Oct 6 2009
Dear Ms. Jewel:
When I met you recently, I had to sheepishly admit that I had not yet read any of your books. So I volunteered to review your new release Indiscreet, relishing the added bonus that it was a Regency set in Turkey. Despite all of the stereotypical sheikh novels and the often fetishized relationship genre Romance has with Middle Eastern settings, I have a very soft spot for these fictionalized locales, and Indiscreet did not disappoint in that respect. In fact, there were very few disappointments for me along the way, and while Indiscreet might be the first Carolyn Jewel book I read, it certainly won’t be the last.
When the Marquess of Foye was merely Lord Edward Marrack, he had the displeasure of overhearing a terribly indiscreet boast from his then-friend, the Earl of Crosshaven. It seemed that Miss Sabine Godard was, as Crosshaven put it, "’no better than she ought to be’" in submitting to Crosshaven’s seduction. And Lord Edwards knows that "’Tomorrow…Miss Godard will not find the world so pleasant a place. That is a fate you ought to have avoided for the girl,’" because "’the consequences of an indiscretion always fall hardest on the woman.’" Edward, soon to be Foye, does not understand at the time why his friend would be so selfish and careless with Miss Godard’s reputation, but he does know that true or false, the charge will likely ruin the young woman, and for that he is disgusted and sorry.
So nearly two years later, when he runs across the lovely Miss Godard and her uncle (and guardian) Henry Godard in, of all places, Turkey, he is grateful to see that Sabine’s uncle did not turn her out on the street, even if they had to flee England in the wake of her ruined reputation. Sabine, who is helping her uncle with his book on the East, amuses herself by reading tea leaves for other English travelers, mostly men who are taken with the lovely young woman. The amusement hardly satisfies, however, the mind of a woman who is more intellectually capable as many men far above her station, although her gratitude for her uncle’s public loyalty makes her loathe to leave him. And she is not at all pleased to see Crosshaven’s good friend Foye among the coterie of English travelers. She has no idea that his sympathies lie with her and not Crosshaven, and is merely waiting for him to act as so many other men have around her – with the ultimate proposition for indiscretion.
Foye and Sabine are, at first, as mysterious to each other as the Eastern cultures are to so many of these Western travelers. Foye is, as Sabine notes, not a handsome man: "[h]is nose was hooked, and the remainder of his features were set irregularly in his face, as if someone had put the parts together and then given them a hard shake before everything had quite settled into place." He appears aloof, but, Sabine realizes, instead he is just "reserved," because "[h]is consequence fit him like his clothes: exquisitely and without ostentation, but underneath there ran a river too deep to sound." Still, Sabine finds Foye arresting, even as she fears what he will say or attempt to do to her. While Foye is trying to adjust to a shift in his own expectations, from "a sweet young woman, weeping for her lost reputation" to a sensually-featured woman with "dark honey" eyes, a surfeit of personal dignity, and an unexpected measure of wit and insightful intelligence. Not a victim, by any measure, despite Crosshaven’s careless sacrifice of her reputation.
One of the things that is most amazing about Indiscreet is the way the unfamiliar setting of Turkey (which was and still is one of the most popular vacation spots for Europeans) sets off the personal dynamics between Sabine and Foye. On one level, any interest they have in each other – however reluctant, on both parts – is less forbidden. But on another level, Sabine’s reputation is even more fragile outside England, because her status and safety as a female is doubly dependent on male protection. And then there are the more mundane considerations, such as the fifteen-year age difference (Sabine is 23 and Foye is 38), Foye’s self-perception as a beastly man (he is 6’6" for one thing), who is beyond the desire of a beautiful young woman like Sabine, and Sabine’s loyalty to her uncle, a man who stood behind her even though he most certainly believed Crosshaven’s story. Henry Godard, in fact, would rather think of Sabine as having a man’s mind and disposition in an inconveniently female body, and he thinks nothing of taking her through politically unstable, geographically remote regions, oblivious to or unconcerned with the potentially unhealthy interest of Nazim Pasha, whom Henry Godard is intent on visiting.
Before they can leave, however, Sabine and Foye become acutely aware of their attraction to each other, buoyed by the unexpected pleasure of it and yet firmly convinced that it cannot end in marriage and happy domesticity:
He reached up and took her hand in his. She’d never put on her gloves, so her ï¬ngers were bare. Slowly, he brought her ï¬ngers to his mouth and kissed the back of her hand. His lips touched her bare skin. "Sabine," he whispered, "what am I to do with you?"
"What is it you want to do?"
He did not step away, and, God help her, she trembled with anticipation. He tipped his head to one side. "To make up my mind about you." The skin around his eyes crinkled when he smiled. "Am I too beastly for you, Sabine? Or is that something you can overlook?"
She was aware that the future of her relationship with him, whatever that was to be, hung in the balance now. Her whole life was about to change, and this time the choice was hers. Her chest felt tight. She could hardly breathe. "You and I will continue to disagree on that, I think.
So when the Godards leave for Northern Syria and the pashalik of Nazim Pasha, Foye tries to believe that Sabine will be safe in the company of one infirm old man and a pasha who is known for selling women or making them part of his seraglio, beyond the protection of the British consulate. And when he arrives at the pasha’s compound, he is informed by the pasha that Henry Godard has died and Sabine is grieving, inconsolable but safe. Which he does not believe for a minute. So one daring rescue and a bit of costuming later, Foye and Sabine escape the pashalik for a treacherous journey to the relative safety of the consulate, many anxious days and treacherous miles away.
At this point in the review I need to say that no summary I could offer of Indiscreet is likely to do the book justice, because so much of its depth, like Sabine and Foye’s relationship, is revealed in the experience. Foye is a man who knows he is not handsome, and who is almost freakishly tall for his time, but who has enough social position to secure a desirable wife one day. However, he has a sad history with the one woman he loved before Sabine, and so he is convinced that he will never be happy in love, and therefore convinced that no woman as lovely and intelligent as Sabine would ever be suitable for him. Sabine, while traditionally beautiful, must disguise her acute intelligence and broad education, and is forever hampered by the consequences of her tarnished reputation, whether she actually earned that reputation or not.
To complicate matters, just as the two seem to be working through these initial barriers to happiness, the nature of their relationship changes when Sabine goes undercover as a young male, native dragoman to the powerful Lord Foye. Now the woman who never noticed how much the world deferred to her sex must live the physical life of a man and a servant. This life is foreign to her, and as a result, she becomes estranged from herself in a way:
While she understood and wholeheartedly agreed with Foye’s decision to disguise her as a boy-’a brilliant ruse, she thought-’she was profoundly unsettled by everything to do with it. The experience made her a foreigner in her own body; riding astride, the way her clothes ï¬t, and perhaps most of all, the way others reacted to her. . . .
As it was now, she was being shaped inside and out by the sort of person she was and by the expectations of those around her.
And she becomes aware of Foye in a new way, as well:
They were safe enough speaking English, so long as she was appropriately deferential to Foye. That wasn’t difï¬cult. He was a nobleman after all, and just now he intimidated her. The gentleness of his manners from BÃ¼yÃ¼kdere had disappeared somewhere between then and now. She wondered if he was aware that he behaved differently. He must be; he was too intelligent not to be. A line between them had been erased, and she wasn’t sure where, if anywhere, a new one might be drawn. She was a boy and not a boy. His servant and not his servant. Female and not female. And when she looked at him, her stomach leaped off the end of the world.
So many Romance novels treat the road trip as a whim, the costumed heroine as a farce, and the East as exotic backdrop, but Indiscreet challenges each of those stereotypes and brings each device back into fresh use. The road trip is fraught with dangers both physical and emotional, the costume functions to reveal the depths of both protagonists, and the Eastern setting a means to explore the nature of foreignness, customs, and social structures. I don’t think I can emphasize the extent to which I was completely caught up in reading Indiscreet, at least until the final handful of chapters, that is.
For at least two-thirds of the novel, the emotional tension is taughtly maintained, and it was a profound pleasure watching these two characters transform, inside and out, to themselves and each other. Like Sabine, I saw the sharp angles in Foye’s face as "beautiful" rather than "beastly," as the face of "[a] man who tried to see the world as it was rather than what it was said to be, and still retained his hope." Like Foye I was impressed with Sabine’s dignity and proud of her studious dedication to saving her own life. She is no silly ninny, no helpless naif, even if she is vulnerable in a number of ways.
However, because there is so much tension in the novel around securing Sabine and Foye’s safety from the pasha and other dangers, once safety is secured, the novel, like Sabine’s stomach, seems to "leap off the end of the world." The final chapters, in fact, started to read like a summary of a novel more than the novel itself, and while this is not the sort of book where we are in doubt up to the last page as to how things will turn out, there are a number of twists in those final chapters that beg for more opportunity for emotional catharsis than what is allowed in the somewhat abrupt resolutions. Had the pace of these chapters been slowed, Indiscreet would have easily been an A read for me. Even with the sometimes tiring repetition of Foye’s insistence that he was too beastly for Sabine to love, even with the sometimes awkward introductory paragraphs at the beginning of chapters (the book had a sense of scripted scene changing that was both interestingly effective and self-consciously artificial). There is just so much to admire about Indiscreet, from the restrained but lyrical prose to the depth of the protagonists’ characterizations, to the lovely surprises placed throughout the novel that challenged and shifted my expectations subtly but effectively.
For the reader who wants fresh settings, for the reader who likes traditional Regencies, for the reader who likes character-driven stories, and for the reader who likes adventure and a larger scope in Romance, Indiscreet is a wonderfully satisfying read. B+
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