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Avon-Historical

REVIEW: The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton by Miranda Neville

REVIEW: The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton by Miranda Neville

Dear Ms. Neville:

When I was offered the chance to review The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton I had no idea what to expect. I’ve had mixed reading experienced with Avon historicals, and while I have enjoyed our few brief exchanges on Twitter, I really had no sense of where your books fit in within the Historical Romance subgenre. The title and cover art are formulaic Avon (i.e. not remarkable to me at all), and the marketing seems to put your writing style somewhere between Lisa Kleypas and Julia Quinn, which wasn’t a big help, either. And I’ll confess that for perhaps the first few chapters of the book I was skeptical: a young woman kidnapped, stripped of her clothes, and abandoned (temporarily) in a deserted Yorkshire cottage; a dandy and member of the ton conked on the head, partially stripped and robbed, who wakes with amnesia. Said dandy is precisely the man who cut the heroine dead with one of his “witticisms” (in this case that she had a head like a cauliflower) and ruined her chances with a prospective suitor. How these coincidences persist given all the English Regency characters running around Historical Romance, I’m not sure, but one lesson I did learn (again) from reading this book: it is unwise to judge a book solely by its cover and title. Because The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton proved to be a witty, interesting, trope-busting read.

Celia Seaton has had a run of very bad luck. First her mother dies, then her father — who is raising her in a remote area of India, supposedly under the aegis of the East India Company – is killed on his way to meet Celia on a ship bound for England, leaving Celia to sail alone and without any prospect of family or employment upon arrival. Celia, who has never set foot on English soil, is briefly taken in by her uncle, who dies before he can provide for her economic security. From there she gains a position as a governess to four boys, whose widowed father proposes marriage, only to throw Celia out when the man’s sister convinces him (erroneously) that Celia has a lover. She is currently on her way to visit a Mrs. Stewart, a stranger who has written Celia to say that she knew her parents and her recent “misfortunes,” when she is kidnapped at gunpoint and left nearly naked in the abandoned Yorkshire cottage. Celia’s kidnapper has, however, suggested he will return to have a little “fun” with her later on.

With that promise lingering, Celia manages to get herself out of the attic where she’s been imprisoned, only to find an unconscious and half-dressed man lying across the cottage’s doorway. Recognizing him as Tarquin Compton – ton dandy and all around jerk – Celia manages to rouse him, seemingly intact except for his memory. At which point Celia tells Tarquin of the danger to them both, but fibs a bit about Tarquin’s identity; she tells him that they are a betrothed couple and that he – Terence Fish – is studying to be a vicar. Terence/ Tarquin is not convinced of the story’s truth (for one thing, he despises the name Fish and has vague, periodic memories of a rather high-flying lifestyle), but he is certainly aware of the predicament he and Celia are in, and together they set off across the moors, hopefully to find refuge with the mysterious Mrs. Stewart. Neither has any money (Tarquin has his boots, his breeches, and an erotic novel he recently purchased on his way to his Yorkshire property, while Celia has an old, tarnished silver baby rattle that belonged to her mother and that apparently escaped the thief’s eye), both are only half-dressed (Celia’s shift is far too short and her only other garment is a pinned-up blanket that serves as a makeshift skirt), and neither has any conscious idea of where they are or in what direction salvation may lie.

As Terence/Tarquin and Celia trudge across the moors (part of which, not surprisingly, turns out to be Tarquin’s Yorkshire property), they encounter everything from sheepherders who think they’re thieving gypsies to a farmer who agrees to give them a ride and a meal but who later wants to purchase Celia for a bride, and always they are aware that Celia’s kidnappers are in close pursuit. What neither can figure out is why a young woman of so little social consequence would be the object of such a dedicated kidnapping plot and search, and while Terence/Tarquin struggles with his memory loss, he can only rely on Celia to fill in the blanks of his now-forgotten life. She is terrified he will remember who he is before she can tell him about her lie, but even more she is afraid that once he knows who he – and therefore she – is, he will abandon her to her less-than-illustrious fate. For Celia’s experiences of Tarquin Compton have not been pleasant. Several times introduced to her, he never remembered her name, and once he publicly designated her a cauliflower (due to an unfortunate attempt to make her red hair appear lighter and blonder), the little chance she had to make a good match was destroyed. Consensus indicates that Celia is not possessed of great beauty, and she had only the most tenuous of connections to the ton. Once those were spent she really was an outsider to respectable society, both in position and perspective, and she has no faith in Tarquin Compton to help her.

Terence Fish, on the other hand, is an entirely different sort of man. He is protective and solicitous, suspicious of the story Celia told him of his life but trusting that she told him what she genuinely knew. In fact, Terence had a growing fear that he might be a “nobleman” but not a “gentleman,” recognizing the quality of his boots, for example, not to mention the erotic volume he has to keep snatching back from Celia. More importantly, Terence Fish finds Celia Seaton extremely appealing, and he wastes little time in seeking the physical commitment from her that a betrothed man might convince his fiancée – especially a fiancée who seemed to enjoy reading erotic fiction – to indulge.

That so much happens before Tarquin regains his memory might suggest a quick resolution to the plot once he comes back to himself. However, one of the surprising delights of this book is that Tarquin’s recollected life is actually a catalyst to the real heart of the novel, as well as most of its trope-rich action. For by the time Tarquin realizes who he is, the connection he shares with Celia is far more than casual, and even though his social position would allow him to abandon her with impunity, his conscience – not to mention a lower part of him – won’t allow him that option. With the mystery of Celia’s kidnapping still opaque, Tarquin takes her to Shropshire, where his best friend, Sebastian Iverly, is staying with his new wife’s family. Of course, Tarquin forgets that Diana is very close to delivering her first child, and the scene at the Montrose’s home is, to put it mildly, chaotic. What happens from this point on is really too complicated to explain (and would entail some spoilers and delicious details best discovered by the reader), but I can say that while I had guessed the great mystery quite a bit before its revelation, the way it is incorporated into the larger plot strains of the book is very logical and clever.

While the set-up for Celia and Tarquin’s amnesiac road trip seemed somewhat tedious to me, the momentum continues to build throughout the novel, making each chapter more engaging and suspenseful than the last. The outrageousness of the set-up is subtly admitted to within the book itself, especially by the clever framing device of Tarquin’s erotic volume, The Genuine and Remarkable Amours of The Celebrated Author, Peter Aretin, a genuine 18th C novel that Celia finds outside the cottage. The little book provides almost constant subtext, making many amusing contributions to Celia and Tarquin’s growing sexual attraction, not to mention quite an education for Celia, and, later in the novel, one of the younger Montrose sisters. The book becomes a clever way to negotiate around a heroine who is both virginal and sexually aware (her life in India and her father’s Indian companion also provided her with a rather unconventional sexual education). It also allows for some pretty funny bits involving the hero’s, well, bits, which riff off the standard Romance expectation that the hero is always well-endowed and often overwhelming to the heroine’s inexperienced eyes. In fact, one of my favorite things about the novel is that numerous genre conventions — amnesia, the road trip, the house party, the rusticating hero, just to name a few — are renovated and renewed in interesting ways.

The writing is witty, too. When Tarquin looks down upon Celia sleeping in the midst of much birdsong, and the reader expects some sentiment about her hair or face, Tarquin “wondered if she could be deaf in one ear.” There are clever turns of phrase, as when women would “flutter like deranged doves” around Tarquin. And there are some laugh-out-loud scenes, like the one in which Sebastian drunkenly worries about the physics of a baby’s head and the usual size of the birth canal as his wife labors without complication elsewhere in the house.

On a deeper, level, though, The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton is itself a novel about learning lessons and lessons learned, around which the novel’s more poignant elements are revealed. Celia has felt like an outsider all her life, and as an unbeautiful woman she sees herself as “a shabby wraith in the shadow of [Tarquin’s] magnificence.” How can she believe that a man like Tarquin could ultimately love her, especially when so much of his ego seems to depend on the good opinion of others? And Tarquin, who has spent so much of his adult life so privileged he no longer consciously sees himself as privileged, attraction to Celia is both challenging and vexing. After all, the woman lied to him, humiliated him, and then has the gall to question his intentions and his feelings for her — whatever they may be. There is a point in the novel where Celia is done-over by Diana’s maid, and while she cannot wait to surprise Tarquin with her new look, his attraction is already past her surface appearance. It’s really a lovely moment, because it highlights the disparities in their perceptions of each other at that point in the novel. And while the consummate insider and the absolute outsider do share an early personal history of sadness, the crucial difference between Tarquin and Celia – that he has had influential people to count on at crucial points in his life – stands as a very real obstacle between them. Not as much because of the social implications, but even more because of the emotional consequences of their very different life conditioning.

Despite the length of this review, I feel as if I have barely broken the surface of my feelings about this book. There is so much I admire and appreciate about the craftsmanship and a great deal that entertained me in a fresh, unexpected way. The way the different tropes play on surface v. substance and appearance v. reality, for example, and illuminate the different prisms through which people view themselves and each other. In some ways it is light, but not in the way of wallpaper historicals or straight romps; the light is emitted from the effervescent voice and prose. So what kept it from being an A read for me? This is the hardest part to articulate, because in the end it distills down to a matter of chemistry. Sure there were some anachronistic-sounding phrases, and Celia delivered a number of impassioned comments on the relatively disempowered status of women that fit her outsider status but still sounded a bit modern to me (or at least as vehicles for sharing historical details that might not otherwise be easily worked in), but mostly my issue with The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton is that I never felt deeply emotionally invested in Tarquin, Celia, or their relationship. In fact, I was more emotionally drawn to Sebastian and Diana, whose book I’m now going to go back and read. Had I fallen in love with this book to the degree that I admire and appreciate it, it would have been an easy A. Without that emotional clincher, though, it’s a B+.

~ Janet

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REVIEW: This Perfect Kiss by Melody Thomas

REVIEW: This Perfect Kiss by Melody Thomas

Dear Ms. Thomas:

I have described your Avon historicals as a “guilty pleasure,” but such a description undervalues their strengths, one of which is the romantic suspense subplot, which often engages me more than the romance itself. Still, the heroines tend toward stubborn and feisty, and the heroes toward dark and tortured, while the drama is high and the history, well, the history is definitely not why I read them. Somehow I managed to miss last year’s book, so I was especially excited to read This Perfect Kiss, because sometimes I crave a more old-fashioned Romance novel, and I find your books tend toward that experience. Unfortunately, This Perfect Kiss was not a perfect read for me, although I did enjoy a number of the novel’s elements.

This Perfect Kiss by Melody ThomasAt 17, Christel Douglas believes herself to be in love with Camden St. Giles, a young captain in the Royal Navy and heir to the earldom of Carrick. When she shares a passionate, stolen kiss with the young officer, Christel believes that if he knew who she was beneath her homemade costume of gold taffeta dress and bejeweled shoes, “England’s hero” would want nothing to do with “the bastard daughter of an adulterer.” And, as her half sister Tia gleefully informs Christel upon finding her at the masquerade ball, Camden is nearly engaged to Christel’s beautiful and legitimate cousin, Saundra. So Christel flees before Tia can reveal her secret, while Camden goes on to marry Saundra.

Almost ten years later, everyone’s lives have been dramatically changed by personal tragedy and war. Saundra bore Camden a daughter before she mysteriously plummeted to her death from one of the light towers on the Carrick estate. Having been gravely wounded and militarily disgraced in Yorktown, Camden is now passionate about only two things, both named Anna: his daughter and his commercial ship. Bitter and world-weary, Camden is loath to return to his Scottish estate, Blackthorn Castle, where his dictatorial grandmother and his reprobate brother, Leighton, reside, especially since Leighton is rumored to have been Saundra’s lover and the father of the child she miscarried shortly before her death. But when a woman claiming to be his late-wife’s cousin boards his ship in London, Camden is immediately taken back some nine years to that masquerade ball at which he kissed the lovely Christel Douglas, before she inexplicably fled Scotland for the colony of Virginia, where her uncle lived and fought for the colonial cause.

Christel was shocked to receive a letter from Saundra begging her to return to Scotland to take up governess duties for Anna. Since Saundra has now been dead two years, the provenance of the letter is even more mysterious, although Christel is still urgently trying to fulfill its request. Widowed herself, and without any money, Christel boards Camden’s ship dressed as a man and accompanied by a dog who adopted her on the London docks. It is not the first time Christel has seen Camden in nine years; after all, it was her uncle’s ship that rescued him and what was left of his crew from drowning after the disastrous Yorktown battle, and while he lay delirious in a Yorktown field hospital, Christel had nursed him until her own husband became ill. But she has no idea that Camden has spent the last nine years with a souvenir of that night at the masquerade ball – the golden shoes Christel had so proudly created and then watched Tia throw over the cliff at the edge of the Carrick estate. And now that they are isolated on the Anna, Christel and Camden have plenty of time to become reacquainted without any masks or costumes.

There is quite a bit of interesting backstory in This Perfect Kiss, much of it political. Christel has fought for the colonial cause against the British and through her dress shop in Williamsburg was able to gather information for the cause. Leighton, Camden’s younger brother, is involved in the black market trade of brandy and weapons, and it is widely believed that he was Saundra’s lover and perhaps even a traitor to the Crown. Following Camden’s military humiliation and devastating wound, Camden has entered the commercial shipping business with his close friend, Jacob Westmont, a chief magistrate and staunch loyalist. Renewing an association with Christel puts Camden in a precarious position regarding his own political and commercial interests, as well as testing the bounds of his friendship with Westmont. Christel’s past, much of which she does not initially reveal to Camden, also implicates her much more deeply in colonial politics than he ever would have suspected, and once he brings her back to Scotland, he is inadvertently inviting unwelcome official scrutiny into his and Christel’s families and properties.

On the surface, at least, there is quite a bit of ambitious political detail in the book, and because the novel takes place a mere year after the Treaty of Paris, the political context is both crucial and multi-layered to any story set in this time. Beyond the obvious political opposition between the British Crown and the newly formed American nation, there is Scotland’s complicated position economically and socially. Economically, Scottish shipping industries were imperiled by the War, while politically and socially, the revolutionary spirit of the colonists was an appealing ideal. Enlightenment values – the rise of individualism, reason-based philosophy, natural history, republicanism and the social contract, etc – were radically changing the way people thought about and viewed the world, and there is a distinct ethos characteristic of that period, even as it varied somewhat from country to country.

Unfortunately, despite the complicated backstory in the novel and the extensive political and historical references, This Perfect Kiss did not, for me, possess that late 18th century ethos marking it as a product of the momentous changes taking place during this period (and the attempts to mimic period speech with the “ayes” and the “nays” didn’t work for me at all). In fact, once Camden and Christel arrive back in Scotland at Blackthorn Castle, there were large stretches of the novel that felt very much like a Regency or Victorian historical, by which I mean the Romance genre’s interpretation of a Regency or Victorian-set story. A small example: while I appreciated the absence of women’s drawers (18th C women didn’t wear them) and the reference to shifts and stays (although “corset” is referenced in the prologue), the complexity (and width!) of women’s wear during the period never came through to me. Nor did the complexity of the changing political, philosophical and social views. I will say, however, that I was incredibly grateful for the absence of horrible Scottish accents, kilts, references to “savage” or “noble” Highlanders, and other terrible and inaccurate Scottish stereotypes.

In terms of Christel and Camden’s relationship, the surface/substance relationship is reversed. Superficially, at least, Christel and Camden would have been a bad match nine years ago – she, the bastard daughter of a Scottish lord and a colonial woman of no status – but now their pairing seems as if it would be disastrous. Christel has been involved with the Sons of Liberty, while Camden fought for the Crown. Both have been embittered by war and loss. And Christel still has no social status to offer the seventh earl of Carrick, let alone any apparent inclination to play the accommodating countess. On a deeper level, though, these two deeply wounded individuals, both rebels in their own way, have the potential to heal each other and properly value the fragile gifts of love and happiness.

Camden has been reluctant to stay in Scotland and assume residence as the Earl of Carrick, the sordid tragedy of his wife’s death and the pressure of his grandmother to marry again unwanted burdens. For all of his responsibilities – to his daughter, his crew, his family, and his earldom – Camden has been deeply burned by his own loyalty, and he finds it much easier to remain on his ship, where he has a smaller world to oversee. Christel, on the other hand, had always been a partial outsider and a rebel, and she refuses to count on anything in life being stable or secure, including her youthful infatuation with the handsome earl. Still, she cannot help being drawn to the wounded man, just as she has been drawn to other difficult and dangerous causes:

 

For most of her life, it had been easier to run from the frailties of her heart than to confront her own vulnerability, but there was something fragile about a man of the world who suddenly did not seem so worldly in all things. A man who loved his daughter and wanted to know his child better, who had been betrayed by his wife and brother and—if Christel really wanted to list all the evil culprits in his life—who had also been betrayed by the Crown he had served so loyally for so many years.

He was a man who’d used every situation to his own advantage, a strategist who’d played life like a game of chess or one of his naval sorties but who had suddenly found the new territory he was now sailing unnavigable.

 

Although I tend to like the ‘damaged hero and heroine save themselves through their mutual love’ device, with all of the extra baggage heaped on Christel and Camden throughout the novel – the mystery of his wife’s death, the implications of Christel’s social position and her political activity, the questionable activities of Leighton, etc. – the external obstacles are responsible for dramatic tension to sustain the reader’s interest. However, the sheer number of issues implies that resolving those difficulties should be no easy thing. Without issuing spoilers to the several mysteries that build over the course of the novel, I will say that the several substantial obstacles to Christel and Camden’s ultimate happiness seem almost magically resolved, deflating much of tension they originally created and diminishing their importance.

This Perfect Kiss is a very difficult book for me to grade, because I found its own ambition to be the ultimate source of its undoing. The political issues were plentiful but not resonant in the book, and the emotional issues were not incredibly inspired to begin with, and were ultimately hampered by the creaking weight of the backstory and the historical context, as superficial as it was. For all the details present in the book I was bored through a good deal of the novel, and as much as I liked Christel and Camden, I never convincingly felt the danger of their situation nor the depth of their suffering. As much as the novel gave me superficially, I kept wanting more substantively, and consequently, while I didn’t dislike This Perfect Kiss, it was far from a perfect reading experience for me. C+

~ Janet

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