seems; and she’s also trying to protect a young woman from being forced into a distasteful marriage by her mercenary mother. This isn’t an overly long book, and while most of these points are satisfactorily resolved, they make it feel somewhat cluttered, and I’d have preferred to spend a little more time with Emily and Baxter.
Emily is a terrific character, a warm, loving woman who saw her happy future fade away but who has now determined to pick up her life and get on with it. Baxter, however is more problematic. He’s dark, brooding and rather aloof, the epitome of the very masculine romantic hero – yet he fails to see that his utterly obnoxious mother is making his wife’s life a misery and thus doesn’t stand up to her. There’s also the fact that at the beginning of the book, Baxter has returned to London accompanied by his beautiful mistress, a young woman half his age, something which may be a dealbreaker for some readers. He’s been trying to break things off with her for some time, and there’s no hanky-panky once he’s set eyes on Emily again, but his reasons for taking up with her in the first place and his problem in ridding himself of her do make him seem rather weak. He’s not an unattractive character, but his weakness in standing up to those two women – no matter the reason (he doesn’t want to hurt either of them, even his dreadful mother!) is difficult to get past.
If I were rating the book based solely on the romantic elements, then it would be a very strong B, because I thought the portrayal of deterioration of the Sedgleys’ marriage was realistic and heartbreaking, and the author has written them in such a way that it’s easy to root for their reconciliation, which is also very convincing. But taken as a whole, what with all the other plot elements and the fact that the story is told from about six different viewpoints, I’m going to have to lower that a bit. I’d still recommend the book to anyone who enjoys a good, second-chance romance, but the other elements do detract a little from the main storyline. B-
– Caz Owens