REVIEW: In Total Surrender by Anne Mallory
Dear Ms. Mallory,
I have been anticipating the release of your novel, In Total Surrender, since I read about the Merrick brothers in your last effort, One Night Is Never Enough. There’s just something about a pair of intellectual thugs that gets my blood pumping.
In Total Surrender is Andreas Merrick’s book. The one in which the taciturn and deadly Lord of the Criminal Underworld falls in love with the upbeat daughter of a merchant.
Andreas Merrick is once again the object of an assassination plot. A plot he has anticipated, for the assassination attempt is the direct result of his own plan to bring down his arch-nemesis, Lord Garrett. Andreas has been plotting this man’s downfall for ages and he is so close to finally destroying him that he can taste the victory. Unfortunately, things are not going quite as he had intended. There have been . . . set-backs. A warehouse has been burned down and other attacks against the Merricks’ empire have been made, the assassination attempt not the least among them. More irritatingly still, his brother Roman is on his honeymoon and has left him to deal alone with the various employees, spies, and cogs in the wheels of their empire. So when a cloaked and hooded woman enters his offices after a particularly irritating evening of dealing with various attacks, Andreas is expecting—well, he’s expecting to have someone try to kill him.
What he is not expecting is Phoebe Pace, the daughter of the merchant James Pace. The family Pace has been under his gaze for quite a while now. He’s been watching them, interested in their comings and goings. For the Pace family is a key ingredient in his machinations against Lord Garrett. In fact, one of the set-backs his plot has suffered was the disappearance of the only son, Christopher and the reclusive nature of the father. The only time, it seems, that the family leaves their home is to attend the theater. So Andreas has been writing to James Pace, trying to convince him to meet. But James Pace is strangely reluctant. He keeps refusing, and no one refuses Andreas Merrick.
That Phoebe Pace should come to him in the dead of night is absolutely extraordinary. It doesn’t take him long to figure out that the person who he has been corresponding with has not been James Pace at all, but Phoebe. That this girl has been the one running the company since the disappearance of her brother and the seclusion of her father is astonishing. And not just a little bit irritating.
Phoebe Pace proceeds to become more irksome still for what she wants from Andreas Merrick is information. She seems to believe that he knows or can find out what happened to her brother. Is he dead? Is he missing? Kidnapped? By whom? And for what reason? Phoebe isn’t put off by assassination attempts and ruffians. She begins a campaign to insinuate herself in the Merrick household through baked goods and kind words. But Andreas isn’t fooled. What is she up to? And how much does she know?
Andreas is sure she knows something. He also realizes that her interference in his plans is his own damn fault. After all, his fascination with her has led to this. It was through his doings and schemes that the Paces are involved with him at all. It was his design that entangled them with his vendetta against Lord Garrett. He was using them like pawns in a chess game. So whatever Phoebe wants and whatever Phoebe is, her optimism and good nature are just a front, a tactic to throw him off and let down his guard, because he knows that what she is after is far more intertwined in the danger that surrounds them than perhaps either of them are aware.
But more distressingly still, he thinks about her. He goes to the theater to watch her and he hates the theater. She seems to be able to see into him. And he, he is totally unable to see into her. He cannot understand her. This disturbs him, because she, herself, disturbs him. She’s disturbed him from the first moment he saw her at the theater:
It had been immediate. How the hell that could be, he didn’t know. But her eyes had connected with his, somehow, as she’d entered the box on the opposite side of the theater—connected with his even through the dark shadows he surrounded himself with. And her mouth had bestowed a warm smile on a random stranger in the crowd.
Barbed warmth sinking under his skin, biting and clawing.
Her body was cloaked in the color of innocence, but her lips were passion-stained. The warmth of the lamps seemed to converge on her at all times, no matter where she moved, or with whom she spoke—a bright spot pushing back the shadows.
In many ways this novel is playing with and manipulating romance tropes and forms. On the surface it seems to be the classic tale of the good girl and the rogue. But this is quickly dispelled. Mallory makes a point of adjusting the story just enough that it doesn’t read quite the same as it ought to. I am for this adjustment. I am for the manipulation of tropes and conventions. I think it gives us wonderful romances when romance authors dare to twist, turn and pervert the usual generic standards. Mallory often does this in her books. She tweaks things. Starts at odd points and places in the story. She doesn’t reveal or fully explain the characters past, even at the end of the story. She uses time and perspective in slightly idiosyncratic ways. All of this is very well done. All of this I support.
For instance, In Total Surrender is predominantly told from Andreas’ perspective. Particularly in the first seven chapters when we, the readers, are privy to none of Phoebe Pace’s thoughts. Phoebe is an utter and complete mystery to Andreas. Her motivations, her goals, her desires are totally foreign to him. He knows, quite perfectly well, that she is up to something. He simply cannot figure out what it is. In fact, Mallory makes Phoebe a mystery—in my humble opinion—precisely so that she might play with the trope of sweet, optimistic young women who invades the dark lord’s home and turns it upside-down for the better. Because Phoebe, as we learn, is not exactly sweet, is not exactly optimistic and is invading Andreas’ establishment the way that Catherine the Great invaded Turkey, turning things upside-down in pursuit of her own warm-water port.
Ms. Mallory uses, like most romance novel authors, limited third person perspective as her narrative mode. However, there are many ways to use third person. In most romances, the narrator is invisible. This is in contrast to other books like Middlemarch, where on occasion the narrator offers an opinion about the characters manners and behaviors. Or, as in Jane Austen where there might not be an actual intrusion into the narrative, but there is an ironic distance to the tone in which events are related. Mallory, like her sister romance authors, remains mostly invisible in the text; however, she also does this thing where she closes the distance between herself and the character. She imposes upon her narration a very limited and constrained perspective. Often the reader finds herself in the dark about past events and motivations, even when occupying the space inside a character’s head. Moreover, Mallory has a particular talent for visceral and claustrophobic narrative. Her stories are rather gothic because of this.
The effect of all of these narrative devices is to heighten the tension and the friction in the relationship between the hero and the heroine. By not being able to know what the other is thinking, and by imposing that same limitation on the reader, Mallory ratchets up the sexual tension to quivering levels. We, the readers, feel the effect of this tension. We share it, for neither are we able to understand or to know the object of the hero, Andreas’ desire. Instead, we must wait, like him, to find out about Phoebe; to find out about her secrets, her thoughts, her knowledge and her plans.
The problem with In Total Surrender is that it doesn’t deliver. I think it does work quite well in its manipulation of certain tropes and genre conventions, but it fails in three significant ways, three significant ways which are primarily confined to the end of the book rather than the beginning.
First, the sex scene. When I talked about this with Jane she described it as vague and unsatisfying and I would have to concur with that assessment. The sex scene is vague and unsatisfying. Unsatisfying because the sexual tension is practically thrumming by the time you reach that point in the story. You can feel Andreas’s nerves about to snap. So the fact that the sex scene is so brief really does little to dissipate that tension. This dissatisfaction is exacerbated by the sheer vagueness in which it is related. What, if anything, happens? I wasn’t actually entirely sure they had sex for a minute there. That’s how vague it was.
Now, I’m not all about the sex scene. In fact, there are times I wish there was no sex scene. For example, there are certain authors who rely on the sex scene or the sex scenes to carry the rest of the story to its close. This is both to the detriment of the story and the detriment of the characters. Hero and heroine spend the last third of the book shagging themselves senseless and boring the bejesus out of me. Usually, what remains in these books is some half-arsed mystery plot that I have already solved. Or sometimes the hero just hasn’t said “I love you” but this is not enough to keep me reading another 80 pages.
Mallory has not committed that crime. And if I might be so bold as to presume to know the author’s intentions, I see both the vague and unsatisfying nature of the sex scene in In Total Surrender as endeavoring to do the opposite. I applaud Ms. Mallory for attempting to do something different with sex in a romance novel. It was a bold move. Unfortunately, as if often the case with bold moves, this one didn’t quite work. The tension between Phoebe and Andreas was such that it needed to be consummated more than the sex scene allowed for.
Second, the use of historical personages. Or the historical personage who is the deus ex machina. This one, I don’t understand. It was totally unnecessary to the plot of the novel, to the development of the characters, or to the themes of this book to have a Historical Personage appear. The Historical Personage was inserted with all the deftness and subtlety of a bull in a china shop. Or a toddler with a pair of scissors. Why, dear author, why? In order to explain why this didn’t work I must spoil the surprise, thus:
END SPOILER ALERT
The appearance of the Historical Personage highlights two things: the hasty ending and the sudden upswing to the saccharine. Prior to the appearance of the Historical Personage, the sex scene—though vague and unsatisfying—was the major weakness in the book. The tension and conflict at the heart of Phoebe and Andreas’ relationship was well-written enough for me to ignore some of the flaws, including the sex scene itself.
But the ending. Oh the ending. It wasn’t that it wasn’t happy. It was. It was too happy. It was too damn happy. The first third of the book—nay! Nearly the entire book is characterized by a tone and atmosphere that could only be described as dark and grim. Lord of the Underworld describes not only Andreas himself, but the feel of the book. One feels as if one is in an underworld, a world without sunshine or light, a world of shadows and twilight. But then, first the Historical Personage shows up and, worse, an abrupt flash into the future that shows how blissfully happy our heroes still are twenty years after the events of the book.
Clearly, my problem isn’t HEA. Clearly, my problem isn’t epilogues. But this wasn’t properly an epilogue. Nor was it properly a resolution to the final conflict between Phoebe and Andreas. It was if I was reading an early draft of the novel. It just went from a declaration to a flash forward to a saccharine ending so sweet that it threatened to give me hyperglycemia.
And he kissed her. Not a farewell kiss, or an evening kiss, or a friendly kiss at all. It was a forever kiss, and it was everything she’d ever wanted.
“And I love you too, Phoebe.”
If only that were the ending! But no. Then we get this:
Twenty years later, Phoebe Merrick still anticipated weekly notes, placed in different spots where she had to hunt to find them. No one had ever said the man was not difficult. But now he always smiled readily and laughed when she chased him down.
The twins were a constant joy.
It isn’t that we have not seen this before. But rather that this flash forward ejects the earlier tension, darkness and gothic atmosphere for an entirely different kind of tone. It is the sort of paragraph I would expect in a Julia Quinn. There’s nothing wrong with that but this is not a comedy. Thus, this last part of the book rang discordant for me. It was like listening to Beethoven’s Fifth and then having the recording suddenly, and without warning switch to the opening strains of The Temptations’ “My Girl.” It jangled.
I like Ms. Mallory’s books very much, generally. But some of her backlist has been hit or miss for me. This one is a miss. And it started out so well, too. I feel like I began in different book than the one I finished. As such, my grade dwindled. With the vague sex scene, this book was probably a B. With the historical personage, may be a B-. With the saccharine ending that resolves nothing and changes the entire tone of the book . . . C+