Dear Ms. Napier:
It is a good thing that I am already a fan of your books and a reader acclimated to the excesses of the Harlequin Presents line, else Accidental Mistress would have been a definite wallbanger for me. Jane has said elsewhere that the success of any HP book lies in the heroine to hero, doormat to asshole ratio, and I agree. However, I will add another component, namely the purple prose to authentic emotion ratio. Because in this book, even though the doormat to asshole ratio was not so terrible, the purple prose – like a bruise across the pages of the book, sometimes – actually hurt to read.
Emily Quest has inherited her grandfather’s restoration business, and her talent for reconstructing rare antique porcelain is exceptional. The child of international missionaries, Emily did not have much of a stable home life until she went to live with her grandparents as a pre-teen, taking on the role of her grandfather’s assistant after the death of her grandmother when Emily was sixteen. Now, with her grandfather dead, Emily is experiencing quite a bit of hardship: her home, car, and studio were burned to the ground and the insurance company does not want to pay out on the indemnity policy. Worse, when we meet her she is sneaking into a party in order to make a switch of porcelain vases at the home of a rich client. For what reason she is making this switch we do not know, but mega-rich, mega-dark, mega-sexy Ethan West, who sees Emily make the switch, most certainly doesn’t think the best of her. Especially when she turns on the sexy herself in order to maneuver out of his line of suspicion and out of the party.
So when Ethan encounters Emily a full two years later, the new guest of his elderly uncle, Peter West, Ethan can’t help but think that Emily is a gold-digging wife-in-waiting for his recently widowed uncle. Paul, on the other hand, has taken to Emily for other reasons, one of which is the incredible work she did for Peter’s wife, Rose. Peter cannot stand to see Emily without a place to work or live, and he has graciously offered his home and a brand-new studio for Emily to work, especially since she will still be doing work on Rose’s extensive collection. There is no way Ethan is going to let the two go unchaperoned, however, and between him and his party-boy brother, Dylan, Emily gets plenty of attention – wanted and unwanted – from the West men.
Despite her deep fondness for Peter, and her amusement with Dylan, the only West man Emily really wants something from, though, is Ethan, because, as we know, the almost-innocent, always-virtuous HP heroine must, as a matter of course, be drawn to the almost-human, always-wary HP hero. In fact, the more emotionally remote he is, the harsher with his initial wrong-headed suspicions of the heroine’s motives, the more she seems to want him. It seems to be a rule in this line, and one that can either make for compelling emotional relationship drama or completely over the top emotional manipulation of everyone involved.
I cannot recount the rest of the plot, as it involves a fairly significant spoiler that is key to the basic set up between Emily and the Wests, but I can talk about the relationship dynamic between Ethan and Emily, which is really what the plot is meant to serve, anyway. In Accidental Mistress, there are touches of what I regard as signature Napier writing – like the way she makes Emily’s work a central aspect of her character and a relatively detailed element of the book, the way she provides a lot of setting description, and the way she plays a bit with the reader’s expectation that Ethan will always play the heel. This last twist is one of my favorite things about Napier; when you think you have the hero’s next move easily predicted, he makes a little turn, offering a different side of his character for discovery. And Ethan gets one or two of those turns here, like, for instance, the fact that this rugged engineer is also a master rose gardener.
But weighing both he and Emily down is the over-wrought, over-saturated language:
Simmering tension exploded into a firestorm of furious elation.
His hard lips devoured her strangled cry, feeding on the shocked excitement that shuddered through her body as his tongue thrust past her teeth to delve into the rich, creamy-wet depths of her captive mouth.
Her body had already recognised the lover of her dreams and with a sinuous twist that made him sweat and groan she took him completely, bowing over him, her swollen, blue-veined breasts brushing tantalisingly against his mouth until he lifted his head and captured them with his lips, holding her fast so that he could drink lustily from her sweetness, his big hands cupping her hips, urging her to a faster rhythm until her head fell back and her spine began to stiffen. Immediately one of his hands slid between their bodies to the place where they were joined and found the tiny, engorged bud of carnal pleasure, his skilled play bringing a violent flowering of drenching delight.
There were so many euphemisms involving liquid I felt like I was drowning in the prose at some points. When Emily imagines Ethan masturbating, she experiences a “shocking spurt of heat between her legs.” When Ethan climaxes, he has “a prolonged outpouring of voluptuous gratification.” When Ethan touches Emily’s clitoris, a “burst of molten sparks showered through her,” and when Ethan kisses Emily, all she can think about is “the on-rushing tide of hot, syrupy pleasure.” It just goes on and on. And on.
Then there is the “savage eroticism” of Ethan’s lovemaking, and his somewhat creepy excitement at “‘How much I’m going to enjoy entering my very private little rose garden,’” aka Emily’s HP-standard near-virgin magic hoo-haw. There’s the way he threatens her when he first sees her at his uncle’s, two years after their brief encounter at the party, not by promising to tell Peter what he knows, but instead by almost shagging her while her uncle is off in another room:
“My touch more than disturbs you-you’re such a hot little piece, I could have you right here and now-all I have to do is this…” He pinched at the painfully engorged nipple, playing with it between his fingers, at the same time bending down to run his hot tongue around her glistening lips, making a rough sound of triumph as he felt her arching shudder of helpless response.
Of course Emily is helpless; she’s a victim of a number of bad stereotypes that were unmanageably sticky with vats of love syrup. What self-respecting young woman doesn’t want to hear what a “hot little piece” she is from a guy who’s trying to prove something by practically assaulting her? Thankfully, Ethan doesn’t persist in this denigrating mindset very long, but still, at times it felt like Emily loved Ethan primarily because he needed to be loved, and, of course, because she “unfurled” in his arms “like a flower.” Which was too bad, because there were some rather interesting angles to the story and some funny moments with the secondary characters (Dylan had a few good scenes, and I suspect he will have his own book, too). But the over the top-ness was just too over the top. Not that I don’t appreciate good melodrama. Let’s face it; you can’t enjoy HP if you aren’t into the melodrama. But there’s a point where the scale tips and the melodrama becomes caricature, diminishing the very thing it was intended to heighten. For me, Accidental Mistress was one long trespass over that line, making it a below average HP read. C-