Once upon a time, in the early (well, early-ish) days of my romance reading, I came across your historical romance The Portrait. This was a romance that was different from any other that I’d thus read – the hero is bi-polar. I really loved the book, even though I found the HEA hard to credit given that the h/h were living in an era when mental illness was not well understood and not well treated. Even though it was a bit more grim and downbeat than I really like my romances to be, I found the story compelling and the characters sympathetic.
I soon came to find that slightly grim but fascinating romances with not quite believable HEAs were sort of your bailiwick.* There was A Candle in the Dark, with its prostitute heroine and alcoholic doctor hero, and Fall From Grace, where the hero and heroine are married outlaws with a complicated and sordid past.
* To be clear, when I say that the HEAs aren’t believable, I don’t mean in the annoying way of some romances where everything is tied up in a improbable and too-pretty package in the end, no matter what sturm und drang and angst have occurred in the previous 200-whatever pages. I mean that the situations set out in these novels were believably serious and really sad. I could believe that the couples in each book were soulmates and better together than apart; I just thought that their lives were going to still have some dark moments (for some reason, now, I’m reminded of the end of The Hunger Games trilogy).
So, challenging romances, but rewarding ones, if not exactly guaranteed day-brighteners. Over time, your books got further from romance, closer to historical fiction, and more just plain dark and I stopped reading them. They were still good, but the fact that the darkness was not being balanced by a romance (even one with an improbable HEA) made them too depressing for me.
Just recently, though, Inamorata popped up on offer from Amazon, and the blurb was intriguing, so I thought, why not? Inamorata is *not* a romance – I’d call it historical fiction with supernatural elements (I’m not big on supernatural in my reading, but the blurb was really that appealing).
Set in 19th century Venice, Inamorata follows a quartet of characters, three of whom act as first person narrators in alternating chapters. Sophie and Joseph Hannigan are twins who have left America under a cloud of scandal and have scraped together their meager funds, betting their futures on Venice. Specifically, they hope to find a wealthy patron (Joseph is an artist). Nicholas Dane is an English poet who has come to Venice to in search of the woman who destroyed his talent. Odile Leon is a former courtesan. She’s also hundreds of years old, and a succubus.
I don’t *think* the fact that Odile is a succubus is a spoiler – the word isn’t spoken until a little past a quarter of the way into the book, but the process by which she hunts men, drains them of their gifts, and discards them, leading them to madness and frequently, suicide, is detailed much earlier. I was glad that there wasn’t too much pussyfooting around the truth about Odile’s nature; I am not that enamored of the concept of succubi (I think I’ve read one paranormal romance containing a succubus, and IIRC I found it stupid). I didn’t really want the speculation on the exact nature of the wrong that Odile did Nicholas and why exactly he’s trying to stop her to be drawn out.
Technically, I guess, a succubus is, per Wikipedia:
“…a female demon or supernatural entity in folklore…that appears in dreams and takes the form of a woman in order to seduce men, usually through sexual activity….Religious traditions hold that repeated sexual activity with a succubus may result in the deterioration of health or even death.”
In Inamorata, Odile’s actions are a bit more specific and focused: she targets, seduces and feeds off of artists of all kinds – painters, poets, musicians. The artist finds that at the beginning of the relationship he is more creative and successful than he has ever been, but as Odile (through sex, I guess?) drains them, they lose their focus, talent and energy.
The way Odile’s gig works was a little vague to me, beyond that. She has to feed off the artists to maintain her human form, but she is also always searching for the “one” – a true talent beyond the average hack she uses and discards, one who will immortalize her in art. This is apparently both necessary for her to exist, but also important to Odile on some sort of emotional level. (All four characters – Odile, Nicholas, Joseph and Sophie – are preoccupied with being important in some way, with leaving a legacy that will live on after they are gone.)
Anyway, when the Hannigans arrive in Venice, they quickly meet Nicholas and an artist friend of his, Giles, who becomes enamored of Sophie. Nicholas is drawn to Sophie as well; in fact both of the Hannigans seem to have an almost supernatural appeal for those who meet them. They rather deliberately work that to their advantage, after finding that Nicholas knows many influential people in the city. Nicholas, meanwhile, is trailing Odile, and preventing – or trying to prevent – her from finding the artist who will sate her hunger. It’s been several years since she’s fed on a true talent, and some sort of deadline is approaching before which she desperately needs to find “the one.”
Again, I’m not big on supernatural stories, and succubi, particularly, are of little interest to me. So I liked what I liked about Inamorata almost in spite of the subject matter. First of all, the writing is richly descriptive:
I had so wanted to come upon Venice as in a novel, watching the campaniles and the top -hat chimneys come into view against a pink-and-lavender-tinted sky as I listened to the soft plashing of a gondolier’s oar.
Glitterdust across a broad expanse of blue. Before me, the water unfurled like dark swaths of shadowed silk, colors muted, reflections cast by the lamps hanging from the prows of the gondolas rippling, and my heart swelled at the beauty and the romance of it.
I also found myself interested enough in the characters to want to continue reading. Sophie is a sympathetic character, if at times a little unbelievably dense about certain things. She and Joseph had a tortured childhood; after their parents died they were put into the care of an abusive governess, Miss Coring. Their world shrank to the home they rarely left and each other. As a result, Joseph and Sophie are close – unusually close, and some would (and do) say, unwholesomely close. Sophie is aware – through harsh experience – of how she and Joseph appear to others at times, but doesn’t seem to think before she acts (for instance, giving him unbrotherly-seeming kisses on the mouth in front of others). But on the whole Sophie was the most relatable of the characters.
Joseph is the only one of the quartet that doesn’t narrate, and perhaps because I never got his perspective, I found him harder to like and sympathize with (though he makes a sacrifice near the end of the book that redeems him somewhat). Nicholas and Odile sort of vacillate between being understandable in their motives and actions and being too clearly motivated by ego and selfishness (and there is, of course, the soul-sucking in Odile’s case, which doesn’t really do her character credit).
There’s an interesting twinning that goes on between Odile and Sophie. Both are muses of a sort, and both bridle against the nature of being a muse. Sophie feels that people never really see her – they see her as Joseph sketches her. Some of this seems to be her own insecurity; some of it is that Joseph is just the slightly dominant twin. I think perhaps it’s intended, though, to be a commentary on women and their place in society – the whole notion of “woman as muse” gets a workout, but I’m not sure I ever quite grasped the point entirely. Sure, it was unfortunate that a woman like Odile had little agency and fewer options for fame and fortune, but that’s not a really good reason to go around sucking people’s souls out, I don’t think. (And again, here, Sophie is more sympathetic, but ultimately she’s pretty passive in her unhappiness and she sublimates her feelings in pursuing Joseph’s wishes. Beyond the question of quasi-maybe-incest, the two really put the “co” in co-dependent.)
The ending of the book had a certain neat logic, but I’m not sure if I considered it a happy ending, or a “happy as can be expected” ending. It was kind of dark, but maybe not as dark as it should have been, given what occurs. (I know I’m being obtuse, but, spoilers, yadda yadda.)
I find myself conflicted on how to grade Inamorata – my grade hovers somewhere between a B- and a C+ – the higher grade for the lovely writing and setting and for creating some interesting characters, the lower one because I just didn’t love the plot. (Is this like complaining that you’d have liked Gone with the Wind better without all the Civil War stuff?) I guess because, for me, writing and characterization are more important than plot, I will give this book a B-.