Compared to UNTIE MY HEART (2002), Judith Ivory elects to write about a novel more epic in scope with ANGEL IN A RED DRESS (2006) accompanied by a particularly strong historical backdrop: the French Revolution. The evolution in the strength of Judith Ivory's writing and prose shows, with a continued attention to setting the scene. She does it very smoothly as the mood and disposition of the characters and/or story impact the surroundings at a given moment in time (and vice-versa). For example, the hero Adrien impinging on a room's smell and accommodations.
Unfortunately for me however, I did not enjoy the story and found characters tough to swallow in this grand 458-page paperback spanning over nine months (discounting the prologue). This book would receive 1 star if not for Judith Ivory's markedly strong prose and writing. I thought the book flailed around impotently for more than 200 pages in the beginning, really not finding its drive until the second part. Then, once we reach the impetus of the novel by the end of the first part (Shadows in the Sun), it fizzles out for more than 2-3 chapters in the following second part (Shadows in the Shade).
The story is mostly about 35 year-old Adrien & 23 year-old Christina's "romance." The divorced Christina starts out as Adrien's mistress and finds herself unwittingly in the middle of Adrien's surreptitious operations. Adrien's secret operation involves rescuing French aristocrats from the guillotine and smuggling them into England during the French Revolution. The first part takes place in England, the second in France, and finally the brief and torturous (literally) third part (Shadows in the Dark) ends in England. All in all, it wasn't fun nor engaging, and although I did enjoy the history Ivory deftly intermingles into the story, I found Adrien and Christina's characterizations often times unbearable. The characterization of notorious libertine Adrien Hunt is completely over-the-top, too fantastical, while the characterization of Christina Bower Pinn too subservient, lacking in self-respect. Yeah, I couldn't overcome the suspension-of-disbelief factor where Adrien was concerned, the entire notion of his character was ludicrous. Again, story & characters: bleh.
Like UNTIE MY HEART, the ending here was once again abrupt for a book not in a hurry at all! In fact, the ending in ANGEL IN A RED DRESS is worse than UNTIE MY HEART. The love scenes are sparse and light, the sensuality and passion not the strongest either if that's what you're looking for.
I didn't quite grasp the reasoning behind the title of this book, it isn't really about the heroine Christina. ANGEL IN A RED DRESS firmly belongs to its hero Adrien down to every word on every page. At one point, a besotted stable boy comforts the beautiful heroine Christina, calling her an angel while she publicly parades around as Adrien's mistress. I suppose that scene gives the book its title along with an emblematic red scarf. However, the larger-than-life character of Adrien Hunt overshadows and clouds the story and all other characters including his heroine Christina.
The story, possible SPOILERS.
Christina Bower's self-made rich father is a rising barrister on the King's bench, and he longs for a title for his grandchildren. After a brief meeting with the notorious libertine the Earl of Kewischester Adrien Hunt, Christina weds Richard Pinn at her father's behest. Only to have Richard Pinn divorce her three years later for not producing an heir and the mounting evidence of Christina's sterility.
Thirty-five year-old Adrien Hunt, the Earl of Kewischester, thrives as a notorious libertine, and he's already fathered 5 bastard children. At one point in the novel, Christina's best friend Evie notes there isn't a woman within miles of the earl's Kewischester estate at Hampshire that doesn't know the earl intimately. In fact Christina's (married) best friend also admits sleeping with the earl a few years back! UNTIE MY HEART's hero had a harem too. Ivory certainly relishes on detailing her heroes' experience.
Ivory packs too many layers onto her hero Adrien. He's the scheming, cunning sailor, the pompous, powerful earl, the Madman, the licentious libertine, the brilliant botanist, the articulate French poet, the lucky leprechaun, the industrious, wealthy entrepreneur, the invincible survivor conquering certain death time and time again, the affectionate father, the outlandish, preening dandy and lord knows what other layer I'm missing. The end result? Too fantastic, too nonsensical, but that may be Ivory's intent, and the attraction for many historical romance heroines: layers upon layers upon layers of trophies added on to Adrien's characterization. After the first 3-4 layers, the next and the next and the next become so frivolous, so meaningless, it's quite preposterous. There's no way to relate to Adrien Hunt, no way to ground him, except from the eyes of his enamored heroine Christina.
Despite Adrien's dissolute lifestyle, Christina is predictably attracted to Adrien from the start. And the fact that her best friend has even slept with Adrien doesn't curtail that attraction in the least. You see, Adrien Hunt is handsome beyond belief, he preens himself like a dandy and prides himself on his elegance, grace and power while flaunting his tall, broad-shouldered and muscular frame. Yeah, just another fantastic layer piled on, nothing to get too excited about where Adrien Hunt is concerned. A lot of romance novelists do it, but the tall, muscular and assertive hero surrounding himself with sycophants seemed more pronounced here. Appeared like Adrien travels with his own groupies. Certainly, outlandish displays of wealth and power invigorate Christina's attraction, he is an earl after all...
Similar to Ivory's UNTIE MY HEART, ANGEL IN A RED DRESS describes the hero Adrien's handsomeness incessantly ad nauseam and without mercy. Even at the end, we read about a doctor admiring Adrien's sharp, handsome face and beautiful teeth while he lay shot 3-4 times (once in the abdomen), and cut up brutally over including the face. Yup even other men forget themselves around the magnificent Adrien Hunt.
Even though Adrien razes a trail of women behind him, Christina takes a chance, and becomes his mistress publicly. The first 200 pages or so chronicle how Christina becomes Adrien's mistress and then how they live like that. The book conveniently avoids any deprecating, humiliating gossip which would shame Christina as Christina brazenly plunges on in the affair. She isn't concerned about having children since she's barren anyway.
I thought Christina had no self-respect for herself consistently melting at Adrien's touch. At several points in the novel, she asks Adrien if he loves her in the midst of an affair mutually and publicly acknowledged as earl-mistress. I had to laugh. You want the guy to verbalize the words, "I love you," as a condition to stay on as his mistress? You go girl, way to stand up for yourself!
Accompanying this affair and mostly separate from it: Adrien's clandestine operations smuggling French aristos out of France and saving them from the guillotine. Christina seems to stumble upon these operations by coincidence quite a bit and overhears many conversations. The cunning and devious English Foreign Minister Edward Claybourne enlists Adrien's services to track down a "Madman." The Madman is a thorn in Claybourne's shoe, you see, for being more clever than Claybourne and riling the French authorities more than Claybourne, the nerve! Now Claybourne wishes to hunt down and eliminate the Madman, considering him a threat to Claybourne's position. Claybourne doesn't know the identity of the Madman and discounts Adrien as a possible candidate since Claybourne believes the dissolute Adrien lacks the magnanimous heroism requisite for such operations.
Alongside Christina & Adrien's love(less) affair, the chase to catch the Madman (both Claybourne and the French authorities are after him) while Adrien keeps everyone guessing shapes the remainder of this story. During this time, I found Adrien's invincibility quite ludicrous. He gets shot over and over, beat up brutally, cut up, tortured viciously. Yet he survives through everything with only a few scratches. He gets shot in the abdomen yet the bullet just squishes his intestines.
Adrien is a regular energizer bunny, takes a lickin' and keeps on tickin'!
Overall, I found the book too girlish, Christina constantly in a state of swooning stupor around Adrien. Too many avid descriptions of the hero without really adding much: tall, dark, handsome, sensual, brooding, attractive, invincible, lucky, cunning, powerful, attractively arrogant, wealthy, affectionate, flexing muscles, yes, yes we get it what else is new?!
Again, solid prose here, yet characters and story are a huge let-down.
More random thoughts and musings.
- I didn't understand Christina's motivations behind her request for separate lives after marriage with Adrien becomes evident. A week ago she learned that Adrien truly loves her, and that she has a chance at happiness if only he agrees to marry her. After the marriage proposal finally comes under trying circumstances, she balks, citing Adrien's crazy life as the Madman rescuing French aristocrats from the guillotine as too strenuous to her lifestyle. Huh? A week ago, that risky lifestyle was still there yet she would have jumped at Adrien's acquiescence for marriage. I don't get it!
- Adrien's cousin and ex-wife Madeleine is more childish at 32 than Christina at 22, 23. Despite having survived 2 miscarriages and the death of twins, Madeleine childishly tattles on Adrien's surreptitious activities as the Madman. Huh? Later, we learn that she tattles on him because she heard of a doxy Adrien dotes on: Christina. Ah, petty romantic behavior, that explains it.