Saturday, May 23, 2009

"Untouched," by Anne Campbell

Alternate Title: Uninteresting

The Chick: Grace Paget. Penniless and recently widowed, she's drugged and kidnapped by brutal thugs and wakes up on a secluded country estate, where she's informed her task is to entertain and pleasure its imprisoned occupant, the supposedly insane Lord Sheene.
The Rub: Lord Sheene's "guardian" Lord John informs her that if she can't lure Sheene into her bed by the end of the week, her days are numbered. And Lord Sheene, thinking she's his uncle's spy, wants nothing to do with her.
Dream Casting: Zooey Deschanel.

The Dude: Matthew Landsdowne, Marquess of Sheene. After catching a brain fever at the age of fourteen, Matthew was declared insane by his grasping uncle Lord John, who then gained control of the Landsdowne fortune. Ever since, he's kept Matthew imprisoned on an isolated estate and bribed unscrupulous doctors to maintain Matthew's lunacy.
The Rub: After failing to escape for a third time, Matthew realizes that Grace's enforced presence on the estate is his uncle's attempt to get him to surrender and accept his captivity. He doesn't want to give in and let his uncle win, but Grace is just so darn pretty!
Dream Casting: Chuck's Matthew Bomer.

The Plot:
Grace: Wh-what? Where am I?

Filey and Monks: WHORE.

Grace: Won't somebody help me?

Matthew: Wow, you're pretty - I mean WHORE!

Grace: You have to let me out of here!

Lord John: WHORE.

Grace: I'm not a whore!

Lord John: Well, you are now!

Grace: FINE, I'm a WHORE.

Matthew: No you're not! I love you!

Grace: Oh, now you believe me. Crap, I love you, too.

Grace: *escapes* *arranges rescue*

Matthew: You rescued me! I love you!

Grace: I love you too - but WE CAN NEVER BE.

Matthew: ......WTF.

Grace: This novel needs about twenty pages of last minute conflict - just run with it!

One Year Later

Matthew: Enough of your martyring! We're getting married!

Grace: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Virgin Hero

1 Lady with a Tarnished Past

1 Evil Uncle

2 Evil Henchman

1 Relationship-Aiding Pet

1 Very Bad Husband (Deceased)

1 Extreme Comfrey Allergy

Several Slutty Dresses

1 Vicious Rape Attempt

The Word: I picked this book up because the hero sounded intriguing. I'm used to romance heroes being totally oversexed Dukes of Slut, or at least Gold Medalists in the Orgasm Olympics, but with Anna Campbell's Untouched (her second novel after Claiming the Courtesan), our hero's not only a virgin, but a man who has been isolated from women and society in general for eleven years. Frankly, I thought having an isolated hero who has to learn about women for the first time to be a great idea, so I picked up Untouched and gave it a try.

The novel opens just as our heroine, Grace, wakes up from a drugged sleep to find herself strapped to a table. She overhears two thugs coarsely describing her physical assets. One of them paws her a bit, but is warned off by the other, who says she's intended for the marquess. The marquess of whom? Where is she? How did she get there? To Campbell's credit, this opening scene is a grabber for how legitimately frightening it is.

Overhearing the thugs (named Filey and Monks), Grace discovers they believe her to be a prostitute. While on her way to be a poor relation in her cousin's household, she made the mistake of wandering off when her cousin didn't show up at the coaching inn, and consequently got lost. Coming upon her alone in a bad part of town, the thugs assumed the worst, captured her and forced laudanum down her throat.

And now she's strapped to a table. After the thugs leave the room, a beautiful man enters who turns out to be Matthew Landsdowne, Marquess of Sheene. Her pleas for help are met with biting sarcasm, although he does release her from her bonds and treat her with a certain brusque kindness.

It turns out Matthew is as much a prisoner as she is. When he was fourteen, he contracted a brain fever that left him briefly mentally incapacitated - which gave his grasping uncle Lord John an opportunity to have him legally declared insane in order to establish himself as Matthew's guardian and control his estate. Matthew's been imprisoned on this estate ever since, watched over by the vicious thugs, but nevertheless kept alive because his death would cede the title, wealth, and lands out of John's control.

After Matthew's third escape attempt failed spectacularly, his uncle offered to send Matthew a prostitute in order to make him more malleable and accepting of his situation. Therefore, Matthew is convinced that Grace is not only a whore, but a spy in his uncle's employ and wants nothing to do with her. As much as he desperately desires a woman (and the beautiful Grace in particular), he thinks touching her is tantamount to letting his uncle win.

However, as they are both trapped on the estate, they slowly develop feelings for each other. Despite Matthew's insistence that he's mad, Grace sees that he's actually a rather kind, gentle, and intelligent man who's learned to make the most of his situation. Similarly, Matthew finds it increasingly hard to hold onto his conviction that the shy, soft spoken, and trembly Grace is actually a seasoned harlot. It certainly doesn't help that the two are always watched by Filey and Monks who report back to Lord John. And both protagonists soon realize that if Grace doesn't fulfill the whore's job for which she was kidnapped, Lord John will have her killed and replace her with another.

As dark and interesting as this story sounded, I ended up disliking this novel, because the narrative was fueled by four romance tropes I despise, namely 1) a martyr doormat crybaby heroine, 2) hyperbolic language, 3) oodles and oodles of bloated useless sex scenes, and 4) a convoluted plot that can't withstand its own weight.

I'm not saying the narrative doesn't provide a reason for Grace to be afraid, be very afraid. I wasn't bothered by the fact that she's perpetually victimized in this book - rather I was bothered by her whinging, martyr attitude which is half the reason she remains perpetually victimized. If Grace had a motto, it would be, "It's My Fault."

She blames herself for everything. Grace used to belong to a wealthy, titled family but was cast out when she eloped with a fifty-year-old man when she was sixteen (um, ew). She uses this one foolish choice as an excuse to blame herself for everything that goes wrong with her life, her loved one's lives, Matthew's life, etc. It's her fault her brother died in a senseless duel (they'd been out of contact for years, but her elopement surely damaged him so emotionally that he had to turn into a spoiled rake who slept with another man's wife), it's her fault her emotionally manipulative husband's business failed (because she was a bad wife who shouldn't have married him in the first place), and it's her fault Matthew can't give her an orgasm on the first try (because she should have remembered she's a dry frigid eloping failure). I mean, COME ON.

Her belief that she is to blame for everything that's ever gone wrong in the world EVER means she's burdened with an incredibly irritating martyr complex that convinces her she doesn't deserve to have anything nice happen to her, and that anyone with an ounce of intelligence or sense would do well to kick her in her treacherous ovaries and piss on her prostrate body.

As for Matthew - in the first draft of this review, I didn't even mention him, which says a lot. For a character I was expecting to be different and unique, I felt m'eh. He feels a lot of righteous anger and has some justifiable martyr issues of his own after his uncle cruelly punished the people who tried to help him escape the last time, but I didn't really understand what his isolation and imprisonment had contributed to his character. He certainly has no problem speaking to or being around Grace (other than the enormous and constantly tumescent problem in his pants), and his behaviour seems unchanged when around people as opposed to being alone. I didn't buy this and I subsequently wasn't that impressed by him.

On that note, I couldn't really understand the development of the romance, particularly since Anna Campbell describes nearly all of their interactions as being in a haze of crazy uncontrollable lust. Yes, this is one of those romances where the protagonists think with their genitals first, only to conveniently find out later that their hearts are in the same place. In nearly every scene together both Grace and Matthew struggle with the hornies, every moment of which is lovingly described with disappointingly overwrought writing. Everything is throbbing and shredding and rending and burning and tearing and branding and pounding and searing and banging and blazing between them I was surprised neither suffered a stroke.

Basically, Matthew and Grace spend so much time wanting to bang the other I couldn't really see where the love part came in. And they have sex a lot. I've mentioned before my distaste for romances where there are nonstop sex scenes that contribute nothing to the story. Untouched is a prime example. Each sex scene is fully described, each sex scene (except the best one, where Matthew cashes in his V-card) is THE MOST GLORIOUS MIRACLE OF TWO BODIES JOINED, each sex scene flings the protagonists onto a CELESTIAL PLANE OF STARS AND LIGHT (accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra perhaps?), and it got boring really quickly. Did we need all those scenes? Back-to-back???

My eyes nearly rolled up in my head on page 252 where they have fabulous world-changing sex, then immediately afterward Grace decides to try oral and they end up have sex again, and the scene right after is when they wake up and decide to have more sex! Every time is fully described, and since every time is the MOST GLORIOUS MIRACLE etc., there's nothing that any of these three scenes contributes to the story. At all. So we have a 12-page span in the book where nothing happens. GAH! I'm sorry, but trying another position does is not a useful plot point we need to know!

Finally, my last huge complaint about the story is the flimsiness of the central plot - Matthew's confinement. Even though he's confined and constantly guarded 24/7 and isn't allowed to talk to anyone so that he can't prove his sanity - he's still allowed to contribute scientific articles to journals and other botanists under a different name! Who delivered these letters? Why did Lord John allow this? How come Matthew never bothered asking for help in his articles? Matthew obviously has contact with the outside world, so I found it hard to understand why he wouldn't use such communications in an effort to gain his release.

There was also the plot point of Lord John having to keep Matthew alive in order to retain control over his fortune - why? I mean, he's kept Matthew completely out of the public eye - no one's seen the poor chap for eleven years. What was there to keep Lord John from having Matthew quietly killed and simply pretending he was still alive? Who would be there to know the difference? It certainly seemed an awful lot of bother to try to keep Matthew in a prison while at the same time maintaining his will to live.

Now, there were some good points to the book under all the bad. I thought the scene where Matthew loses his virginity was evocatively and realistically portrayed - both with his inexperience and Grace's frustration. I also enjoyed the scene where he uses scientific exploration to discover how to please Grace in return. What a sweetheart! And as much as I disliked the constant lusting after each other the protagonists endured, I appreciated its depiction in Grace and how she has to come to terms with lusting after a man when she still can't quite understand what all the fuss with sex is about.

Mostly, though, I found this book both exaggerated and dull. The story was convoluted, the emotions overplayed, and the romance buried under hyperbolic depictions of glorious-marathon-special-combo-move lovemaking. Better to leave this novel Untouched.
C-

7 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  2. Seriously Mike - DON'T TELL ME HOW TO REVIEW.

    Also - DON'T INSULT AUTHORS ON MY BLOG.

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  3. Thanks for this review. The only title by Campbell that I had any interest in reading would be this one. I will never read Claiming the Courtesan with its forced seduction/rape but I thought I might one day, read Untouched given how much this book was raved all over the nets.

    Reading your review, and knowing that we share a similar view on secondary plots, and too-much-sex in a book, I realise this may not be for me either.

    Another great review AJ!

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  4. Ana --> Thank you! I also agree on the "Claiming the Courtesan" - I'm never going to read it. I read both good and bad reviews about it, but both agreed that the hero did awful, awful things to the heroine. I read the excerpt on Campbell's site and was turned RIGHT OFF. I hate hate hate heroes who think they have a right to treat heroines like crap when they don't really have a good reason. Oh, she left you without saying good bye? BOO HOO she's not beholden to you.

    I also based how I'd react to CtC on my reaction to Susan Mallery's "Sweet Trouble" - even though the book wasn't terribly written or characterized, the hero was such an abusive monster I couldn't enjoy the book.

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  5. Anonymous9:29 AM

    After reading your review, I'm glad I didn't finish this one. It went to Goodwill early on, and it doesn't sound like I missed anything.

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  6. Hey, AnimeJune! Good review! Okay...so we totally have opposing views on the book, lol. But hey, how boring would the world be otherwise? ;)

    I like your review style, btw :)

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  7. Anonymous --> Thanks - but hey, a lot of the reviews for positive, so now someone who might like it can buy it cheap! (and I love cheap books, hahaha).

    Barbara --> Welcome to the blog! Indeed, the world would be incredibly boring if there weren't any issues for discussion. What really matters is that people enjoy what they're reading and it looks like a lot of people enjoy Anna Campbell's stuff so she's obvious doing her job, *lol*

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