REVIEW: Untouched by Anna Campbell
Dear Ms. Campbell:
I realized reading your new release Untouched that for me your books are fundamentally a revisiting of older Romance motifs, with both retro and current elements. At your best, your work brings out the best of both past and present Romances, because you are often examining some of the more provocative elements in the genre, making them both larger than life and relatable at the same time. And because of that, perhaps, when something in your book misses, it really misses. Claiming the Courtesan is a book that hit much more often than it missed for me, while Untouched is a book with more misses than hits.
Impoverished in widowhood and banished from her wealthy and titled family, Grace Paget is kidnapped on her way to meet her uncle, mistaken for a common prostitute and nabbed for the pleasure of Matthew Lansdowne, the reclusive Marquess of Sheene. Having lost his parents as a child, and not seen in society since he was fourteen, Matthew is a prisoner of his greedy and conniving uncle, Lord John, who uses a fever Matthew contracted at fourteen to have him certified as a lunatic. Thus the elder Lansdowne needs Matthew alive to keep his guardianship of the future earl’s fortune (if Matthew dies the title will not go to Lord John), so the world thinks the young marquess a madman, even though he has long since regained his wits. Restless and unhappy after eleven years of imprisonment and two failed escape attempts, Matthew has never had the pleasure of a woman, so his uncle decides to bring him an expendable woman to distract him from his captivity.
For a man like Matthew, autonomy means everything and is everywhere absent, except in his botanical work, which consists of grafting roses, conducting various experiments, and writing scientific articles under a pseudonym. Also there is the small issue of his sanity, which Matthew fears will one day leave him, even though he has been free of the feverish fits that we readers understand were the product of physical, not mental illness. Matthew is tormented by the very conditions of his physical containment, but he is equally hard on himself, clinging to what small freedoms he has been able to carve out within the capacities of his own intellectual and emotional resilience.
When Matthew first sees Grace, she is drugged and strapped to the same table on which Matthew spent much time restrained and tormented by quack doctors and his two “handlers” – sadistic pawns of his uncle who can barely stop themselves from raping Grace before they hand her over to Matthew, who initially assumes that Grace is in league with his uncle. Although Matthew is immediately attracted to the beautiful and young Grace, he is disgusted by her presence, as well, because to give in to his physical passions is, in Matthew’s mind, to succumb to his uncle’s will and dominion over him.
Unfortunately for Matthew, however, Grace is even more imperiled once she is brought onto the fortified estate, because her presence is viewed as temporary, as is her life. Monks and Filey, the two wardens, have no qualms about doing her any sort of violence, nor does Lord John, who threatens Grace in a way that makes it essential that she seduce the unwilling marquess. So while Matthew’s need not to become what his uncle wants him to be depends on not bedding Grace. But her life depends on essentially becoming what Lord John intends her to be. Which means that in any scenario each can imagine, one or both of them lose their dignity and potentially their lives. Freedom for one means certain death to the other, and every choice seems to carry intolerable conditions.
I loved the set-up for this book. I’m a sucker for the hero who fights against impossible odds to preserve his honor and then becomes even more honorable when he feels he’s acting dishonorably. And I liked Grace, as well, because she’s a woman who isn’t perfect, and whose passions and pride often get the best of her. When she defied her father to marry a much older political revolutionary I could completely see the intellectual passion that drove her to such rashness. Her youth and idealistic commitment to social freedom led to a false belief that she occupied a moral high ground in her conviction that she could help change the world. And despite numerous disappointments and the degradations of poverty, she still has a good deal of that pride and passion, and she can still be impetuous and sharp in her temper. Like Matthew, she is someone who craves freedom and independence and who has been betrayed by life circumstances.
What I didn’t like so much about Untouched was the time-frame in which Grace’s trauma and Matthew’s resolve wears away – two days, I think – and the rapid pace of the transformation in their relationship from distrust to passionate mutual protection. While the artificial construction of the captivity scenario on Matthew and Grace creates an immediate sense of intimacy that allows for a compressed time frame in the development of their relationship, I felt that it was just too fast to be believable, especially for such strong and stubborn characters. Further, there was a melodramatic quality to their budding passion and desire to protect one another that grated against the complexity of their situation. For example, as Matthew contemplates Grace’s unhappy marriage with a selfish older man, [f]urious grief for her sorrow gripped him in claws of steel (p. 125). And for all of Grace’s independence, she’s still sexually unfulfilled and relatively inexperienced: She’d done her duty by Josiah but the act was always quick, furtive, performed in darkness while they remained clothed (p. 115). Between some of the indigo-tinged prose and almost instantaneous flare of passion, there is the constant threat of sexual violence from any one of the sadistic men surrounding Grace and Matthew, a persistent element that felt manipulative rather than authentic in its creation of tension.
It took me nearly two weeks to get through the first half of the novel, but once I passed that point, the second part flew, and I found myself engrossed in the story. I appreciated that the sexual compatibility between two relatively inexperienced characters was not immediate, and I especially thought that Grace’s initial reaction to sex with Matthew was realistic and true to her character. I also found that the second half of the book, where Matthew and Grace attempt to take control of what seems to be an uncontrollable situation, was much more believable to me, even though the circumstances were still quite extreme. In this section I found that almost every concern I had about plotting complications was answered in a way that seemed logical and smart. I liked that you didn’t drag out the melodrama in the second half, because the way that part of the story built was dramatic enough without the extra tension.
Had there been fifty extra pages in which to develop the early relationship between Grace and Matthew more subtly and fully, I think I would have loved this book. Although less controversial than Claiming the Courtesan, I think Untouched is much more emotionally tense, at least in the concept and plotting. So I really missed not having all those steps taken carefully in the early days of Matthew and Grace’s acquaintance, because the sacrifice Grace makes near the end of the book would have been even more poignant had I felt more authentically the depth of their emotional interdependence. Of course I knew how things would end, but because I missed out on knowing Grace and Matthew better at the beginning of the book, I felt I had to fill in too many blanks at the end regarding a significant amount of time that passes near the end of the novel.
One of the main themes of the novel is freedom, particularly the costs that attend various illusions of freedom for which people struggle. Among other things the story contemplates how one can be physically free but emotionally imprisoned, or physically imprisoned but emotionally and intellectually free. As Grace and Matthew know, freedom does not just exist on one level, and to be whole, one must not simply have the physical freedom to choose, but also the intellectual and emotional capacity to make an authentic choice. There are so many ways in which the novel hints at these various elements, although it doesn’t dig as deeply into them as I wish it had. However, as with Claiming the Courtesan, there is enough ingenuity and provocative contemplation in Untouched to make me anxious to read your next book. I only hope that you give your story and your characters all the freedom you suggest in this book that people need to be truly human and happy. C+