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Janet Mullany

REVIEW:  Hidden Paradise by Janet Mullany

REVIEW: Hidden Paradise by Janet Mullany

Dear Ms. Mullany,

I’ve had great success reading your Regency-set romances, and a bit less success with a couple of your other books. Still, the blurb for Hidden Paradise drew me in:

Louisa Connelly, a recently widowed Jane Austen scholar, needs some relief from her stifling world. When a friend calls to offer her a temporary escape from her Montana ranch, she is whisked into a dizzying world of sumptuous food, flowing wine…and endless temptation. She’s an honored guest at Paradise Hall, an English resort boasting the full experience of an authentic Georgian country-house weekend. Liveried servants tend to the every need of houseguests clad in meticulous period costume: snug breeches, low-cut silken gowns and negligible undergarments.

Hidden Paradise by Janet MullanyLouisa, usually called Lou, is still grieving the sudden death of her husband Julian and thus understandably a bit wary of the romantic (or even just sexual) entanglements that are rife at Paradise Hall. The story actually follows a number of characters, most of whom seem to be lusting after and/or sleeping with various other characters: Chris and Peter, the gay couple (and friends of Louisa’s) who own Paradise Hall, Mac, who is writing an article on Paradise Hall for a magazine, Rob and Di, hired from the local village to act as footman and maid, and Alan and Cathy, a married couple who won a stay at the resort in a newspaper contest, just to name a few.

Even though I was intrigued by the set-up, after reading a bit I’m not sure why someone would be that interested in staying at a place like this. The charms of 19th century England don’t really make up for the drawbacks, in my opinion, which include uncomfortable clothing and primitive plumbing. Though some concessions are made to the comfort of 21st century guests, I think if it were me I’d rather go all in or just forget the whole thing (and if it were me, I’d honestly choose the latter). Of course, there are plenty of people who go in for reenactment societies and the like, and I suppose this isn’t so different.

There are various lessons and group activities offered at Paradise Hall, meant to recreate the time period – dancing and horseback riding, for example – but the hosts don’t seem to really make an effort to be “in character” nor do they expect the guests to be. People seem mostly sit around and talk about sex. I started to get confused about whether Paradise Hall was actually supposed to be some sort of a hedonistic sex club with a Georgian twist, or the preoccupation with getting it on was just one of those suspension of disbelief things one has to expect with an erotic novel (the way you don’t question why the pizza delivery guy is never just there to deliver pizza in a porn film).

Though the story follows a number of different characters, the main focus is really on Lou and Mac and their burgeoning relationship. I didn’t see any real impediment to them forming a relationship, save the fact that Louisa was still grieving for Julian. Granted, that’s not a small obstacle, but it didn’t always seem to account for how much the two of them dither over the state of their connection. Chris and Peter are going through their own relationship woes; the stress of opening their resort has taken a toll on them and their intimacy, and Peter finds himself mooning over the footman Rob, who is both straight and mooning himself, over the maid Di (at least at first).

The combination of realism and erotica is not one that always works for me. Not that Hidden Paradise is “realistic” in every sense; again, all of the random hookups are outside of my everyday ken. But the sex scenes in Hidden Paradise don’t have the fantasy-flow that I’m used to in other erotica I’ve read, and I’ve come to realize that with this genre specifically, I prefer the fantasy. I’m a little embarrassed by that; it doesn’t seem very sophisticated of me. But there you have it. It’s not that I dislike the sex scenes in Hidden Paradise; that’s not the case at all. It’s just that they often have a sort of real-world awkwardness, and the characters involved have a realistic ambivalence, that keeps the whole thing from being all that sexy to me. It’s still interesting, it’s just not hot.

Perhaps it’s also that for me, Louisa’s grief over her husband just doesn’t mix well with the other, lighter elements of the story. That’s definitely an issue of personal preference and I can see another reader feeling differently about it.

The other relationships that were less fraught with the baggage that accompanied Lou and Mac’s worked better for me. Lou also develops a sexual and eventually emotional relationship with the hunky footman, Rob. I liked Peter and Chris’ subplot, as well as the non-romantic subplot having to do with Rob’s troubled family and his plans to go away to Cambridge in the fall. Mac seems like a familiar character from the Mullany books I’ve read – manly and attractive (he gets plenty of action in the course of the story, and nearly everyone lusts after him at one point or another), but slightly hapless and incompetent at relationship stuff. In some ways that makes him very appealing – he’s a hot hero without the macho alpha bullshit attached – but it also makes him somewhat annoying at times. Like, dude, you’re in your 30s (I think); maybe you could stop screwing up your relationships in such dumb ways? But, to be fair, his saving grace is that the reader knows from his POV that he really does like Lou – the ambivalence I mentioned is much more on her part than his.

I liked Lou, too, though I felt like I could have/should have liked her better. Her grief informs a lot of her feelings and choices and that left her somewhat muted as a character, for all that the majority of the novel is told from her POV. The writing is stellar (as always), and the story picks up in the last third, when there are some interesting revelations, both historical and contemporary, that move some of the relationships forward. I ended up liking Hidden Paradise at the end a bit better than I had in the middle, and my final grade is a solid B.

Best regards,

Jennie

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REVIEW:  Dedication by Janet Mullany

REVIEW: Dedication by Janet Mullany

Dear Ms. Mullany,

As a big fan of several of your historical romances, I jumped at the chance to read your first book, recently revised and released as a “sexier, longer” version. I’m a big fan of both “sexier” and “longer” (get your minds out of the gutter, readers, I mean that I like longer books).

Dedication by Janet MullanyAdam Ashworth and Fabienne Craigmont meet when he storms into the home of his ward Luke one morning, intent on getting to the bottom of rumors that the younger man is keeping a mistress right in his home, something that Just Isn’t Done (especially since Luke is in London supposedly looking for a bride). Fabienne is the companion and patron of the young artist Elaine, who is actually painting Luke in the semi-nude. All very respectable. Well, perhaps not exactly, but not as ruinous, at least, as Adam had feared.

It’s not quite accurate to say that Adam and Fabienne meet in the first chapter. Actually, the two already know each other. Their brief relationship ended some 20 years before; he was a dashing young buck with equal interests in licentiousness and revolution; she was a 17-year-old emigre running with a fast crowd as a consequence of her mother’s gambling habit. Adam is now a widower and a grandfather (!) rusticating in the country and raising pigs. Fabienne has also been widowed (twice) and is now living in London, hosting salons and acting as patroness to various promising artists (not just painters; the young lover Fabienne discards early in the book is composing an opera).

It’s clear from the get-go that Adam and Fabienne are still drawn to each other, but both are wary of getting involved again, for various reasons. Still, when Fabienne realizes that her favorite author, the gothic novelist Mrs. Ravenwood, with whom she’s struck up an increasingly intimate correspondence, lives in a village near Adam’s estate, well, that’s all the excuse she needs to hie off in that direction in pursuit of the mysterious lady.

Fabienne doesn’t find Mrs. Ravenwood (more on that in a moment), but she does meet Adam’s widowed daughter Barbara, a very young mother of two, who takes to Fabienne immediately and invites her to stay at their manor. Fabienne quickly becomes further enmeshed in the lives of Adam and Barbara; it turns out that the sleazy military officer she met at one of her salons (and took an instant dislike to) is Barbara’s estranged, abusive husband. Apparently Barbara married him at 15, already pregnant with his child. Adam, rather understandably, doesn’t care for Captain George Sanders and has put it out that Barbara was widowed. Sanders promptly shows up and takes Barbara and his children away, causing Adam anguish, all the more so because he and Barbara quarrel before she leaves.

What the reader knows early on, and Adam thinks Fabienne knows (but she doesn’t) is that he is Mrs. Ravenwood. His writing came out of stories that he told his wife to entertain her as she lay dying, and now he works rather compulsively, though he’s somewhat ashamed of writing “non-serious” books for a mostly female audience. He is fearful of being uncovered by Fabienne and demands that she return the letters “Mrs. Ravenwood” wrote her. Fabienne thinks that Mrs. Ravenwood is Adam’s mistress (not really a notion that holds up well under close scrutiny, IMO), and mostly out of sheer perversity she refuses to return them.

The device of Fabienne pouring out her feelings to “Mrs. Ravenwood” via letters probably doesn’t bear close scrutiny, either. Never mind the unlikelihood of a 19th century woman, even a relatively free-spirited one as Fabienne is, referencing masturbation, among other taboo topics, in her writings to a total stranger. But the device does allow for some amusing and intriguing moments early on as Fabienne wonders at her intense attraction to this unknown woman. Also, it creates tension between Adam and Fabienne, thought that scarcely seemed necessary, given that they continually find things to squabble about throughout the course of the book.

I am guessing that some readers will be drawn to this book because of the older protagonists – more mature heroes and heroines are something I’ve seen readers agitate for over the years. I’m not necessarily one of those readers. Oh, I don’t want all of my heroines to be fresh out of the schoolroom (and I’m even iffier on very young heroes, because it’s hard for me not to picture them as callow), but I have some mild issues with older couples in romance. There’s often a touch of melancholy in such romances – perhaps even moreso in reunited lovers stories. After all, if it weren’t for this misunderstanding or that silly fight, the couple would’ve enjoyed so many more happy years together! Such romances feel bittersweet to me, and not in a good way; they have just a touch too much of the bitter to be entirely satisfying.

As it turns out, I didn’t have this issue nearly as much with Dedication as I sometimes do. This is partly because Adam and Fabienne have had positive and loving relationships in the interim, relationships that they would’ve missed out on if they had never broken with each other.  Adam in particular really came to love his wife Mags, much to his surprise. He loves the children he had with her and the grandchildren that came later. He has a whole life that he would not (if I may speak for a fictional character that I myself did not create) want wiped out, even were it possible. There’s still a touch of bittersweetness there – after all, Adam and Fabienne have not just loved, but loved and lost. But I got a clear sense that these were not really “lost” years, because both characters had joy and grew and generally lived full lives.

The relationship between Fabienne and Adam through the middle part of the book was inconsistent in a way that was either unrealistic or extra-realistic (I can’t quite decide). I lean towards the latter but it bugged me a bit anyway. Adam and Fabienne encounter each other over and over and get locked into an advance-retreat dynamic (with Fabienne usually being the sexual aggressor, which was an entertaining turnaround). He loves her. She hates him. He wants her, but wait, no, they mustn’t. She’s humiliated, or amused, or she storms off. He wants his letters, and she won’t give them up. S/he is angry about events that took place two decades previously. Each of them perform dizzying turnarounds, often in the same scene. I understand that there needs to be some conflict between them to keep the story going, but I could’ve done with with it being a bit less madcap.

One thing I really liked about Dedication was that the passage of time had changed Adam and Fabienne so utterly – to some degree, they switched roles. Adam started as a young, hotheaded romantic type, both a seducer of women and and someone with revolutionary tendencies. Fabienne was innocent, convent-raised and new to England, having fled the French Revolution with her mother (her aristocratic father’s revolutionary sympathies did not save him from the guillotine). She fell for Adam, knowing on one hand that he was just trying to seduce her and wouldn’t really marry her, but allowing hormones and puppy love to overcome caution. Their romance ended disastrously, sabotaged by outside forces with their own sinister motivations (a rather melodramatic element in what was otherwise a believable young romance). The mature Adam is chaste in his habits and a bit stuffily disapproving of behavior outside the realm of propriety – something that causes problems in his relationships with both Fabienne and his daughter Barbara. Fabienne, on the other hand, has become very worldly and urbane, hosting salons and taking lovers (discreetly, of course) with impunity. I really enjoyed the role reversal, especially when so often in reunion romances the heroine has lived in a state of suspended sexual animation, waiting for the hero to come back and turn her on, so to speak.

I found the late revelation that the villain was villainous out of thwarted homosexual longing unnecessary and a bit distasteful. I’ve just seen too many romances that fall back on that tired canard and it ends up feeling homophobic. I certainly don’t think that was the intent here, but given how overused this trope is, I could’ve done without it.

Overall, I wouldn’t rank Dedication with my favorite Mullany novels – it lacked a bit of the sparkle of those books (and I missed the first person narration!). But it was a solid romance, well-written and featuring unique characters. My grade: B+.

Best regards,

 

Jennie

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