REVIEW: One Week as Lovers by Victoria Dahl
Dear Ms. Dahl:
I have struggled to come to terms with my reactions to One Week as Lovers for a while now. Before I get to that, though, let me say that I really enjoyed Lancaster and Cynthia, a couple with a compelling, touching story and a connection that registered powerfully with me on several levels. But as a whole I am still working to understand why I did not feel immersed in the angst and yearning and emotion that was so clearly present in Lancaster and Cynthia’s lives and winding through their friends to lovers romance. In so many ways this book seems poised on the edge of something great, and I do not know what, precisely — 50 more pages, say – would have gotten it there for me. All I know is that at quite a few points in the book I just wanted more than it seemed willing to give.
I realize that this probably reads like a negative review, but that is not the case, because, as I said, I enjoyed One Week as Lovers a lot. I read it the first time in just two sessions, and right from the beginning I took to both Cynthia and Lancaster. We met Lancaster in A Rake’s Guide to Pleasure, where he showed himself to be solicitous and mysterious, a handsome man in need of a wealthy bride who was willing to protect Emma when few others would likely bother. In One Week as Lovers we come to understand why he must marry for money, and why, for a man as charming as Nick, that should have been of little consequence:
He loved women. He’d always loved women. Old or young, beautiful or homely. It wasn’t necessarily a question of sex. He loved the way they smiled and chatted and laughed. Loved to watch the wheels turn in their mind as they puzzled over a problem. He liked their smell and the sound of them. The smoothness of their skin and the sharpness of a witty tongue.
So any wife he took, he would have loved like the rest, "cheerfully and completely . . . marriage of convenience or not." But Nick has a secret, one testified to by a scar on his neck that looks distinctly like a rope burn. There are rumors that the young Nick had tried to commit suicide as a teen, but they are only rumors. Ugly rumors that belie Nick’s charm and the way he is, as Cynthia notes, "so easy to love."
Except that his fiancée does not seem predisposed to that, and on the heels of an ugly revelation two months before his upcoming nuptials and a message from his country home that a childhood friend has suddenly and tragically died, Nick feels the need to escape from London. He views the country as a place to find some peace and offer condolences to the family of his childhood friend, a woman who, Nick suffers to realize, led but "[a] short and lonely life," something that resonates heavily with this troubled man, who, right now, feels doomed to suffer a long and lonely life.
Cynthia Merrithorpe has no idea that her childhood friend, Nick, now Lord Lancaster and a viscount, would trouble himself on her account. So she is decidedly put out when he arrives somewhat bedraggled at his country home, where she has been hiding subsequent to her faked suicide. Anything would be better than a marriage to the sadistic Richmond, a man who has literally purchased her from her stepfather to buoy the family’s submerged finances. So until she can find the buried treasure promised in her great uncle’s childhood diary, a pirate’s booty hidden somewhere in the Yorkshire coastline near Lancaster’s home, Cynthia lives in his attic at the insistence of Lancaster’s kindly housekeeper, Mrs. Pell. Until Nick shows up, that is, at which point Cynthia attempts to scare him out of the house by appearing to him nightly as a ghost.
Nick is not so easily frightened by Cynthia’s ghost, though, having faced far worse demons and now burdened by guilt over the poor girl’s untimely death, once he discovers that she threw herself off one of the sea cliffs. Which may account for the strange happiness he feels at the realization that Cynthia’s ghostly image is far more substantial than he had realized. And once Cynthia is caught and assured that she is safe – from Lancaster, at least – she talks a veritable blue streak to convince Nick to help her uncover the treasure that will finance a trip to America for Cynthia. And if there’s enough, perhaps relief from Nick’s creditors and more preferable marital prospects.
The plot structure of One Week as Lovers is quite straightforward, and it is one of the many things in this book that are refreshingly accessible. The focus is primarily on Nick and Cynthia and the very real obstacles that barge into the way of their mutual attraction. Having been friends for so long growing up, they are already well-acquainted, which means that Nick is not taken aback by Cynthia’s blunt manner and sharp tongue, while Cynthia has no qualms with trying to discover whatever it is that lies under Nick’s somewhat brittle charm. While he may fool others, Cynthia notices that Nick has changed from the easy-going youth with whom she felt so comfortable. "But easy is a dangerous thing," Nick assures Cynthia; if she had been easier, she would be "broken now" in a marriage to Richmond. As broken as Nick obviously feels, a man who one moment acts as if he wants to kiss her into the next day and then snaps away when she draws her hands through his hair. Who will not talk about the scar on his neck except to insist that it is the remains of a burn. And who believes that his hidden desires to sexually dominate women are far too dirty for an innocent and good woman like Cynthia.
In essence, One Week as Lovers is the story of Lancaster’s healing from a trauma that has shaped all of his adult life and made a man so easy to love horribly self-loathing. And he needs a woman like Cynthia to help him accomplish the job – a woman who thinks nothing of calling him ridiculous and scolding him for treating her like a china cup on a shelf. And despite Cynthia’s own insistence that she – an uneducated country woman – has nothing to recommend her for a match with Nick, whom she has loved for a long time, Nick recognizes right away that Cynthia is different from all the other women he has known:
"There isn’t a soul in London who knows me. Not one person. Do you know why I wasn’t frightened of your haunting? Do you know why I accepted it so easily? Because I was a ghost, too, Cyn. I am a ghost. And you’re the only one who still sees me."
In the same way that no one else but Cynthia sees past Lancaster’s ready smile, no one else but Lancaster sees beyond her value as a moderately marriagable asset for her family. That each sees the other creates a sense of reality between them that is both insular and expansive. It gives Nick a feeling of confidence beyond his somewhat desperate circumstances and Cynthia a sense of optimism that surpasses the fragility of her safe haven at Lancaster’s. Consequently, their love is built on a foundation of mutual trust and an affinity that binds them despite their otherwise incongruous social circumstances. Well, that, and desperation.
Having thought about this book for a while, I realize that one of the things Dahl does expertly is to articulate the desolation and desperation of her characters and capture the yearning that flares in them every time the loneliness break the surface of their awareness. And in One Week as Lovers that emotional combination of loneliness and desire drives the story and the romance, and it is enhanced by Dahl’s refusal to banish the darkness in her characters so that they might lead placid, untroubled lives once the book is closed. At one point Lancaster laments that “[h]e’d give anything – anything – to simply lie with a woman and feel. Be kissed and caressed, stroked and held.” But even that desire is not simple for Lancaster, because he is not a man who is likely ever going to completely abdicate the control he likes to wield in bed — even when he is not on top, so to speak. And he is honored in that, not only by Cynthia, but by the narrative itself, which does not force him to conform to a more “normal” model of romantic desire.
Like A Rake’s Guide to Pleasure, One Week as Lovers also allows pain its own place in the characters’ hearts, even as love expands to crowd it out. The characters seem to stand for the acceptance of the reality that any person of depth is likely to be scarred as often as blessed and acquiescence to the draw of certain darker desires that emerge from those twisty inside places.
In this, in the embrace offered to the complicated hearts and minds of the characters, One Week as Lovers is an extremely strong novel, its ability to reveal those deeper shadows registering viscerally in the reader. When, for example, Cynthia embraces Lancaster late in the book, she notes that "[t]heir time together was rushing toward a close. She could feel the breeze it created in its passing." When Cynthia begs Nick for sexual completion, Nick responds like a man condemned to pleasure: "Sometimes a man simply couldn’t walk away from what he wanted. Sometimes he had to stay and face it." The bittersweet passion of lovers who know they cannot marry without financial ruin for both their families – it is both bitter and sweet for these characters, and they feel both acutely.
And yet with all of that, One Week as Lovers is still not an A book for me. Why not? If I were going to be completely blunt, I would have to say that as I read it, I heard what must be the equivalent of my 7th grade English teacher, who always asked me something along the lines of, "is this essay here really up to your potential?" Somehow I kept waiting for the book to break out into more. More guesses for me as a reader, more layers to discover upon re-read, more time for everything to deepen in complexity and age a little bit on my reading palette. I wanted to know more about Cynthia outside her relationship to Lancaster; what made her a strong woman, for example, and what was her relationship with her mother like (the mother who let her stepfather sell her into marriage)? I wanted the passion between Cynthia and Nick to build a little more slowly, especially given the numerous inner struggles that Nick wrestles through on a daily basis.
In some ways, the great accessibility of the book also flattened it out a little bit. The transition scenes in which Nick and Cynthia move into physical contact, for example, felt a bit staged, in that I could see the moves unfolding to draw them into physical proximity to justify a kiss or sensual touch. Though very tightly plotted, the novel’s discipline also made its trajectory narrowly drawn. And while I greatly appreciated and relished the ways in which these characters bucked certain Romance expectations, in other ways the book felt constrained by formula (i.e. traumatized hero redeemed by the love of the heroine, feisty heroine saved from a BAD MARRIAGE by the noble-minded hero, etc.). What, exactly, would have pushed One Week as Lovers over that hump from very good to great I cannot explicitly articulate. I only know that it was a clear B+ read for me: very well-crafted and highly enjoyable, but not, in the end, mind, heart, or expectation blowing.