The Chick: Jessica "Jessa" Winter. Desperate to protect her infant charge from his greedy, murderous relatives, she arranges a marriage between herself and a mortally-wounded, comatose American to win passage to the States.
The Rub: The hitch in her plan is that her mortally-wounded husband lives -- and now she must guard her secrets while stuck on a ship with him.
Dream Casting: Romola Garai.
The Dude: Noah McClellan. It's bad enough he had to come to England to check on his family's holdings, but to end up shot in the gut and married? Life sucks, no matter how pretty his so-called wife is.
The Rub: Even as he comes to love her, it's clear she's hiding something. And what the hell is he going to tell his fiancee back home?
Dream Casting: Nathan Fillion.
Noah: Well, hey there! Although I'm American, I'm independently wealthy and great with kids.
Jessa: Really? *lightbulb!*
Highwaymen: Stand and deliver!
Jessa: *double lightbulb!* Is there a priest in the house?
Noah: Wow, so glad I didn't die, and was saved by a pretty lady to boot!
Jessa: Awesome. *cough* BTWwe'retotallymarried.
Noah: You BITCH. Dammit, fine, I'll take care of your baby and take you to America.
Jessa: Well you don't have to be rude - it's not like I married you against your will while you were out cold with a bullet wound you received trying to help my baby.... Oh wait.
Noah: *on ship* Huh, well, this isn't so bad.
Jessa: *cough* BTWIwasincahootswiththerobberswhoshotyou.
Noah: You BITCH! Fine. Whatevs. I like your kid and you're pretty. Let's have sex.
Jessa: How dare you want to have sex with me! It's not like we're married and ... oh wait. Well, it's not like I was the one who suggested the people in the carriage hide their goods in my baby's diaper so I could run off with them and the highwaymen helping me ... Oh. Crap.
Noah: *drunker* Let's have sex.
Jessa: Okay, fine. *cough*BTWI'mavirginandmybaby'snotreallymine.
Noah: WHAT. THE. HELL. YOU WHORE! WHORE!
Jessa: You're such a meanie! It's not I lied about my entire background, my sexual history, and my baby's identity, in such a way that makes my affection for you look fake and calculating ... oh. Dammit!
Noah: FINE FINE FINE, damn it all! Let's go meet my family! *cough*BTWI'minlovewithyou.
Jessa: Really? HOO--
Evil Bitchy Rival and Vengeful Rapist: I'mma steal your baby, bitch!
Noah: Oh no you won't!
Rival and Rapist: *defeated*
Noah: Now, the book's over.
Romance Convention Checklist
1 Fortuitous Bullet Wound
1 Unwitting Marriage
1 Precocious Infant
1 Boob Flash for Great Justice
2 Eeeeevil Guardians
1 Would-Be Rapist
Several Stolen Items
Lots and LOTS of Prequel Baggage
1 SuperBitch Ho Rival
The Word: You know you're reading a Jo Goodman book when a plot to murder a baby is considered a "lighter" plotline. The previous books of hers I've read (The Price of Desire and If His Kiss Is Wicked) have a lot of darkness (rape, incest and assault kinds of darkness) and from what I've heard of fans of hers, a lot of her novels (at least her recent ones) tend to be pretty heavy in general. While this isn't my favourite book of hers, it's definitely still a pleasant read, even if some parts are difficult to swallow.
Our hero and heroine meet in a crowded coach on its way to London. Noah, an American lawyer in England to look over his in-laws' holdings, gains Jessa's approval by demonstrating an almost instant rapport with her crying baby, Gideon. En route, however, highwaymen attack the coach and force Jessa and Gideon from the vehicle. While reaching into his pocket for something to quiet Gideon's cries, Noah spooks one of the robbers, who shoots him, before forcing the rest of the coach to drive on without them.
It turns out Jessa's actually in league with the robbers, and her widow-with-a-child identity was meant to separate the travellers from their goods (by convincing them to hide their valuables in Gideon's blankets under the logic that robbers never look there) without resorting to actual violence. However, she feels horribly guilty that Noah got hurt and takes him back to her friend's cottage, where she and Gideon are hiding from more insidious villains than the authorities.
Jessa's not actually Gideon's mother, although she loves him like one. No, in fact her baby is actually the recently orphaned heir to a vast and wealthy estate. Jessa, his nanny, learned his unscrupulous guardians were planning an "unfortunate accident" for him, in order to take his inheritance for themselves, so she snatched the child and enough documents to prove his identity and fled. Ideally, Jessa hopes that travelling to America will free Gideon from his relatives' murderous clutches until he's old enough to claim his birthright. But how to get there? Robbing people doesn't pay that well.
On top of that, it looks like her brief descent into highway robbery might end up killing Noah when he's overtaken by fever. However, that does give Jessa's dim and morally-challenged accomplice Mary an idea: Noah clearly has powerful and wealthy relatives in the area. A fictional widow might not have the means to get to America on her own, but Noah McClellan's widow might. Although Jessa's understandably reluctant, she knows that leaving the continent is the only way to protect Gideon, so she rounds up a drunken vicar and has a quickie marriage ceremony. Noah even emerges temporarily from his fugue to mutter something that sounds like "I do."
However, those are far from Noah's last words, and Jessa finds herself in a bit of a pickle when Noah recovers, and is about as far as you can get from Pleased without tipping over into Murderous Rage. And who can really blame him - especially when he has a fiancee waiting for him back home in Virginia? While his impulse is to abandon the mercenary schemer (and this is one of the few situations in which the jump to this conclusion's pretty understandable), Jessa feeds him a sob story, truth evenly mixed with lies, about Gideon's fate that tweaks Noah's conscience enough to accept them onto his ship, although he insists on an annulment once they reach dry land.
Now, Noah spends a good 60% of this novel pissed as hell with Jessa, and expressively so, and if anyone else had written this book (Judith McNaught comes to mind), I might have thrown this book against the wall for the crime of being Misogynist Bullshit. Yet, the characterization, along with the plot device of forcing Noah and Jessa into close quarters for months on end, made for an entertaining, if uneven, emotional read.
The general progression of the plot is as follows: Noah rails against Jessa and the freedom that's been taken from him, then he mans up and tries to be nicer, only to discover another one of Jessa's secrets (she has quite a few), and the cycle begins again. The almost claustrophobic nature of the setting contributed to Noah's characterization in an excellent way: Noah feels trapped. He never asked for this marriage, and even as he begins to fall for Jessa, he resents his feelings because the ultimate choice has been taken from him. And as he discovers more about Jessa that she's hiding, it's like a noose tightening around his neck - now, he's not only trapped and in love with a woman, but trapped and in love with a woman who doesn't appear to trust or love him back. His rage and frustration are palpable, even when he uses them in hurtful words against Jessa.
Yup, call me a Bad Feminist, but I found Jessa the harder character to tolerate. She married a guy she thought would die, he didn't - but miracle of miracles, not only is he not a Wife-Beating Pedophile Rapist, but he's willing to take her to America just like she wanted. A reasonable woman in her position would be spending too much time thanking her lucky stars and taking care of her endangered baby to be overly sensitive about a few brutish remarks. You've won the lottery, Jessa, so stop bitching that your prize money's in small bills.
But oh, no, she moans and rails about how Noah is such an unfair brutish beast for saying such nasty things to her. I get that this means she's supposed to have spirit, but she's not doing all this for herself, she's doing it for Gideon - so mouthing off to her unwilling-but-unusually-tolerant meal ticket makes her look shortsighted at best, and downright stupid at worst.
However, as much as I disliked her complaining about a situation that's her fault to begin with, Jessa's not without depth and her mission to save Gideon is pretty selfless. So yeah, she's understandable - not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer, but understandable. Problems arise when Noah realizes that as her legal husband, he's entitled to legal sex. Helloooo, sexy silver lining! However, Jessa realizes that any boat-rockin' with Noah is bound to expose the fact that she's a virgin - which really puts a damper on the story that Gideon's her son. Here, the plot at last takes off and the emotional tension ratchets up. Both characters realize by now that they like the other, but Jessa's as unwilling to expose her secret as Noah is to reveal his vulnerability, and their frustrated impasse makes for great reading.
Tempting Torment was first published in 1989, and this makes me wonder how much of its oddities were more common back then. One thing I noticed with this novel is that Jo Goodman changes POV a lot, without warning, among characters both minor and major, and often within the same scene. While it was tough getting used to at first, I found I enjoyed the snippets I learned from surrounding characters. They added depth and perspective to an otherwise ordinary scene.
However, while I enjoyed the characterization, the emotional drama, and the story, Tempting Torment still has to struggle with abysmal pacing. This novel is 453 pages long (not counting the short story at the end), but the story is stretched out to an absurd degree by multiple elements:
1) the long (and frequently unnecessary) sex scenes,
2) ridiculous amounts of prequel baggage and,
3) an unnecessary villain.
The fact that Tempting Torment is apparently the last in the McClellan series partially explains problems 2 and 3, but number 1 really spoils my cheese. Some of the sex scenes are quite necessary to the story and the development of the characters (particularly the accidental deflowering scene), but just as many are the narratively useless, tedious and cheesy Look How Happy We Are sex scenes, plopped in during a moment of inactivity to show us just how in love our protagonists are (something that the author's already spent 300 pages showing us) instead of moving the plot along.
And that doesn't mean that 2 and 3 aren't just as bad. Concerning number 2, Goodman wastes valuable pages introducing us to all the characters of the previous books and Every. LAST. ONE. of their pukey-perfect-progeny - all of whom are adowable, cutesy, and completely uninteresting. And of course, it's not enough to be introduced to them, no, they all have to be interfering meddlers, every last one of them, because they're just so darn wacky that way! Ugh. Spare me.
And, Number 3 - we have the unnecessary villain, Noah's jilted fiancee Hilary Bowen. Her appearance stretches the story far past the narrative's best-before date, and Noah and Jessa are practically in their epilogue before she strikes. We do have necessary villains in this book - Gideon's evil relatives, for example - but why did we need the story padded an extra hundred pages to accommodate Hilary?
Again, this may be attributed to prequel baggage since from the way she's described, Hilary Bowen appeared several times in the previous books, where she generally acted like a Big Giant Ho-Bitch. Yet somehow Noah has no idea that she's a Big Giant Ho-Bitch, and his obliviousness is so inpenetrable that the reason he was sent to England in the first place was his family's attempt to keep him away from the Big Giant Ho-Bitch until someone better came along.
And Hilary doesn't even deliver. She talks big but is remarkably inept at bringing her schemes to fruition and her presence just makes the ending that much messier.
So, all in all? Tempting Torment is an uneven book - it's generally enjoyable, because Jo Goodman writes good drama and great characters, but poorly paced and unnecessarily padded.
And speaking of unnecessary padding, at the end of Torment, I found a tacked-on short story concerning the next McClellan generation called "Tidewater Promise," which made the novel itself look like an A+ in comparison and made me think pretty dark thoughts:
Mini-Review: "Tidewater Promise," by Jo Goodman.
The Chick: Courtney McClellan. Indecisive and self-centred ditz.
The Rub: Stupid, selfish, silly, and incapable of recognizing the equally-silly Cameron for the mancandy he is.
The Dude: Cameron Prescott. The ship's boy from Tempting Torment, all growed up. Favourite hobby: handing his balls over to Courtney anytime she asks for him.
The Rub: He would really like Courtney to hold his balls in a less-than-metaphorical way.
Courtney: I'm an idiot! Help me find a man, Cameron!
Cameron: Um, I'm a man.
Courtney: Tee-hee, I mean a real man!
Cameron: Wow, you are an idiot!
Courtney: You're MEAN. And I somehow find that attractive. I've decided we're in love and should be married. Okay with you?
Cameron: Um, wh--
Courtney and the Other McClellans: HOORAY!
Romance Convention Checklist
Oodles of Prequel Baggage
3 Broken Engagements
1 Attempted Boat Theft
The Word: I hate to say this, but stories like this make me grateful for Jo Goodman's future dark period. As much as Kmont from Lurv a la Mode might hate this, I'd prefer romances with incest and assault and rape -- because at least Goodman gives them depth and originality -- over contrived, conventional, cliched cotton-candy drivel like this.
This story is pretty much 90% Prequel Baggage, 8% sex scene, and 2% story or character development. Courtney (daughter of Salem and Ashley from Crystal Passion) has just terminated her third engagement, on the eve of what was to be her wedding. Why? The novel never really explains - what I got is that Courtney is too much of an immature, spoiled airhead to make up her mind until the last minute. When her family expresses their (understandable) consternation at Courtney's ridiculous antics, she runs off in a huff.
And runs straight into Cameron Prescott, her childhood friend (and the ship's boy who helped Jessa in Tempting Torment), just arrived from a shipping expedition. Cameron, of course, has Loved Her From Afar, and is as Whipped as Whipped Can Be, but Courtney's head has always been too far up her own shapely ass to take notice. She doesn't want to go home and actually, y'know, accept the consequences of her actions, so she asks if she can take his boat for a sail.
When he refuses, she steals the boat because she's a First-Class Twit who confuses "Feisty" with "Moronically Selfish and Uncaring of Others." In fact, Courtney has no idea she's about to sail straight into a storm until Cameron sneaks back on the boat and tells her. Brilliant. Waiting out the storm on the boat together, however, gives both protagonists plenty of time to get drenched enough to take off their clothes, and of course, seeing one naked male chest convinces Courtney that Cameron is The One, and that they should get Married Immediately, Fuck the Engagement, because it's not like she was sure three other guys were The One until the Last Minute.