Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Lessons of Desire, by Madeline Hunter [1]

*/***** (1/5)

Carnal pleasure is as much a woman's need as a man's. Do not deny your desires, but beware whom you choose as a partner. Most men are conquerors at heart. Seek out the enlightened few who have risen above this primitive curse. If you choose to take your pleasure with a conqueror, make sure you cede only your body and only temporarily. And never, ever succumb to the delusion that you can change such a man. --Artemis Blair speaking to her daughter Phaedra of lessons about desire.

This advise would apply in Madeline Hunter's LESSONS OF DESIRE if Elliot Rothwell actually did anything. Instead, he harbors a lot of emotional angst and he acquiesces to everything according to Phaedra's terms and conditions. I have to admire Madeline Hunter for writing a heroine so different from the historical-romance norm such as Phaedra Blair, but I can't say I liked Phaedra and Elliot together. The book belongs to Phaedra Blair, her eccentric individuality, her dogged pursuit to print her late father's explosive memoirs, and her investigation to discover her late mother's last lover. On his deathbed, Phaedra's father claimed this last lover of her mother's eventually caused her mother's morose decline. Elliot Rothwell accompanies Phaedra on this journey to discover her mother's last lover. Elliot tries to dissuade her from printing portions of the memoirs which vilify his family, but he mostly cheers her on from the sidelines. Throughout the second half, Elliot inappropriately grovels at Phaedra's feet quite a bit too. Even following the very last page of this 386-page paperback, it didn't seem like Phaedra really wanted to marry him. Although she finally agrees and thinks she wants marriage with Elliot, she unfairly tests Elliot quite a bit. She makes him beg and voice copious words of love and affection before nonchalantly agreeing to marriage. Phaedra really doesn't deserve Elliot, and I was a little sickened by Elliot's constant debased groveling at Phaedra's feet.

I found the plotting, prose and settings below-average in this novel, but my dislike of the characters may have something to do with that feeling. For many romance books with relatively weak plotting, it's usually a hit-or-miss deal resting on whether the characters work for you or not. Madeline Hunter is better in this respect than most because she usually intersperses some intriguing plotting aside from a gritty romance itself. In LESSONS OF DESIRE, I felt the incongruous h/h interaction took away from the plotting dealing with Phaedra's memoirs. STEALING HEAVEN (*****) also featured a confident, strong heroine at odds with her hero. There however, the hero turned heaven and earth upside down for his heroine, and it was very compelling. The combative tension there was mutually acknowledged and anticipated by both. In LESSONS OF DESIRE, Elliot doesn't really do anything, and his excessive groveling at the end seemed very inappropriate for a woman who clearly doesn't want marriage. Her last-second turnaround towards marriage wasn't very convincing either.

The best part of this book? The preview to SECRETS OF SURRENDER featuring Roselyn Longworth slated for a June 2008 release. Who is Kyle Bradwell? No wealth and title? Interesting... And good to see Alexia again in SECRETS OF SURRENDER.

In many ways, LESSONS OF DESIRE represents the antithesis of RULES OF SEDUCTION (*****) and its heroine. RULES OF SEDUCTION's Alexia was practical, sensible and amenable to marriage, while LESSONS OF DESIRE's Phaedra is the polar opposite. Phaedra doesn't believe in the very institution of marriage. In other ways, the two novels are similar. There are three things you can count on from a romance novel: words of love, acts of love and marriage (not necessarily in that order). In both RULES OF SEDUCTION (*****) and LESSONS OF DESIRE, we find the words of love in the concluding pages of the novel.

Phaedra Blair believes in a philosophy espoused by her late mother, "free love" (a forward concept for the time period). Later in the novel, Elliot recognizes the philosophy for what it is: "free pleasure." Phaedra also scorns a marital relationship which in her view chains a woman to a man. Poor Elliot, more than once, Phaedra fervently rebels against marriage with Elliot. When Elliot disconsolately provides Phaedra with the names of lawyers who help women in divorce cases, Phaedra hypocritically feels a "twist of disappointment" that Elliot would not contest her wishes for undoing their marriage. When Elliot writes to her expressing concern for her safety at her home, Phaedra almost blames Elliot for not asking her to come live with him. All this after Elliot practically begs her to continue with the marriage only to have her reject the marriage, and by extension, him! And over what? A feminist philosophy which repudiates the notion of marriage and how it always has to be: the woman chained to the man. If anything, it was Elliot enslaved by Phaedra, not the other way around.

Possible SPOILERS ahead.

Elliot chances on too many opportunities to protect Phaedra from herself but he never seizes them. The book makes Elliot too much of a romantic goody boy: in Italy, he arranges to liberate Phaedra from an imprisonment of her own making twice, he protects her, he submits to her conditions for intimacy, he accepts Phaedra's lifestyle of "free love" and defends Phaedra's mother and her way of life when Phaedra expresses hatred towards her mother, he honors Phaedra's oath to print her father's controversial memoirs, he never coerces the witness Merriweather to retract statements which impugn Elliot's family, he never asks Phaedra to omit the portions of the memoirs which malign his family's name, he doesn't even abscond with the manuscript when Pheadra didn't want to print them herself. He further stays away from Phaedra when she rejects marriage to him. A continued liaison would obstruct her stubborn need to undo the marriage. All of her strife and pain is self-inflicted, and she causes poor Elliot much emotional angst. Elliot seemed too accommodating. Elliot is lucky that Phaedra comes around, and that seemed cheap too because she was pregnant by then.

It was all too much, a little ruthlessness from Elliot to save her from herself was definitely in order. He's already loving Phaedra under her terms (as a "friend" in free love), in various good-boy ways he's already protecting her promise to her late father about the inflammatory memoirs, and he won't even request that she remove the portions which maligns his family. Lord, enough already... Even if the portions of the memoirs detailing Elliot's father prove true, what is the point of it all except to drudge up the past and give the ton more gossip? If she's worried about the press she inherited, she could have recovered losses incurred by not printing the memoirs a thousand fold by accepting Easterbrook's compensation. If the popularity of the memoirs keeps the press afloat, it won't really be her doing, she didn't write the memoirs, and she didn't build the business. What's her stake in any of this except a promise to her late father condemning others from his grave?

I thought it was incongruous to have Elliot to use the words "love" first when it was always Phaedra who rejected and rebelled from him. After everything Elliot does under her terms both with their passion and the memoirs, it should have been Phaedra who first comes forward with her love to Elliot. In one of the love scenes, Elliot thoroughly services Phaedra going down on her and all he asks of her in return was to vocalize she's his for tonight. She refuses. Elliot grovels quite a bit at the end which didn't seem to fit considering Phaedra's philosophies and persistence to continue with the publication of the memoirs. Similar to THE SAINT's hero and heroine, you have Elliot wanting more from Phaedra (marriage) than just the "free pleasure," while Phaedra resistant to the last page. Unlike STEALING HEAVEN, the philosophies and plight of this book's aggressive heroine Phaedra simply aren't justified. Her philosophy is just naive, and her plight to publish the memoirs just plain stubborn (the memoirs will provide mere gossip and slander peoples' names, nothing else). It seemed like Phaedra was running roughshod all over Elliot, so he'll be debased, so he'll grovel, and so he'll voice words of love first. Even in the last 4 pages of the novel, she forces him to grovel after he's already voiced words of love and affection a month earlier. Elliot asks, "What must I say or do to convince you that we belong together?" She coldly answers, "I came here to listen." So he continues to grovel at her feet: "I want this marriage, Phaedra. I need it to know you are mine. I love you even more than I desire you. I want you with me always. I want to return to a home where you live. Do you never dream of such things too?" Until she hears this groveling (something he's done before at least twice), she still lets him suffer and imagine the worst: that she still doesn't want marriage. She has this superiority complex to be on top the entire book and her realization she "loves" Elliot doesn't change that, even at the denouement. The way Phaedra approaches Elliot after she publishes the memoirs clearly reinforces her need to chain her hero, to make him debased. She waits for Elliot to reiterate his words of love and desire to marry her before casually accepting the marriage.

On page 384 of 386, the thought of marriage with Elliot now prompts a giggle of happiness all the while she tests Elliot with his love and desire to marry her. It was another incongruous turnaround for a woman who loves Elliot but obstinately refused to marry him because of her philosophies. The book slowly builds Phaedra's love for Elliot and that was good, but her sudden acceptance to marriage was too contrived. Especially after she publishes the memoirs. Any hero would be forced to forsake a nonsensical course such as Phaedra's to condemn families' names. But Elliot of course encourages her and grovels at her feet at the end to take him.

Towards the end, Elliot thanks Phaedra for her decision to leave out the ignominious references to Elliot's family. He says, "I thank you with all my heart, Phaedra. You showed more generosity than I deserve. Your decision spared innocents the glare of scandal and my parents' names the worst whispers." What about the innocents from other families? She really published the posthumous memoirs of a man clearly with nothing to lose in his grave while his written words destroy peoples' lives? And for what? So her bequeathed printing press would prove successful from the memoirs' sales? So she'll preserve her promise to her possibly-bitter late father on his deathbed?

Some of the transitions from a grave, quarrelsome tension to a sensual undercurrent seemed unsuitable at best, very jarring at worst. They're arguing over the gravity of how these memoirs could sully families' names and all of a sudden there's all this sexual chemistry. Other times, Elliot's thoughts over his mother's cheating and his father's cold imprisonment segues into his desire for Phaedra (p. 69). It didn't work for me, but maybe it did for others.

I didn't like this book weighing the greater evil between their father the jailer and their mother the adulteress. Elliot's mother loves another and in response, his father incarcerates her. Of the two evils, LESSONS OF DESIRE taints Elliot's father the late Marquess of Easterbrook's actions as the greater evil. I'm not so sure. He tragically loved someone who loved another. The father responded unfairly, but I don't believe their mother's betrayal in wedlock was somehow "less wrong."

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