REVIEW: Scandal by Carolyn Jewel
Dear Ms. Jewel,
Though I remember hearing good things several years ago about your book Lord Ruin, I never got around to picking it up. I did read a subsequent book, The Spare, and though I thought it had some interesting Gothic elements, ultimately I found it uneven and graded it a C+. Still, I had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to try your work again and when then opportunity to read Scandal came along, I decided to give it a try. I’m glad I did.
The Earl of Banallt and the young widow Sophie Evans encounter each other when Sophie’s brother John brings Banallt home. John is unaware that the notorious earl and his sister have a history. Several years before, Sophie had first met Banallt when her philandering husband, Tommy, brought him home unexpectedly late one night. Both men were drunk, and they were accompanied by a woman of dubious reputation. From this inauspicious beginning, Sophie and Banallt formed an unlikely friendship. Banallt found himself strongly desiring Sophie, in spite of the fact that she’s no beauty. Sophie was unhappy, scarred by Tommy’s constant infidelity and the knowledge that he only married her (over the anvil in Scotland) for her inheritance – a circumstance that estranged her from her family for a time. She was drawn to Banallt but even more than any attraction she felt for him, she desperately needed a friend and confidante. Unfortunately, in a moment of anguish, Banallt destroyed the friendship. Sophie tells him she doesn’t want to see him again, and indeed they do not meet again for some time.
Banallt has returned a changed man. Sophie’s widowhood opens up the possibility that he can offer for her honorably – which he does, only to be promptly turned down.
This is a pretty simple story at its heart – my preference is for simple stories that focus on the hero and heroine, but it can be difficult for a writer to pull off without being repetitive or boring the reader. Banallt and Sophie are each well drawn and sympathetic, and that makes their love story compelling, even when one begins to wonder why Sophie is so determined to believe that Banallt hasn’t changed, and why Banallt doesn’t try harder to convince her that he has.
Sophie is nothing that the average romance reader hasn’t seen before – she was a headstrong girl who entered into a disastrous marriage, and learned some hard lessons along the way. As a result, she is perhaps more sensible and cautious than your average 25-year-old woman. Her years with Tommy were not only difficult emotionally, but financially. He quickly squandered her inheritance (hmm, now that I think of it, I’m not sure if it’s ever explained what funds a 17-year-old heiress had access to anyway – perhaps the reader was to assume that Sophie’s family, while turning their backs on her, did at least settle some money on the couple?). Sophie turned to writing fiction as a means to earn desperately needed money; she had always had a vivid imagination, and while the writing is a means to an end for her, it’s also a way for her to escape the misery of her daily life. Banallt’s appreciation of Sophie’s writing is an early bond between them, and a sign that he’s not all bad in spite of his dissipation.
Back in the present day, Sophie has been freed by Tommy’s death – reunited with her brother John and no longer needing to support herself with her writing. She is willing to put aside her own dreams to help John achieve his political goals. As the situation between England and France escalates (the bulk of the book takes place in 1815), Sophie and John move to London so he can take part in the political and military maneuverings, and this thrusts Sophie and Banallt back together (as well as introducing couple of other suitors for Sophie, and a potential rival in the form of Banallt’s ward Fidelia).
One thing that niggled me a bit was that there was never any explanation of why Banallt was such a man-slut originally. Now, don’t get me wrong, I get sick of shallow explanations for a hero’s promiscuity, such as, "Mommy didn’t love me enough" or "first wife cheated on me, boo hoo", but considering that Banallt was known for how especially wild he was, I felt that some sort of context was needed. He was also married at the time he met Sophie, to a woman he professes that he loved. I, unlike Sophie, did not have trouble believing that Banallt had changed – there is motivation in the plot for that. But I felt that his past and the events that shaped his character were a bit of a question mark, and I wouldn’t have minded a little more development there.
I was positively impressed by the prose in Scandal; it was smooth and free of romance-novel clichés. I wondered a bit at the physical descriptions of Banallt – he is consistently described by Sophie as being very pale and having "flat, lifeless" silver eyes. While the description made him sound rather vampiric, I ultimately decided that it was a welcome touch of realism to have a 19th century English aristocrat actually be pale rather than movie-star tan.
If I found myself aggravated at times by Sophie’s indecision over Banallt and her stubborn insistence that he would one day do her wrong, at least Sophie herself is aware that she is acting like a ninny:
She curled her legs beneath her, put her arms on the back of the sofa, and buried her face there. What a farce this night was becoming. She burned hot one moment, cold the next. She didn’t want him to leave her. She couldn’t bear to be near him. He was her friend. He would break her heart.
The self-awareness, and the fact that Sophie did have real wounds from her first marriage that made it difficult for her to trust Banallt, went a long way towards mollifying me when I was fed up with Sophie. Banallt, on the other hand, has less reason for not explicitly telling Sophie as many times as is necessary that he has changed and doesn’t intend to be unfaithful. Maybe she wouldn’t believe him at first, but he doesn’t even really try until the end of the book. I wondered if this was because he had his own reservations on the subject, but since it’s never brought up, I have to assume that it’s more a case of "the book would be a lot shorter if the characters behaved in ways that made sense". It didn’t bother me too much, but I did wonder about it.
My grade for Scandal is an A-. I will definitely be looking forward to your future books, Ms. Jewel, as well as hunting around for a copy of Lord Ruin.