Thursday, December 31, 2009

"A Rake's Guide to Pleasure," by Victoria Dahl

Alternate Title: Poker Face

The Chick: Emily Jensen, a.k.a. "Lady Emma Denmore." On the run from a creepy relative, and determined to make it on her own, she uses her cunning card skills and an aristocratic alias to fleece nobles of their fortunes in order to secure her own independence.
The Rub: The Duke of Somerhart, who met her as a girl, could very well ruin all her plans if he recognizes her - and yet, he's too tempting to ignore.
Dream Casting: One Tree Hill's Bethany Joy Galeotti.

The Dude: "Hart," Duke of Somerhart. Renowned for his cold demeanor and rigid self-restraint both in and out of the bedroom, he's attracted to Emma and can't understand why she insists on refusing him when it's perfectly clear she wants it as much as he does.
The Rub: In his attempt to loosen her screws, he risks losing his tightly-held control, and he refuses to be made into a naughty figure of ridicule and gossip.
Dream Casting: Eric Bana.

The Plot:
Hart: We should be lovers.

Emma: We can't do that.

Hart: We should be loooooooooooovers and that's a fact!

Emma: Why are you singing?

Hart: ...

Emma: My answer is no.

Hart: Okely dokely. *smiles*

Emma: Curse my horniness! I give up! Uncle! UNCLE!

Hart: Sexy uncle?

Emma: Yes, of course, sexy uncle, damn your eyes...

Hart and Emma: *sexx0r*

Emma: *leaves*

Hart: How DARE you! When I find you I'm going to strangle you...

Lancaster, Future Dahl Hero and Emma's BFF: *glares*

Hart: ...in an erotic and consensual manner for our mutual pleasure?

Emma: Hart, go away!

Matthew, Creepy Suitor: Let's get married, whore!

Emma: Hart, come back!

Hart: *saves Emma*

Matthew: *falls off cliff*

Emma: Thanks for saving my life and all, but I think I'll be on my way...

Hart: Okely dokely. *smiles*

Emma: Oh all RIGHT I'll marry you.

Hart: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Cold As Ice Hero

1 Emotionally Restrained Heroine with a Dark Past

3 Romantically Lacklustre Rivals

1 Romantically Lacklustre but Still Very Charming Sequel-Baiting Rival

1 Crazy Stalker

1 Very Bad Parent (Deceased)

2 Inconveniently Dead Siblings

The Word: I wasn't expecting to like this novel as much as I did. Don't get me wrong, I walked into this novel expecting to like it, but the first four or five chapters made me think I knew where the book was going - but by the time I'd settled down to what looked like a pleasant-but-nothing-new read, the book got all, like, intellectual on me and stuff.

Our heroine, Emma, has her whole future planned out - arriving in London under the assumed name of Lady Denmore with only 600 pounds in her pocket, she's padded her nest egg quite nicely by trolling the card rooms and gambling tables at parties and hustling aristocrats out of their coins. Her ambitions are small but precious: to amass 3000 pounds in winnings, which, invested in the funds, should leave her independently set for life.

She's close to attaining her goal when she meets the Duke of Somerhart at a party. She remembers Somerhart from her girlhood, when she spotted him at one of her degenerate father's scandalous parties. While only a small event, she still remembers him and is frightened he'll recognize her as well, revealing her deception and ruining all her plans.

Somerhart, or Hart as he is known, does not recognize her - but he is attracted to her nonetheless. In Society he's adopted the nickname of "Winterhart" for his chilling hauteur and his restraint in both his public and personal life. He pursues Emma, both flabbergasted and challenged by her repeated refusals, especially since it's obvious to both of them that they're horny as hell for each other.

The first few chapters of this novel were well-written but otherwise unexceptional. Somerhart vacillates between Angry and Horny in standard Alpha Male fashion. Emma worries about her past, and whether all her lies will catch up to her. As well, it's apparent early on that this is a story that revolves primarily around sex and sexual attraction and I wasn't sure whether I was comfortable with that or not. I don't read romance novels for the sex, I skim most sex scenes, and I avoid erotic romances and erotica. "Not that there's anything wrong with that," etc. etc., but I'm just not a personal fan. It's like, I personally hate the colour orange - but I don't think the colour orange is wrong or that people who do like orange are filthy pirate hookers. Don't just expect to find me wearing orange.

Further in, the story starts peeling back all these layers, revealing a depth I wasn't expecting. At its heart, A Rake's Guide to Pleasure is an intelligent, insightful, and most of all interesting examination of lust and morality. Yes, it is a story that focuses on sex and humping and squishy fun feelings, but as an intellectual theme rather than mindless sex scenes and humping for no reason. The novel has three characters who are tormented by lust and their own individual objections to it.

Emma's fear and personal trials with Hart come from the fact that she is a naturally sensuous woman. Hart's seduction of Emma never lowers itself into forceful seduction territory because he really doesn't have to work that hard to get Emma revved up. Emma fights herself more than she fights Hart in those scenes. Now, as a woman in 19th-century England she already has a reason to think sex is evil and wrong, but Victoria Dahl takes a different tack.

Emma's father was a selfish and self-indulgent rake who held parties that were little more than orgies. Growing up in that household and witnessing the things she did, taught Emma to believe that the natural sexual urges she feels are wrong, that the inevitable result of sex is the deviancy and promiscuity her father demonstrated. Emma's frightened that giving in to her sexual urges, even a little, will leave her as mindlessly and selfishly addicted to pleasure as her father was.

As well, Victoria Dahl cannily inserts the special moral pressure society applies to sex when dealing with Emma's con - while she feels guilty about impersonating a noblewoman (a crime), lying to people, gambling recklessly, and doing nearly anything for cash - it's her sexuality that troubles her most.

However, Somerhart is also a character taught by circumstance to mistrust his sexual appetite. When he was younger, he fell in love with another man's mistress and become a laughingstock when his incredibly personal letters to her became public. Society's laughter and scorn ingrained in him a sense of his own perversity. He came to associate lust with loss of control, and therefore, as "Winterhart," he continues to have sexual encounters but under rigidly enforced terms. There's a certain scene in the novel where Emma engages in an intentional act of voyeurism with Hart that evocatively establishes Hart's personal views on sex: Hart reacts with anger and fear after it's done once he realizes how little mastery he had over the situation.

The third character is Matthew, the crazed former suitor of Emma's who stalks her to London. His views on sex are influenced by a radical religious sect. He blames Emma for inflicting lust on him and believes the only way to absolve himself of sin and save himself (and Emma) in the eyes of God is to marry her - and spend his marriage dutifully "shepherding" Emma (by any means necessary) towards the path of the righteous. While Matthew is definitely is sinister, misogynistic and mentally imbalanced, Dahl also makes him a pitiable figure. Like Emma and Hart, he experiences perfectly natural sexual urges but is crushed by the conviction that they're sinful and wrong.

Yes, sex is the central theme of the novel and the sex scenes are graphic - but they are also beautifully written, narratively relevant, and judiciously applied. Every sex scene between the hero and heroine has a purpose, every romantic encounter accomplishes something. The voyeurism scene, for instance, between Emma and Hart has a direct bearing on the plot and on the protagonists' character development and if it hadn't been included, a significant part of the narrative would have been missing. My main complaint about sex in romance has never been about morals or sexuality, but that so many sex scenes in romance seem put there to fill a quota or fulfill an unspoken genre expectation than to serve the story. Unsurprisingly (this is a romance novel after all) love does manage to sneak its way in, even though it does so later in the book.

Leaving the big important themes aside, I liked Victoria Dahl's writing style - it's very lyrical without losing its clarity. I'd heard very good things about her style and I'm glad to say she lived up to the hype. I enjoyed her characters for the most part (although Hart was very much a run-of-the-mill Cold Rake for most of the novel). She even managed to scrounge up some sympathy in me for a fundamentalist Christian misogynist scumbag. Okay, so while this review technically is out on December 31st, I already did my year round-up - so let's just say that Victoria Dahl was a very pleasant way to start my new year of reading.

A little early.
A-

2 comments:

  1. I ADORE VD's writing. (I prefer her historicals though, only because I am a historicals kind of gal). This is the sort of book that is a perfect example of what I complain about with regards to romance marketing. I hate this cover, I have this title, I think neither shows just how good the book is.


    Next , you should try One Week as Lovers my favorite by VD.

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  2. Wow, great review. I am sold. It's going on my list right now!

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