JOINT REVIEW: A House East of Regent Street by Pam Rosenthal
Jennie: When Janine mentioned this expanded novella, and suggested we review it together, she asked if I’d read it when it originally came out in 2004. My book log says no, but my brain says yes. If I didn’t read it I must’ve read a lot about it back when it was first published, enough to retain information about it. (The way my brain works: I’ll forget entirely something that happened yesterday but remember the plot of a movie I read a review of but never actually saw in 1986.) There’s something about this story that feels very familiar. But that’s neither here nor there, I guess.
Janine: It was first published as part of an erotic romance anthology called Strangers in the Night. I probably mentioned it to you back then since it was my favorite thing by Rosenthal. This edition is newly revised and expanded and is also the first to be published in digital format.
Jennie: Jack Merion is a former sailor who has made it good in Regency England, partly due to the fact that while in the British Navy he saved the life of a peer, who then in gratitude gave Jack entree into society. As the story opens, Jack and a property agent are looking at a house that Jack is thinking of buying and dividing up into flats and offices for rent. The house used to be a fairly high-end brothel, and as they go through the rooms he notes the richly colored walls and elaborately carved woodwork and imagines how it looked in its heyday.
The area around the house, once genteel and turned shabby, is looking like it might make a comeback, so Jack thinks of it as a sound investment. After viewing the property, he’s interested but not decided. Until another potential buyer shows up on the scene.
Cléo Myles arrives with an elderly aristocratic Frenchman, obviously her protector. Jack finds himself immediately attracted to her, so much so that he impulsively declares that he is purchasing the property. Cléo and Monsieur Soulard regretfully depart, but not without a silent understanding passing between her and Jack.
That evening, Cléo visits Jack in his apartments and asks him what it will take for him to rent the house to her. Cléo got her start at the brothel and it was there that she met Soulard. Now they have a plan to revive it, and Cléo is willing to do what’s necessary to make it work.
Jack and Cléo come to an agreement: they will meet at 3:00 each day for five days at the house, where Jack will be allowed to use Cléo “any way you like” as she terms it. For that, he will lease the house back to her and Soulard at a loss (considering what a sound businessman Jack is, this tells the reader all they need to know about how much Jack wants Cléo).
What follows is yes, a lot of sex for a novella-length story, but it’s never sex disconnected from the emotions of the characters.
Janine: Good point that the sex always connected to the characters and their feelings about each other. It really worked for me. And we should probably mention that Soulard is aware of it; Cléo isn’t going behind his back.
Jennie: Yes – Soulard is in agreement.
Sometimes the emotional aspect of the sex reveals uncomfortable truths about the characters (primarily Jack; for reasons that become clear towards the end, we don’t get Cléo’s perspective until a third of the way into the book). Jack struggles with the notion of being an unselfish lover, something he honestly does not have much experience with. He finds he enjoys watching Cléo’s pleasure but he still has some dark resentment over the transactional nature of their encounters and the sense that she’s supposed to be servicing him, not the other way around.
Janine: Yes. Jack is a hard-nosed businessman, almost cold-blooded where money was concerned. He is courting an upper middle-class young woman, Evelina, with at least one eye on her dowry and on her parents’ wealth, which would make it possible for their children to marry into the aristocracy.
Jack is not particularly attracted to Evelina and he sees the begetting of their future offspring as a chore, even a duty to England. I thought that was an amusing and fresh angle on a hero, but this same focus on viewing his personal relationships as business transactions affects his interactions with Cléo and as you say, makes him resentful of her first request in bed.
This doesn’t last long; Cléo teaches him to be more generous pretty quickly and he finds that rewarding once he learns. But when he’s faced with her first request, he feels quite a bit of consternation. It’s not what she asks for specifically but “the principle of the thing” that irritates him. If he’s the one paying then he should be the one to call the shots. Everything in his current life is a transaction; his own future is on sale to the highest bidder, in this case Evelina’s father, and he has purchased Cléo’s time so he wants to get his money’s worth.
I’m sure a lot of romance readers, especially these days, when heroes are very much idealized figures, would take issue with this aspect of his character, but I liked it. When a character has flaws, I often find that character more believable and interesting. And this was not a flaw I’ve seen much of before, so it fascinated me. How did you feel about this, Jennie?
Jennie: I didn’t like Jack at times but I liked that I didn’t like him? For the same reason as you – he felt more real because he wasn’t a perfect lover and he didn’t have woke notions about women’s sexuality.
I also thought it was interesting that Jack apparently had some success with women not because he was a good lover, but because he was handsome. Presumably he had mostly been with sex workers, and so he isn’t used to having his technique criticized, even obliquely. But I also felt from the beginning that Jack was really struggling with the nature of his relationship with Cléo, and in a way that internal conflict made him angry at her.
Jennie: Jack left home young to avoid the fate that awaited him in his town – going down in the coal mines. He hasn’t had a charmed life but has managed to get by and achieve some success, but one doesn’t get the sense in the novella that he has many strong connections to other people. One thing I liked about him was that he felt like a more realistic version of the ubiquitous historical romance self-made man who is born poor but who only has to glance at something for it to turn to gold. Jack is smart and ambitious, and he’s doing well for himself, but in a more believable way than I’ve often seen.
Janine: Yes, I agree. He was more believable than most. He had done very well but he wasn’t a magnate. Another thing I appreciated about him was his attitude toward his heroism.
Jennie: I wish we’d been given a bit more insight into Cléo’s past – she was born in one of the poorest sections of London, and started at the brothel as a servant.
Janine: I wanted more about her, period. As you say, there’s a reason why her POV was withheld as much as it was but I still wanted more insight into her. I felt like I had a stronger grasp on Jack.
Jennie: Yes, I did too. Cléo felt enigmatic, which made sense given her profession and the chameleon-like role she had to sometimes play. But I also felt that we just weren’t given enough of her history, her experiences or her thoughts.
I’m not sure if I just expect someone with that background to have experienced a lot of sorrow, but I felt a hint of melancholy in her personality. She’s also strong and confident and very in control of her sexuality; Cléo was an admirable heroine.
Janine: I agree there was a hint of melancholy there. Part of it may have been about Soulard’s illness, and about returning to the brothel where she had once worked—both of these hinted at the opening and closing of chapters in her in the past as well as in the present. But there was a bit more to it than that. Like you, I loved her strength, and her confidence in regard to her sexuality and Jack’s.
It was interesting, too, how she was a counterpart to Jack in terms of business focus. She also approaches the house—at least at first—with her eyes on the prize. She tries to keep things businesslike between Jack and herself, and she gives thought to how to manage the brothel once she runs it, including—
There’s some softheartedness under all this that she does not want to acknowledge because it would force her to admit that she is putting financial security ahead of personal considerations and that is hard for her to face. This was true of Jack, too, and he was even more shut down. They had both lived a life of hard knocks and now each prioritized prosperousness over happiness. At first, at least.
It was an interesting conflict and one that I have not seen play out that much in the historical romance genre, at least with heroines. When money comes into a heroine’s considerations in romance, it’s more likely to be something they need it to aid another person (usually a family member), not want for themselves.
Jennie: Jack and Cléo are both “mature” – close to 40 – and this gives the romance a slightly bittersweet quality. In essence, they are both battle-worn – Jack has an ugly scar on his thigh that he’s self-conscious about, and Cléo is aware that she is in a young woman’s profession.
Janine: “Battle-worn” is a terrific adjective to use here. And this makes it all the more satisfying and romantic when they set down their armor. In Jack’s case especially, because—
There’s some dry humor to the narration and I thought the language (figurative language especially) was quite good. Here’s an example:
Because the Prince Regent, like an eager puppy, had lately begun to mark his territory, his architects laying plans for crescents, canals and arcades, and a boulevard to rival the great shopping thoroughfares of Paris.
Another aspect of the writing that I really liked was Rosenthal’s use of dream sequences.
How did you feel about the writing?
Jennie: I thought it was very strong. The opening discussion about paint colors in the rooms of the house drew me in right away – it brought the house to life as almost another character in the story:
The rooms glowed.
Janine: Great point about the house.
Jennie: I am glad I finally read A House East of Regent Street. The length makes some of the action feel compressed or rushed; I really wouldn’t have minded this book being twice as long.
Janine: I agree about the pacing.
Additionally, these characters were so interesting that I could have easily read at least another fifty pages about them.
Jennie: My grade is a solid B+.
Janine: Mine’s a B+ too.