Dear Ms. Mullany,
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.
Louisa, 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.