Jun 30 2009
Dear Ms. Chase:
After I read last year’s book, Your Scandalous Ways, I knew my expectations were going to be set incredibly high for anything that came after. And thankfully, Don’t Tempt Me is not a book in the same vein, but instead hearkens back to the Carsington series, especially Miss Wonderful and Mr. Impossible. A hero who has suffered a great loss and who copes by putting on a distracting outward display and a heroine who lives on the margins of polite society’s rules and whose innocence does not equate to naÃ¯veté. And while Don’t Tempt Me possessed a number of charms of its own, somewhere between my high expectations and the echoes of other books, I was not as tempted to love it as I hoped I would be.
From the beginning, little Zoe Octavia Lexham, aka "The Bolter," was a pain in Lucien de Gray’s young neck. Although when Lucien came under the guardianship of Lord Lexham, following a tragic series of illnesses and accidents claiming both his parents and older brother, Zoe was also a "bright, bright spot in his life." He was the only one she seemed to listen to, and she was the only one who could make him laugh. The "catastrophe-waiting-to-happen" was fated to leave Lucien as well, though, stolen from a Cairo market at the age of twelve while everyone assumed that she did as she always had: run away. Regardless, it was one more blow to the young Duke of Marchmont, and it sealed his wary insouciance about, well, everything, it seemed. So when Marchmont shows up at Lord Lexham’s to run off the latest young woman posing as Zoe, he is almost maliciously gleeful at the idea of doing so. Yet all it takes is one look at the young woman in question for him to be caught with "a feeling of being set on fire, then thrown into a deep pool of water," so turned upside down he is at the improbable return of that "dreadful girl" and "bright, bright spot," Zoe the Bolter.
Zoe, besides being extraordinarily beautiful and curvaceous, is also a vexing and irresistible combination of innocence and experience, wisdom and rebelliousness. Having spent the past twelve years in a harem, the prized concubine of a young – and impotent – son of a Pasha, she is physically home but psychologically between cultures. She has no compunction about publicly discussing men’s "instruments of pleasure" or her sexual training, yet she understands that the only way to finish her breakfast is to ignore the pointless arguing at the table between her sisters. She understands what it is to be a slave but cannot abide confinement.
In some ways, Zoe’s return is another wound to Marchmont, although one he cannot identify or process. But the deliberate callousness he has cultivated over the years is no match for the lively beauty and intelligence of Zoe the Woman, because simply being in the same room with her is enough to blow open the doors to the "mental cupboard" in which Marchmont has held every painfully pleasant and unpleasant memory and emotion. And for all the energy Zoe spent running away as a child, for all of the pressure that tempts her to do the same once grown and back home in England, she and Marchmont have an almost electrical energy running between them that holds both of them in place.
The strength of the current is evident even in Marchmont’s reserve, in the casual misogyny he aims at Zoe’s sisters, for example, the "Matrons of Doom," the "Four Harridans of the Apocalypse," two of whom "looked ready to drop brats any minute now – twins or ponies, judging by their circumference." They got to grow up safe and happy in Lexham’s home while Zoe was far, far away, and their very presence seems an affront to Marchmont. We also see the strength of the attraction in the assiduousness with which Marchmont takes the task of guiding Zoe back into English society and the happiness she feels at pleasing him. We see it in the way Marchmont must tame his own "instrument of delight" in Zoe’s completely outlandish company, and in the way she cannot help but express her delight at his most casual touch. And, of course, we see it in the way Zoe’s unrestrained honesty and her emotional independence bring more than Marchmont’s membrum virile to life. The strong connection also serves to focus the novel rather tightly and effectively on Zoe and Marchmont’s relationship.
The plot of Don’t Tempt Me is not complicated. The book is divided into two distinct parts, the first chronicling Zoe’s re-entrance into society and culminating with the Queen’s blessing, and the second playing out the consequences of a more personal culmination between Zoe and Marchmont. In this, the book is quite cleverly constructed, because all of the various challenges around making Zoe society-ready – finding her proper clothes, polishing her curtsy, trying to keep her from talking freely about her skills in the "arts of pleasing a man" – keep Zoe and Marchmont in close proximity where they can argue with and lust for each other, often at the same time, and where the sharp-as-ever comedic elements of the writing can be showcased:
Thwack. "Get off!"
Something was hitting his back.
Thwack. "Now! Do you hear me?" Thwack. "Get off her this instant!" Thwack. "Get off!"
Bloody hell. Not the idiot maid. Not now. Where in the blazes had she come from?
He closed his eyes, took a long breath, and summoned his mind back into his skull.
He would kill the maid and throw her corpse into the Serpentine.
. . . "Have you taken leave of your senses?" Priscilla cried. "Good God, Marchmont, what is wrong with you? Rutting with my sister in Hyde Park! Like dogs! What will people say?"
. . . Zoe raised herself up on her elbows and glared at her sister. "I am going to kill you," she said. "Are you a crazy woman, to interrupt at such a time? I do not care how pregnant you are. There is no excuse -"
"Excuse?" Priscilla cried. "You cannot – cannot -" She waved the umbrella. "You cannot do what you were doing. You cannot do that -here-’in Hyde Park!"
. . . “The exceedingly round lady is right," Marchmont said. "We ought not to do this in Hyde Park."
"But what is she doing in Hyde Park, I want to know," Zoe said. "She should not even be awake at this hour."
At a superficial level, Zoe and Marchmont are a study in opposites, and we all know what happens with opposites in Romance. But at a deeper level, they are similar in character. Like Marchmont, Zoe is extremely aware of what is going on around her, always calculating how others will respond. Both excel at playing a role when necessary, Marchmont as the seemingly careless man who is above everyone and everything, and Zoe as the former harem slave who blanches at English standards of propriety. And these clearly are roles. For all Marchmont’s apparent disconnect from other people’s emotions, he is extremely "possessive" when it comes to Zoe, literally chasing her down in Hyde Park after watching her race horses with, of all people, his mistress. He pretty much loses his mind at one point when she refuses to stand back at the scene of a carriage accident, endangering herself to save a young boy. And despite Zoe’s apparent rashness, the harem taught her how to manage around truly irrational people, whose whims can decide whether you keep your head on any particular day, a skill she needed when she made her brave and risky escape.
However, or perhaps because of the similarities between these two who have been lost from and to family, their physical attraction is the only easy aspect of their relationship. And yet the realities of that attraction, and the sexual freedom Zoe possesses despite her virginity (more on that in a bit), make it imperative that she and Marchmont marry before either is truly ready. So when Zoe discovers that there have been some very bad consequences to Marchmont’s disconnect from some of his more mundane ducal responsibilities, a secondary tension arises in the story around Marchmont’s autocratic habits and his possessiveness toward Zoe, as well as Zoe’s anxieties about being confined by the whim of another man she fears can never truly love and honor her.
Not surprisingly, the aspects of Don’t Tempt Me with which I resonated the most were those related to the theme of confinement. Zoe’s confinements are obvious: she was held captive in the harem as the "wife" of the Pasha’s son and then in polite English society. While the dangers to her physical self were much greater in the harem, the rules of English society could be confining, too, even to a married woman in the upper classes:
"You cannot keep me in the house," she said.
"I can and will. Don’t be childish, Zoe. This is for your own good."
"Childish?" she said. Childish? I risked my life to be free. You don’t know what they would have done to me if they had caught me. I risked my life for this." She waved her hand at the window, where the shadowy figures hurried along the pavement, and riders and carriages passed in the busy street. "I risked everything to be in a world where women can go out of their houses to shop and visit with their friends, where they can even talk to and dance with other men. For twelve years I dreamed of this world, and it came to be my idea of heaven: a place where I could move freely among other people, where I could go to the theater and the ballet and the opera. For twelve years I was an amusing pet in a cage. For twelve years they let me out only for the entertainment of watching me try to run away. . . "
Marchmont is not without understanding for Zoe’s plight, but he is trapped in his own prison, one built from loss and grief and loneliness:
"You’re all I have left, Zoe," he said. "They’re all gone – everyone I ever loved. Gone forever. You, too, I thought. But you weren’t. You came back from the dead – and if I lose you. I don’t know what I’ll do."
For me, the tension and struggle between these two stubborn people who need each other so much, who are twin stars, if you will, is the real strength of the novel. While Marchmont might want Zoe all to himself, can he overcome his own fears and allow her to be an equal and independent partner to him? Can he be faithful to her? Can Zoe find the freedom she seeks in English life, even as the wife of a duke?
One question I did not ask while reading was whether Zoe could overcome the trauma of her captivity, because in so many ways she already seemed to have made that transition. In fact, throughout the book it seemed that the novel’s structure worked to hide the tragedy of Zoe’s harem prison in much the same way that Marchmont’s "mental cupboard" hid the darker aspects of his character. It was an effect that I would expect if, for example, the novels of Dickens were re-written by Wilde. Which might actually have worked for me if the harem was not used so extensively in comparison to Zoe’s life back in England.
It’s not as if the comparison is one of stereotypical savagery opposed to civilization, and I was certainly thankful for that. But consider Zoe’s description of her capture:
All the past rushed at her in an icy wave of panic – the moment they’d taken her away in the bazaar . . . the voices speaking a language she couldn’t understand . . . the darkness . . . the men touching her . . . she, screaming for her father, until they gagged her . . . the drink they’d forced down her throat that brought strange dreams but never complete oblivion . . . the slaves stripping off her clothes -
Her story of escape is equally harrowing, as are the glimpses she gives into harem life – the political instabilities, the hostilities among the women, the daily dangers and unpredictable whims that could spell the difference between keeping your jewelry and losing your head, and where one is merely "a pet in a cage." That Zoe is so well-adjusted, far more adjusted emotionally than Marchmont, was hard for me to accept, especially paired with her master’s impotence and her resultant virginity, which for me created this Disney-like fantasy around Zoe. In contrast, Marchmont’s character seemed more subtly rendered, his emotional struggle more authentically expressed. I couldn’t help but feel that Zoe was yet another example of how the love of a good woman can save the heart of an emotionally damaged man, even though the woman here should have been damaged, too.
Regarding Zoe’s sexuality, I was not per se disappointed in her virginity (even if it strained the bounds of believability); in fact, I found the impotent son of the Pasha a clever (if unbelievable) way of conforming Zoe to the traditional historical Romance standard. Nor did I find Zoe to be a fully traditional heroine; that she was so sexually aware and bold while being technically virginal was a very interesting combination. She was neither the clueless and reckless virgin nor the clueless and prudish virgin, and I found that a very nice twist in her character. I also liked that we see how Zoe adjusted to her life in the Harem, that she did as anyone who spent twelve years somewhere would do: adapted. But again, all of this was offered without the complexity of the circumstances as they were introduced to us, which made it all so obviously a device and the machinations of the text more visible. The ugliness of Zoe’s capture and enslavement were useful in explaining her need for freedom or her sexual openness, but beyond that, their harrowing effects seemed firmly in the past.
As I mentioned in the beginning of my review, Don’t Tempt Me reminded me quite a bit the Carsington books, especially the first three, although I found the disconnect between the humor and the darkness here to be even more pronounced than in, say, Miss Wonderful or Not Quite A Lady (another book that I felt took a very serious thing and soft-pedaled its seriousness). It wasn’t as if Don’t Tempt Me was a mere re-tread, because themes and even plot devices get repeated among books all the time. It was more that on top of the difficulties in tone I had, there seemed to be too many familiar moves in this book, too many things I recognized from other books to make Don’t Tempt Me an unqualified winner for me. Entertaining, yes, but in the way of a well-traveled road. The view may still be lovely, but sometimes one wishes for a surprise or two along the way to keep it fresh. B-