REVIEW: The Price of Desire by Jo Goodman
Dear Ms. Goodman:
Starting with the Compass Club series, your books have been getting increasingly darker, and The Price of Desire is the darkest by far, darker, I think, than any other book of yours that I have read. It was also an emotionally cathartic read, a book that hearkens back to the Compass Club series, effects emotional and narrative closure to one of its loose ends, and showcases the interconnected themes of healing and interdependence consistent in your Regency-set historicals.
Olivia Cole lives a quiet and thrifty existence, but despite her circumspect modesty she is at the edge of despair. Her brother, Alistair, has managed to gamble away enough of his allowance to place their small household in jeopardy, and now he has disappeared. Olivia is too far out of favor with her and Alistair’s father to expect any other family assistance. So when two strangers show up at the house to escort Olivia to some unknown location, she assumes that they are Bow Street runners delivering Alistair’s fate. Instead, they have come to escort her to a gaming hell, where she will serve as a marker for her brother’s immense gambling debt, promised by Alistair in lieu of a family ring he initially relinquished and then reclaimed without permission from the hell’s owner.
Griffin Wright-Jones, Viscount Breckenridge, is none too happy with Alistair’s switch, having no idea how Alistair was able to retrieve the ring nor what to do with a woman of obviously fine breeding who seems strangely resigned to her odd circumstances. And despite the fact that she should provide a more compelling motivation for Alistair to come through with repayment, Olivia’s presence in Griffin’s hell also means one less financial burden for Alistair. Which means that what begins as a very temporary arrangement soon extends into weeks, changing both Griffin and Olivia’s lives and eroding their mutual resistance to any change that affects their shared habit of emotional impermeability.
For Olivia, the temptation that Griffin’s inherent decency offers is far more dangerous than her continued presence in a gaming hell, or even the attack she suffers there at the hands of a stranger who breaks into her locked room. Griffin’s attention to her physical emaciation, his concern for her physical health, his insistence that she be warmly dressed on her morning walks with his valet, his ability to anticipate her thoughts – all of this, along with Griffin’s extraordinary looks, make Olivia feel very vulnerable, a sensation she has fought for years to keep at bay. Her physical captivity is a reluctant relief to Olivia, freeing her, however temporarily, from her myriad worries, and her growing attraction to Griffin is threatening but similarly irresistible.
For Griffin, the challenge of having a woman such as Olivia in his unconventional household (he lives in the hell) presents a series of challenges, from protecting her reputation to keeping her out of the way of his business. Olivia is an expense and an interference, although Griffin never lets her understand the potential burden those things pose, because he recognizes that her very strong backbone shields a very fragile heart, something he knows more than a little about himself. Unlike Olivia, Griffin does not resist his physical attraction to the beautiful and sharp woman who shows him courage and offers him a number of mysteries, from the identity of her attacker to the nature of the despair that so clearly exceeds her current financial straits.
In fact, the challenge of unraveling the mystery of Olivia’s reticent self-possession, her decidedly un-passive resignation, builds along with Griffin’s physical desire, because the closer he gets to her the farther away the answers seem to be. Although wary of her growing importance in his life, Griffin is also “seized by an urge to protect her,” beyond his conscious intentions.
Although The Price of Desire is not formally part of a series, it completes the wide arc that began with the first Compass Club novel, and like all of the books from Let Me Be The One onward, the heroine functions as the emotional center of the novel, both in her turbulence and her strength. Olivia is one of the most tortured heroines I have seen in a long time, and Griffin’s kindness to her merely exacerbates the urgency of her fears. And for all of his intuition, Griffin does not know enough about Olivia’s past to avoid a number of missteps with her, adding even more poignancy to Olivia’s traumatized condition, as well as a sense of realism to their relationship. Every comfort Griffin offers also opens up Olivia to more emotional turmoil and anxiety, creating a push-pull rhythm in their relationship that keeps Olivia feeling more afraid of the safety Griffin offers her than the ghosts that continue to haunt her:
She was uncomfortable with the realization that she’d come to depend on him, though she could not define the precise nature of that dependency. It was the shelter, of course, but not that alone, and the opportunity to earn a wage, though not only that. They had established a tentative peace, a somewhat guarded mutual respect, and a conversational manner that was frequently all thrust and parry. He often knew the bent of her mind, while she found his impenetrable except on those rare occasions when he wanted it to be otherwise. . . .
He seemed to embrace the notion that it should fall to him to repel all boarders, although he was not inclined to unduly restrain himself from advancing.
Still she felt safe when she knew he was about, safer yet when he was near. The irony was not lost to her, and the taste of it was bittersweet.
Olivia is one of the most damaged heroines I have come across in the genre, and her healing is not accomplished quickly or easily. She has a tendency to lose all touch with the outside world when she gets emotionally overwhelmed, exhibiting signs we would now associated as post-traumatic stress disorder, and which make her feel “frozen,” “brittle,” and resurfacing to the sensation of “an ice pick driving deeply, relentlessly, chipping away at her thoughts, then her feelings, and finally her senses, until she lay bare and a bit bloody.” As the physician explains to Griffin, “I do not know where Miss Cole’s imaginings took her, but it was not a journey, nor a destination, for the faint of heart.” Once they become lovers Griffin wakes several times to Olivia fighting him, even trying to strangle him, all while still asleep. Despite her willingness to sleep with him – indeed, her eventual insistence that she serve as his mistress as a way to repay the debt Alistair continues to amass by leaving her there – she withholds herself from Griffin, determined to offer over only her body.
Indeed, Griffin’s greatest challenge with Olivia does not appear to be her estranged father, his jilted mistress or long-disappeared wife, or even the deep well of secrets Olivia guards; rather, it is convincing her to believe that she is not completely alone and abandoned in a world that will ravage and consume her in the blink of an eye. Both their lives have been “touched by so much in the way of injury.” But where Griffin’s emotional reticence comes from “the burden of suspicion” around the disappearance of his wife, Olivia’s comes from “the burden of guilt,” over things that threaten to “crush” her on any given day. Which is what makes the gift of love so overwhelming to Olivia, even as she recognizes that Griffin “was a comfortable, comforting fit for her, as gentle to her skin as a kid glove, as easy around her heart as a velvet ribbon.” Olivia’s challenge with Griffin is to find that desire desirable, to use that unbreakable will for something other than guarding her injured heart, to surrender to what she ultimately recognizes as “want[ing] him of her own volition.” That she can even contemplate doing so is reflective of her strength and tenacity.
Reading this book reminded me how much I love strong but vulnerable characters, especially when they can express those two characteristics without cruelty or needless melodrama. The Price of Desire is very much focused on the growth of its main characters and their relationship, which moves at a pace nicely set to Olivia and Griffin’s difficult emotional registers, and as with all of Goodman’s couples, they grow a strong friendship as well as a fulsome love affair. Although I felt a curious intellectual distance from the couple for the first half of the book, by the middle I was almost as invested in Olivia’s happiness as Griffin was, and I felt great sorrow for everything she had endured in her life. She affected me more than many of Goodman’s Regency heroines, which made my experience of the novel both sorrowful and exhilarating. In that sense I loved it.
And I similarly appreciated the way that Griffin did not always know the exact right thing to do for Olivia, that despite her belief that he could read her mind he was often out of his depth with her, just inching along hoping for the best. I am frankly tired of heroes who know what’s best for the supposedly smart heroine, and Griffin was a nice respite from that model. I also appreciated the fact that he wasn’t always there to save Olivia at just the right moment, or to keep her from facing some of her worst fears. His status as hero did not suffer any tarnishing for that lack, in my opinion. And the way Goodman has tended to rely on over the top plotting near the end of her books and eeevil villains were not as much of an issue here; in fact, I suspect that some readers will find that justice was not served in big enough portions for some of the characters in the novel, even though I felt the outcome was more realistic than in many Romance novels. And frankly, because both Griffin and Olivia are smart and capable, and because they can be counted on to make mature decisions about their relationship (no running off in a ridiculous snit or jumping headlong into trouble or letting pride get in the way of love), I didn’t need their detractors to face fairy tale justice to know that Griffin and Olivia would be happy and secure after I closed the book.
The two things that detracted from a perfect read for me – in addition to the small distance I felt during the first half of the book – were the resolution to Olivia’s night terrors (or lack thereof, depending on your perspective) and the way Griffin’s mental “impenetrability” extended beyond Olivia’s awareness. There were so many times that I wanted the same access to Griffin’s mental and emotional inner-workings that I had to Olivia’s. For example, Olivia had a habit of dropping bombshells at the very end of chapters, which certainly heightened the dramatic tension but also led to an abrupt transition outside of Griffin’s reaction. As rattled as I was by some of those disclosures, I wanted to know more about how Griffin privately processed them, and about how his relationship with Olivia was healing his own heart. Obviously I saw the evidence of that healing, and their many conversations offered me some good clues, but I just never felt the same closeness to Griffin that I did to Olivia, and that may, actually, account for the distance I experienced in the first sections of the novel.
Still, though, the strengths of the novel substantially outweigh its weaknesses. Its depth and substance is evident not only in the page count but also in the thoughtful evolution of the characters, the lovely use of language and the witty dialogue, and the subtle symbolism around what it means to be a marker and why that is such a significant description for Olivia, both literally and metaphorically. The novel contemplates the “placeholder heroine” in fascinating and provocative ways.
Grading this book is a bit difficult for me, because I have two scales on which I am comparing it: to other Goodman books and to other Romance novels more generally. On the Goodman scale, it rates a B+, but on the general Romance scale, it is most definitely a solid A-. So with that I will let other readers determine the relative value of The Price of Desire for themselves.