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REVIEW: The Gentleman’s Madness by Bonnie Dee,Summer Devon

madnessDear Ms. Dee and Ms. Devon:

An m/m romance between an attendant and an inmate in a Victorian insane asylum… I think I know why this was published after Christmas. It was actually less dark and considerably less dense than I feared it would be, which made it a more accessible read, but also let me down a bit in the end.

He’s been through electric shock therapy, water dunks, an attempted rape for which he was blamed, and the loss of his clothes and writing implements, but fate still holds something worse in store for former professor John Gilliam. When an old friend turns up as part of a visiting group to observe the deviant “Mr. G,” and refuses to acknowledge him, John loses his last remaining shreds of personal dignity. “If he hadn’t been mad before, he had become so; he had nothing left. They had taken his pens, and now they stripped him of his past.” The distraught John is carefully subdued by a hugely strong yet gentle attendant, who promises to try and get his clothes and writing materials back.

Sam Tully is generally kind and sympathetic to the inmates he cares for, but he’s especially sorry for John. “A single glance could tell you the man had tumbled a great distance, down, down, down. All that learning, all that money, and yet here he lay on the floor of of the asylum in one of the padded rooms where they put the most dangerous and damaged patients.” Although he’s wary of being around the homosexual patients — “too close to home” — pity leads Tully to offer to supervise John on his own time, while he uses the oh so dangerous paper and pencil, and John’s gratitude touches him deeply. He knows that getting close to a patient is wrong and dangerous, but he can’t bear to let John down.

As John and Tully become friends, and a powerful attraction grows between them, Tully begins to lose faith in the asylum’s treatment methods. And when their burgeoning sexual relationships puts them in peril, he may be John’s only chance for freedom.

The asylum setting is central to this romance. Gay men in most historical contexts have a huge strike against them to begin with, and John and Sam are also separated by vast class differences. The asylum weirdly equalizes them in a sense, giving them a chance to get to know one another and explore the special gifts each can offer their relationship. The fact that the working class Tully has a lot of power over John in this situation is turned around very neatly, because he’s so worried about taking advantage that he actually helps John recover: “I am not often able to say yes or no in this place and you have given me back that ability. You have given me choice again, Sam Tully.” Their shared experiences also contribute to an unexpectedly strong and believable happy ending.

The setting is also disturbing as hell. What happens to John demonstrates how difficult it is to prove your sanity in a place designed to completely disrupt your sense of self; John can’t even masturbate in peace, because the attendants will check. And this isn’t even one of the worst of the asylums — its head doctor is more misguided and greedy than outright evil. Initially I appreciated that narrative restraint, but I wound up feeling that the book might have been stronger if it had just gone straight for the Gothic jugular. The suspenseful elements in the later part of the story, which should have been utterly terrifying considering John’s captivity, never built up as much tension as I wanted.

I think this will have the most appeal for readers who enjoy seeing opposites attract; the distinct character voices are well drawn, and of course there are strong contrasts between the slender, intellectual John and the huge, calloused laborer Sam. The sex scenes are on the milder side, which feels very appropriate for a shorter novel — the focus stays on the characters and the setting — and the romance comes to full bloom very gently and sweetly at the end. B

Sincerely,

Willaful

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Willaful

Willaful fell in love with romance novels at an early age, but ruthlessly suppressed the passion for years, while grabbing onto any crumbs of romance to be found in other genres. About eight years ago she finally gave in and started reading romance again, and has been trying to catch up with the entire genre ever since. She loves exquisitely written historical romance, intense m/m, and crazy, over the top categories about equally, and hopes to be buried with her e-readers. Look for her on twitter or at her blog at www.willaful.wordpress.com

13 Comments

  1. Carolyne
    Jan 02, 2014 @ 19:20:09

    I have to admit I was drawn to this because of the characters’ names–if they aren’t an homage to characters from an entirely different genre, the coincidence was still enough to catch my attention–but I’m sure the setting would have caught me anyway. So far, I would have liked it to be darker, more disturbing, and more emotionally wrenching. It’s such a perfect set up for going for the Gothic jugular. But I’m not very far into the story, and I have hopes it doesn’t get too “sweet.” The review gives me encouragement to stick with it :)

  2. Carolyne
    Jan 02, 2014 @ 19:25:36

    Ugh–I wanted to edit that comment. All I meant about the names is that they seem like an homage, which I think is quite nifty and puts a smile on my face. Not that anything else about the story comes from elsewhere.

    I have a few other books by this author team and remember liking them a lot.

  3. Willaful
    Jan 02, 2014 @ 23:34:00

    I didn’t catch that — what’s the homage?

  4. Carolyne
    Jan 02, 2014 @ 23:56:43

    @Willaful: There’s an old 60s television show with characters named Jack (John), Sam, and Tully called “Rat Patrol.” It’s set in WWII combat, so The Gentleman’s Madness is entirely unlike it.

    If it’s coincidence, that’s actually even more fun.

  5. Summer
    Jan 03, 2014 @ 11:36:18

    Pure coincidence! That’s very cool.
    I named the guys (though I think Bonnie gave Tully his first name) and maybe those other names lurked in the background of our brains? I’ve never watched Rat Patrol, but now I will.
    I was trying to guess what you referred to, Carolyne, and a friend came up with Scully and Jillian (Anderson) from X-files.

  6. Summer
    Jan 03, 2014 @ 11:39:31

    …and I’ve been told the show is all about a bunch of attractive, rough-hewn guys on a North African desert. Sounds promising.

  7. Carolyne
    Jan 03, 2014 @ 11:46:05

    @Summer: Oh my, yes, very promising.

    OK, a lot of it is extremely silly 60s shoot-up-stuff and manly posturing with the honourable enemy. You just have to look at it the…right way. Leave historical accuracy preoccupied with some cookies in another room while you watch it.

    Can I just repeat how much I absolutely love that the names are coincidence? The universe must want you to see that show.

    And thank you for providing a lot of entertaining books for me to read :)

  8. Sirius
    Jan 03, 2014 @ 12:27:40

    I really enjoyed most joint ventures by this writing duo, but was kind of hesitant because of the settings myself. Will pick it up, thanks willaful.

  9. Bonnie Dee
    Jan 03, 2014 @ 13:01:18

    When I explained the setting to my husband and he suggested that an asylum might be a hard sell for a romance novel, I blithely said “What are you talking about? Readers love the angst.” Maybe I was wrong. And also maybe Summer and I backed off on how dark we could have gone because we’re both just too damn sunny-natured to reach that place. Who knows.

  10. hapax
    Jan 03, 2014 @ 14:14:47

    OMG, Rat Patrol! That brings back memories…

    True confessions, I thought that the “homage” referenced was to Jon Snow and Catelyn Tully!

  11. Rebecca Rogers Maher
    Jan 03, 2014 @ 15:39:50

    I just read this and thought it was wonderful. I appreciated the restraint. John and Tully were very deeply drawn and sympathetic characters (especially kind Tully). Setting them against a world that was totally banal and well-meaning in its cruelty was even more chilling, to me, than pitting them against a stereotypically evil villain. Thank you for your review! So glad to have heard about this book.

  12. Willaful
    Jan 03, 2014 @ 17:21:15

    @hapax: I think the names were drawn from the collective subconscious. :-)

  13. Willaful
    Jan 03, 2014 @ 17:22:22

    @Rebecca Rogers Maher: That’s a good point, so maybe not going for action/suspense at all would have been the ticket. Something about the combo was just not quite the right mixture.

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