May 8 2008
At the beginning of Lord of Scoundrels, a book that has been in print since its first publication in 1995, Lord Dain meets Jessica Trent for the first time
She was not classic English perfection, but she was some sort of perfection and, being neither blind nor ignorant, Lord Dain generally recognized quality when he saw it.
That statement fairly sums up my experience with Your Scandalous Ways. It is a kind of perfection, romance perfection perhaps. Francesca Bonnard is a high class courtesan who was married to John Bonnard, a highly ranked politician in England. He divorced her, threw out into the street, and hoped she would end up used and diseased and possibly dead. The only course open for Francesca was the oldest profession but she parlayed that into being one of the most famous and most expensive whores alive. Her protectors were princes, dukes, dignitaries. Every notch in her bed post became a weapon in her correspondence to her former husband. Younger sons of England’s titled set, like James Cordier, simply did not have enough cache.
Of course, James Cordier is not an ordinary younger son. He’s a spy, a thief, and a whore himself; only he sleeps with women for his government instead of for money. He is dispatched to obtain letters that Francesca supposedly has in her possession. James is a bit tired of being the government’s whore but if he has to sleep with a beautiful woman one last time then he’ll do it and then retire to the country side with a milk and roses miss.
It’s hard to sum up in a few sentences what I liked about this book. Francesca, for one. She’s such a survivor but you can see her vulnerability in how she’s still fighting this battle against her horrible former husband; how she constantly tells every new person that she’s a whore as a shield so that they can’t stab her with it later. James is the perfect match for her. He’s strong but emotional. His longing for the traditional English miss is dashed to dust nearly the minute he meets Francesca. He never, ever looks down on her and even suggests that his parents would love her (after all his mother is very unconventional). I thought this book was expertly plotted with no wasted scenes, no throwaway dialogue or extraneous characters. The one weakness I saw in Lord of Scoundrels was the plot and particularly how it kind of fell apart at the end. There was no weakness here, that I could see. It’s a book I know I will read forever and it’s one I’ll recommend to my daughter when she’s of an age. It shows that true love does triumph and it does heal and it is magical.
I haven’t been able to make it through Lord of Scoundrels yet, so I can’t comment on that comparison, but I definitely agree that Your Scandalous Ways is “some kind of perfection.”
Let’s start with the first sentence of the first chapter. It’s one word: “Penises.” Followed by one more: “Everywhere.” That’s it; the first paragraph. How many Romance novels begin their first chapter with the word “penises”? Right then I understood that I was reading a different book, a book that would challenge and excite me, kind of like the, . . . well, okay, back on track. The penises, it turns out, belong to a veritable hoard of Putti on the ceiling of the “decorative insanity” that is Francesca Bonnard’s Venetian villa, little naked boys suspended above her that she compulsively counts, certain they are reproducing by the day:
“They crawled about the ceilings, lifting plaster draperies or creeping among the folds, looking for who knew what. They clung to the frames of the ceiling paintings and to the gold medallions over the doors. They vastly outnumbered the four bare-breasted women lolling in the corners and the four muscled adult males supporting the walls.”
The Putti are such a perfect reflection of James and Francesca’s relationship: ostentatious, overwhelming, annoying, lush, and unexpected, perhaps even unwanted — in short, trouble. And it’s all because of the way Chase builds these characters from the ground up as surprising subversions of Romance types, playing with the types as she sketches out their generic misbehavior (sort of how I felt when I read Joanna Bourne’s The Spymaster’s Lady). Francesca does use her courtesan status as a shield, but it’s a shield with the substance of absolute truth; she is a courtesan, a woman who promised herself after her humiliation at the hands of John Bonnard that she would always choose the who, when, where, and how long of any sexual relationship, and she really means it.
Francesca is a woman who had to fight for her freedom and who understands its value. She’s one of the few Romance heroines whom I believed when she insisted that she didn’t want to fall in love. Which, of course, electrifies her relationship with James, who, I think, is even angrier than Francesca about their mutual attraction. James may be a guy who is willing to do what it takes for every mission, but he is craving freedom, too, and a woman who refuses to simply fall into his embrace as an easy and and easily forgotten conquest really pisses him off. In fact, I think the anger between these two is as powerful as their attraction, and in a strange way, it gives a palpable depth to their love. I don’t know if I’ve ever read a Romance where such a dark and powerful core of anger drives a romantic attraction and yet is so deftly sublimated into seemingly superficial verbal jousting. I mean, this book was funny. And poignant (especially when we find out what James has endured during his career and what really drives his anger at Francesca). It was like watching two people fence with flame throwers, beautiful and dangerous, nothing I’d want to attempt but something I can’t turn away from.
It was a great sparring match and what made it so exciting was that the two were so evenly matched. It was stubborn alpha male against stubborn alpha female. One problem in the Bourne book was how often the power seemed to shift to the hero’s hands, but in this book, the seesaw was even. I even thought that Francesca played the traditional male role, at times. She thought that perhaps she would dally with James, even though she shouldn’t because he wasn’t quite the luminary she usually brings to
bed. She gives him jewelry at one point and my favorite part of the whole book is when he is about to throttle her for putting herself in danger.
“You’re beautiful when you’re angry,” she said.
But James is never emasculated partly because he gives back as good as he gets. He doesn’t give in and he is constantly challenging her. He treated her as an equal.
He got the waistcoat off and draped it neatly over the chair seat. “I have an excellent idea,” he said. “Especially now that I’ve seen you naked.”
‘You don’t need to flatter me,” she said. “I don’t need honeyed words.”
‘When have I flattered you?” he said. He undid the button at the neck of the shirt sticking wetly to his torso. It sagged open, revealing a V of his powerful chest, gleaming bronze in the candlelight. “I believe I called you an idiot more than once this morning alone.”
Oh, yes, that point where she turns the gender tables on James is wonderful, because he is, despite all of his protestations, the romantic in the relationship, from his long curly hair to his passionate intensity. He even lusts after Francesca’s jewels like one would a lover. Remember the scene in the gondola where she bets him that she can seduce him right there, and James almost loses it when she starts fondling herself, torn between the attractions of her necklace and her breasts? It really is amazing that you can have two people who are used to being in control, who really *don’t* give it up for the other in any way that compromises their core values.
As for Francesca, she exemplifies what I’m starting to think of as the anti-heroine heroine in Romance, the heroine who not only fights love, but fights the Romance formula, continuing to subvert the reader’s expectations about how a relationship should proceed through a novel. I can see where a character like her can frustrate readers, but what’s so great about Chase’s book, I think, is that James is so frustrated that readers who get frustrated by Francesca can sympathize with James.
This is really, I think, Chase at her most masterful, using humor to highlight the darkness underneath, but not giving in to maudlin angst. One of the things I didn’t like about the last book, Not Quite A Lady, was that difficult things seemed resolved too easily and swiftly. But here I didn’t feel that at all, because she so perfectly balances that signature dry humor with the bittersweet aspects of the story. This is a happily ever after made for people who don’t really believe in happily ever afters, I think.
What is so wonderful is that James and Francesca belonged together and Chase makes you believe it from the very minute that they appear on the page together. And Chase closes in much the way she begins, with the ceiling of little penises being the focus, only now Francesca is joined by James in studying the art form. The other day you talked about how romance, as the love fantasy, is supposed to be “sex positive, woman positive, man positive, love positive, and relationship positive.” That’s how I saw Your Scandalous Ways. It was positive and uplifting and beautifully reaffirming of love.
Want to read this early? Answer the following question. I’ll pick 5 random winners from those who give the correct answer.
What gemstones is Francesca wearing in the excerpt?