REVIEW: If His Kiss Is Wicked by Jo Goodman
Dear Kensington Books,
Dear Author is in the epistolary form of these reviews, I thought it would be okay to address this one to a publisher. Jane’s review of Jo Goodman’s new release If His Kiss Is Wicked did a wonderful job of articulating much of what I loved about the book, and I share Jane’s confusion as to why Goodman isn’t an outright star. After all, her books are rich in historical detail, sophisticated in the witty and intelligent dialogue, supple in their richly drawn protagonists, passionate, and emotionally satisfying. So what is it? What’s up with the completely disconnected cover, for example? Not only does that cover NOT evoke any historicity, but the cover model is the physical opposite of the hero, Restell Gardner, who is most often described as a “Viking” because of his blonde hair, blue eyes, and light complexion. I also wonder about whether Goodman has a reserved lay down date, because I bought If His Kiss Is Wicked at Borders more than a week before its stated release date. All I can think is that more readers simply need to be made aware of the quality of Goodman’s work, and I cannot resist the chance to offer my recommendation of If His Kiss Is Wicked.
Like all Goodman novels, If His Kiss Is Wicked is built around a complex and compelling heroine. We meet Emmalyn Hathaway, a young woman who has lived with her flirtatious cousin and famous artist uncle since the death of her parents, when she seeks out the unusual services of Restell Gardner following a brutal attack she believes was aimed at her look-alike cousin Marisol. Despite his carefully cultivated rakish reputation, Restell is a man of honor and intelligence who uses his social and financial influence to protect and assist any number of desperate individuals in exchange for the mere promise of a future favor. From their first meeting, Restell is intrigued by Emma, as much for what she shows him –" courage and intelligence and wit –" as for what she doesn’t. Their relationship grows along with the mystery surrounding what happened to Emma and Restell’s stubborn insistence on protecting her, even as she insists she is not the one in danger.
By nature a peace-maker –" pacifying her vain cousin and caretaking her increasingly debilitated uncle –" Emma is uncomfortable with the terror she feels following the attack, incapable of believing she was the intended victim and unused to feeling confined by fear — victimized but hardly a victim. Because she cannot remember the details or duration of her abduction and assault, Emma lives on the edge of panic, set off unaccountably by a sound or a quick movement. When she turns up at Restell’s clad in black, he asks Emma if she is in mourning: “Only as it applies to me, . . . I mourn the loss of self, of that part of me that enjoyed freedom of movement and freedom from fear.–Ã‚ Emma doesn’t flaunt her independent mind or spirit; she’s not that feisty Regency miss so prevalent in historical Romance. Rather, she balances society’s rules with the demands of her own dignity, compromising on the surface but fiercely committed to her own self-respect. When Restell calls Emma a bluestocking, for example, she quietly points out, “If I were a man, you would call me a scholar.–Ã‚ While some may mistake her “serious temperament” and lack of personal ostentation for passivity and inanity, Restell recognizes the strength of Emma’s will and is drawn to the contrast she presents of sparking energy contained by almost unflappable composure. That she asks for protection of her cousin reflects both her stubbornness and her strength of character.
That Restell is drawn to Emma is no surprise; after all, he is much the same, even though he has reversed inner and outer appearances. Steadfastly refusing marriage, ensconced in his step-brother’s home and fortune, Restell’s appearance belies the serious-minded and honorable man he is. Like Emma, he is protective of his freedom and independence, tolerating a certain social image for the sake of preserving both. And, like Emma, Restell is a natural caretaker, which accounts both for his unusual vocation and his attraction to Emma. What privately romantic guardian of justice wouldn’t be drawn to a beautiful, intelligent woman who refuses to believe she needs protection and comfort? That she has secrets makes her positively irresistible. And Emma, who has already suffered a significant romantic disappointment in her past, cannot help, despite her best efforts, but be drawn to Restell’s relentless dependability, insight, and refusal to patronize her as a ‘mere’ woman. And the fact that he’s as gorgeous as he is smart doesn’t hurt, either.
What makes the story of Restell and Emma so compelling is not the obvious logic of their mutual attraction; rather, it is the delicious evolution of their romantic attachment. As collaborators in finding Emma’s attackers, Restell and Emma must share a certain intimacy that comes from the very personal nature of the crime against Emma. Emma, however, is not comfortable with feeling dependent or vulnerable:
“You are safe, you know.–Ã‚
“I understand,” she said quietly. “It does not seem to matter that I know it.–Ã‚
“You are very pale. Do you think you might faint?–Ã‚
“It is discouraging that you sound hopeful.–Ã‚
Restell chuckled. “I assure you. I am not. You have yet to look out the window. You have lovely hands, but I wonder that they can be so interesting.–Ã‚
When she raised her eyes, they were not directed toward the window. “Do you mean to nip at my heels for our entire journey?–Ã‚
“It is only one turn in the park. Nipping will not tire me overmuch.–Ã‚
She finds herself more and more afraid that she is going mad, set off, as she is, by particular sounds or movements. Restell finds himself more and more urgently catalyzed to uncover the truth of what happened, and in the process his respect for Emma becomes deep affection, which is communicated primarily through his interactions with her rather than through narrative telling. Likewise, by the time Restell proposes to Emma, we know that she is deeply attached to him, even if she is not ready to acknowledge her deeper feelings, still fearful of her own sanity and vulnerability. Marriage, for this couple, is a path to love, rather than the end of that particular road, as they struggle to accommodate deeper levels of physical and emotional intimacy. That it is Emma who resists the intimacy is yet one more way in which Goodman thwarts traditional Romance expectations, as is the straightforward intelligence each character brings to the relationship:
“Lady Rivendale announced to your mother, your married sisters, and Marisol that I clearly love you. You will not credit it Restell, but I am certain she’s right. . . .
“So you came home and prostrated yourself across the chaise. Yes, I can see how that would be the thing to do. The compress makes me think the feeling has not yet passed.” . . .
“You are amused by my condition.–Ã‚
“On the contrary, I am made hopeful by it. . . Does it make you afraid?–Ã‚
“Then I am not the only one. That is good to know. . . . Do you think I’m never afraid, Emma? I hope I am never so foolish as to be without fear. It humbles me. It makes me cautious, and on occasion it makes me clever. Loving you is like that. From the outset. The fear that you would never know the same for me has made me humble, cautious, and –" ”
Emma removed the compress and placed one finger against his lips. “And very, very clever.–Ã‚
The great satisfaction in Emma and Restell’s relationship comes not solely from love or need, but from the interplay of many different forces and factors. Like growing a second skin, these two become entwined on every level, independent and interdependent, connected but distinct and wholly individual. Their feelings are realistically rendered, their passion obvious, and their ultimate happiness a choice they know is worth making. Goodman’s protagonists are always fully grown men and women, and while they may be in need of healing, Goodman never relies on cheap parlor tricks to achieve that end, relying instead on the strength she builds into her characters and their relationship.
Goodman’s own strength as a writer has historically been in the province of characterization rather than plot, but in this book, the prose and command of the mystery have tightened considerably, with the pacing much more even and the nature of the villainy more subtly rendered. The ending did not feel rushed, and while I guessed early on who was not to be trusted, there were still revelations that I didn’t expect. Even the rhythm of the prose is toothsome, and luxurious, in part, perhaps, because Goodman’s characters are so fleshed out and psychologically authentic.
After twenty-something books, the fact that Goodman’s work continues to strengthen and deepen is rewarding to me as a reader. That I felt a certain level of emotional distance from the protagonists at critical moments was this book’s only substantial flaw for me. But the pleasure of this fictional journey still far exceeded most of my other reading experiences this year, and for that alone, I find myself frustrated and confused as to why Goodman’s books have not earned her star status yet. If His Kiss Is Wicked was nothing less than an A- read for me, and already I am looking forward to her next book.