CONVERSATIONAL REVIEW: The Edge of Impropriety by Pam Rosenthal
Janine: Since Pam Rosenthal’s previous book, The Slightest Provocation, provided us with some discussion fodder, we thought her newest, The Edge of Impropriety, might be fertile ground for a conversational review. Here is a description of the book, followed by Jennie’s thoughts and my own:
The Edge of Impropriety begins with a prologue set in Italy in 1818, in which the book’s hero, Jasper Hedges, is trying to negotiate the currents of a dangerous conversation with his sister-in-law. Jasper’s two-year-old niece, Sydney, is playing nearby while Jasper, a scholar of the classics, and Celia, a beautiful baroness, dance around the subject of their fifteen year old son, who is being brought up as the heir of Jasper’s brother John.
Neither John nor Anthony, the child Celia gave birth to fifteen years before, know that Jasper is Anthony’s biological father. Celia and Jasper have kept their betrayal of John a secret for a decade and a half, and Jasper is resolved that the secret will remain buried forever, even if the costs to himself are exile from England, and never meeting his own son. But that very night, Jasper’s plans change when Celia and John drown in a sailing accident. Jasper becomes guardian to Sydney and Anthony and returns to England.
Eleven years later, Jasper, now forty-seven, is living with thirteen-year-old Sydney and loves her as though she were his own child. Twenty-five year old Anthony, though, is a different story. While Sydney is as intellectual as Jasper, Anthony is as beautiful and frivolous as his mother was, concerned mostly with being fashionable. He still does not know Jasper is his father, and he describes his strained relationship with Jasper to Marina Wyatt, Countess of Gorham, this way:
“I disappoint him. Don’t know what it is,” he continued, “but we’re never together five minutes before he manages to make it absolutely, abundantly clear that I’m not — never was and never will be — what I should be, that I’m still a stupid schoolboy, and that he won’t be satisfied until I’m some version of him. Queer, ain’t it? Especially since by and large people seem to like me as I am.”
Marina listens with sympathy. Anthony wanted to be her lover, but she has turned him down but agreed only to be his friend. A thirty-six year old widow, Marina makes her living writing novels about high society. But before she married the Earl of Gorham, Marina was the earl’s mistress, and before that, she was Maria, an Irish girl who did things that, should they be revealed, would scandalize most of society’s members.
Unfortunately for Marina, one man, Gerrald Rackham, not only remembers her past, but uses it to blackmail her. Marina’s books must sell well to afford her not only her living but also the payments Rackham extorts. And so, Marina creates publicity for her novels by being seen with the men her heroes are patterned after. The hero of her latest novel, The Key to Parrey, is patterned after Anthony.
Marina, Anthony, and Marina’s publisher, Colburn, meet together to discuss how to best publicize the new novel. They decide that since Marina and Anthony have been seen together and are assumed to be lovers, they should now appear to have a falling out and separate.
One of the characters in Marina’s novel could be taken to be modeled on the daughter of Marina’s late husband, Lady Isobel Wyatt, so it’s decided that Anthony will now pursue Lady Isobel, who is wealthy enough to be a great choice of wife for him. Colburn also asks Anthony to introduce him to his uncle, since he thinks Jasper could author a book on antiquities that might make Colburn a tidy profit. They agree that Anthony will bring Jasper along to Marina’s dinner party.
Soon afterwards, Marina spots Jasper, Sydney and Sydney’s governess, Helen Hobart (who is secretly in love with Anthony) at the British Museum. Marina is struck by Sydney’s intelligence and by Jasper’s obvious caring for the girl. Neither Marina nor Jasper knows who the other is, but they are attracted to one another, and a look passes between them before they go their separate ways.
When Marina and Jasper meet again at her dinner party, sparks fly. Marina decides the attraction is too great to resist, and she issues a covert invitation to Jasper, to return later that night and become her lover. After ascertaining that Marina and Anthony were never lovers, Jasper accepts and he and Marina fall on each other with great enthusiasm. The two agree that for Sydney and her reputation’s sake, their relationship will remain secret in public but that for the remainder of the season, the nights will be theirs.
Of course, things don’t go that smoothly, and the secrecy which is so important to Jasper is threatened by the affection that develops between the lovers, and then, by Marina’s blackmailer.
And now to the discussion portion of this review:
Janine: I really enjoyed The Edge of Impropriety and I thought I’d begin our discussion by asking how you thought it compares to Rosenthal’s other works. I haven’t read the erotica Rosenthal wrote under the name Molly Weatherfield, or her romance under her own name, The Bookseller’s Daughter. I have read Almost a Gentleman, the novella “A House East of Regent Street,” The Slightest Provocation and now The Edge of Impropriety.
Although Almost a Gentleman was enormously popular, it didn’t work so well for me. I felt that it started out as a very daring book and then ended up sticking very closely to the very conventions that it seemed to be challenging at first. I did love that Phoebe, the heroine, procured the services of a male prostitute, but I was sorry to see the Phoebe’s infertility miraculously cured to satisfy David (the hero’s) traditional attitudes and his need for an heir. For me, it was the least successful of Rosenthal’s novels and I closed it feeling disappointed.
I know that Janet (Robin) felt somewhat similarly about “A House East of Regent Street,” but I think this may be my favorite of Rosenthal’s works, perhaps because this was where I first fell in love with her writing. The heroine, known only as Miss Myles at first, was an ex-prostitute and a nobleman’s mistress with ambitions to open her own establishment and the hero, Jack, an ex-sailor, strictly working class but trying to marry up. She agrees to several sexual assignations with him if he’ll rent the house for her to use as a brothel. There were several things I loved about this book, including the main characters’ unconventional backgrounds; the way Miss Myles, not Jack, was the expert in the bedroom and she taught him the ropes; and the camaraderie that developed between them.
The Slightest Provocation, Rosenthal’s third romance, was a daring book on several levels. First, the hero and heroine’s background as an estranged couple who had married too young and, because of their insecurities, ended up hurting each other by both being unfaithful. Second, there was the way Rosenthal put a horrible fight between Kit and Mary early in the book, one that almost made me lose hope for them at the outset. I’m convinced it was necessary to the story Rosenthal told, but it’s not what I expect when I pick up a romance.
Third, there was the book’s structure; the way Rosenthal used flashbacks to piece together Mary’s past. These weren’t your garden variety flashbacks; they didn’t tell the story of the relationship in the order that it took place up to the beginning of the novel. Instead, the order of the flashbacks was nonlinear. We got the early years of their marriage, when the infidelity took place, before their first meeting, for example. So this was yet another way in which the book was not what I was expecting. And there were others, like the resentment Mary’s maid felt for her mistress, or the way the book explored a government spying on its own population, a hot political issue of our times.
I was completely wowed by the sheer daring of The Slightest Provocation as well as by the craftsmanship that went to it and the emotional quality of the story, and I pimped it wherever I could, but not everyone I recommended it to loved it as much as I did. I had the sense that it was too unconventional for some readers — that if they didn’t mind the adultery in Kit and Mary’s background then the fighting was so lifelike that it turned some of them off, or else they found the non-sequential flashbacks confusing. My feeling, after discussing it with other readers, was that while I ate it up like a chocolate mudslide, for some people it was too far outside their comfort zone.
Which brings me to The Edge of Impropriety. I think the title is an intriguing one, in light of Rosenthal’s fiction, because it seems to me that she is a writer who tries to find the edge of genre conventions. To me, all of her books that I’ve read are interested in questions of conventions and their boundaries. How far can the characters go, given their place in society? And how far can the book go, given its publication in the genre? Where is that dangerous edge that is going too far, and what is more exciting (for the characters and perhaps even for the author) than pushing up against it?
For me, it’s interesting to compare The Edge of Impropriety to Rosenthal’s other works. I don’t think it’s as challenging as The Slightest Provocation. The structure is more traditional — I think there’s one brief flashback but that’s it. Jasper and Marina both have scandalous pasts but I think they are more instantly sympathetic to the reader than Kit and Mary. There are political issues, relating to Britain’s imperial plundering of other countries, but there’s not the same kind of strong parallel to our own political issues that there was in TSP.
But at the same time, I think it’s less conventional than Almost a Gentleman. The treatment of Marina’s infertility, for example, is far more realistic than the treatment of Phoebe’s. The characters here are older — it’s not every day that you come across a forty-seven year old hero. And Rosenthal is not afraid to show empathy even for the villain.
So in terms of its edginess, The Edge of Impropriety seems to me to be about on par with “A House East of Regent Street.” I think it will probably appeal to a greater number of readers than The Slightest Provocation did, and since I liked it I wish it much success, but I’m also a little sad that it’s not as revolutionary or ground-breaking as Rosenthal’s previous novel.
What do you think about how Rosenthal deals with conventions in The Edge of Impropreity?
Jennie: I liked her treatment of them a great deal, for the most part. I did feel that she touched on Marina’s Irish heritage a little too lightly – she had some interesting points to make but I felt that they were made almost in passing, which gave the observations a shallow feel that I don’t think Rosenthal intended.
I did like the rather light touch that the author depicted Marina’s infertility with, on the other hand.
I have only read Rosenthal’s The Bookseller’s Daughter, which I don’t recall well but do remember was marred by a TSTL heroine, and The Slightest Provocation. The latter was a B+ for me, and I agree, edgier than The Edge of Impropriety, but ultimately didn’t rise to the level of an A grade for me owing to the lack of emotional attachment I felt to the hero and heroine. I definitely warmed more towards Jasper and Marina, though I think that had more to do with characterization than the conventionality or lack thereof of the story.
Janine: How do you feel about Jasper as a hero? I liked him very much, possibly even best of all of the heroes in the Rosenthal books I’ve read so far. I liked his obvious intellect and attractiveness but also the way he sometimes felt his age, and the way he felt unfashionable and even a bit socially inept in comparison with Anthony, who was such a darling of society.
I also loved Jasper’s relationship with Anthony and Sydney and the way Rosenthal used his interactions with them to show how much Jasper cared about them. It was both ironic and poignant that although Sydney wasn’t his biological child and Anthony was, Jasper was able to shower his love on her in a way that he was not able to do with Anthony, because he did not dare to have the truth of his relationship to Anthony come out.
Jennie: Yes, I liked Jasper a great deal, too. I don’t always love older hero and heroine pairings; when I was younger I was quite a snob about them, and even now that I’m older than Marina, older couples don’t always work for me. They can feel a bit melancholy to me – their life experiences make them more realistic, but in way that can be a problem. They have real hurts and scars and are aware that happily ever after is for fairytales.
But for whatever reason what is sometimes a weakness for me was actually a strength with these characters. Late in the book, Jasper is ruminating on some ancient Greek prose he’s been translating; apparently rather melodramatic tales full of "shipwrecks, slavery, pirate raids, lovers parted under duress", and he muses to himself:
It was laughable, in its way, how the writers contrived that their characters endure every misfortune the ancient world could provide, forced them to bear every possible trial-except age and cynicism, perhaps, a lifetime of bruising experience, pride, and stubbornness.
I loved that observation. In spite of the fact that, or perhaps because, it reflected my very reasons for finding some older-couple romances a touch unromantic, and also because it seemed to me a sly meta-commentary on romances in general. I noted recently in another review my preference for stories that really focused on the hero and heroine’s relationship, without external subplots featuring spies, mysteries or villains. There are few subplots in The Edge of Impropriety, and there is a villain, but none of that detracts from the story of Jasper and Marina; their developing love story stays front and center.
Janine: What about Marina as a heroine? I loved hear early cynicism, the way she tried to repress her romanticism, which was evident not just in her thoughts but also in her methods of publicizing her books. Her past was interesting too, though I wanted more about her roots in Ireland.
Jennie: It’s possible I liked Marina even more than Jasper. She was tough in the most appealing way, and she had a sense of humor about herself (I loved her thought in the midst of her and Jasper’s tumultuous first lovemaking, "How very singular. Lady Gorham usually manages this part of it so much more gracefully"). I felt that Rosenthal did a good job of showing us her personality, rather than just telling us about it.
I also wanted to know more about her roots in Ireland, and about her marriage. I reluctantly accepted that Rosenthal didn’t intend to go into details; sometimes my desire to have everything spelled out for me wars with my common sense, which tells me that less is more and that a little mystery can be preferable.
Janine: I enjoyed the development of Jasper and Marina’s erotic and romantic feelings for each other. At the same time, though, I wish we could have seen Jasper and Marina interact outside the bedroom more than they did. I closed the book believing they had fallen in love and that they had enough in common to draw them together, I also felt that in some ways they didn’t know each other that well, which was acknowledged by Jasper fairly late in the book. I could believe in the happy ending, but it was as more of a happy beginning. How did you feel about the relationship?
Jennie: Yes, doesn’t Jasper think something to the effect that they need daylight hours to really get to know one another? Since I thought the circumscribed nature of their relationship was pretty central to the plot, I never found myself wishing for it to be different. I did see the end as a "happy beginning", and I actually kind of liked that (incidentally, there was another unusual aspect of the ending that I also liked – it somehow fit the backward development of Jasper and Marina’s relationship – but I will leave it to readers to discover for themselves).
Janine: One of the strongest things about The Edge of Impropriety, IMO, is the way Rosenthal situates the romantic relationship between Jasper and Marina within a thicket of other relationships — Jasper’s to Sydney and Anthony, as well as Miss Hobart, Marina’s to Anthony, her late husband, her blackmailer and her publisher. I felt that all these relationships grounded Jasper and Marina’s nighttime encounters in context and social fabric. There was a sense of community to the book, and I loved the way that the minor characters’ lives were (to borrow Sydney’s metaphor) woven together. Characters like Rackham, or two young women Anthony contemplated marrying, or a prostitute we only see a couple of times, still managed to surprise and delight me. Was that the case for you as well?
Jennie: I agree; I thought Rosenthal did an excellent job in weaving the characters together. I loved that Jasper was the father to Sydney that he couldn’t be to Anthony. I really loved the resolution of the situation with Anthony’s two potential wives – Rosenthal gives us just enough information to draw our own conclusions about their story.
I did feel a little less charitable towards Rackham than I think Rosenthal ultimately felt (at least going by Jasper’s musings about him late in the book, in which he seems to see him as misguided and tortured). She did a little bit too good of a job of making Rackham vile, and while I appreciated understanding his motivations, they did not make me feel particularly sympathetic towards him.
Janine: Are there any other strengths or weaknesses of the book that you want to mention? I felt that the pacing flagged a bit in the middle and the secondary romance that involved Anthony could have been more interesting. But I loved the way the book sparkled with wit, the intelligence and maturity of the main characters and the wonderfully unexpected turns of the plot.
Jennie:There were a few moments that felt a bit trite and coincidental to me. I’m not sure they even would have stood out in another book, but in one as skillfully written as this one, they did. I also agree that they secondary romance wasn’t hugely compelling. Anthony was a little too immature and callow for me to care about very much.
Janine: Finally, what grade would you give The Edge of Impropriety? It took me a while to settle on a grade, but I’ve decided it’s an A- for me.
Jennie: I was thinking A- all the way, but I actually think I’ve talked myself into an A. It’s not a perfect book (very few are), but I think it’s worthy of a straight A grade.