Men Reading Romance

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  Men Reading Romance by Jean and Paul Mason
------------------------------------------------ Yes, readers, Jean was able to convince Paul to read another romance! This time, they discuss Potent Pleasures by Eloisa James (Dell, $21.95, ISBN 0-385-33360-9).

Jean says:

"Once again my dear husband has come to my rescue. I had agreed to review Eloisa James’ new hardback “Regency historical” and about 130 pages into the book, I was wandering around the house saying, “Why, why, WHY? Why was this book by a brand new author published in hardback? What did the editor who gave James’ a big advance and a multi-book contract see in Potent Pleasures that I am so clearly missing?”

"As I ranted on about the injustice of a world in which my favorite authors have either just recently made the jump to hardback or are still languishing in the less remunerative paperback format, Paul got curious. And it occurred to us both that perhaps a non-romance reader might better understand what it was that an editor saw in Potent Pleasures. So, in his ever-supportive way, he agreed to read the book along with me."

"I should warn our readers that in order to effectively discuss our respective reactions to Potent Pleasures, we are providing much more plot description than usually appears in a review."

Paul says:

"Well, here goes:"

"The heroine, the daughter of a duke, attends a “hookers ball” in disguise where she is ravished by a noble, also in disguise. Ravished and ravisher alike develop a deep fixation on their unknown partners. The heroine, considering herself ruined and uninterested in other men anyway, devotes herself to painting. The hero goes off to Italy, where he marries someone who reminds him of the ravished heroine. When his bride turns out to be a slut, he accepts an annulment of their marriage on the grounds of impotence. He returns to England with the daughter of the failed marriage to whom he is a devoted father."

"His arrival coincides with the heroine’s decision to turn herself into the most glamorous young lady of the ton. She recognizes him as her ravisher; he fails to recognize her as the ravishee. Amid sly jokes about his supposed condition, he pursues her. They wed. But a thoughtless remark on her part at the end of the conjugal act convinces the earl that she is not a virgin. He threatens to have nothing to do with her, despite her feeble efforts to explain that she is certain that he is the man at the aforesaid “hookers’ ball” with whom her only previous experience occurred."

"In due course, the earl’s passion returns. But just when all seems to be going well, the earl is sent on a secret mission into France. When he returns, he finds his bride is pregnant amid rumors that his twin brother had been paying her more than brotherly attention. He leaves her, threatening divorce. But a conversation with his brother convinces him that nothing untoward had occurred and that, in fact, the pregnancy had begun before his departure. He rushes to her side and helps to deliver their baby. They are deliriously happy. There is a final scene at a subsequent “hookers’ ball” where they reenact their first meeting."

Jean says:

"Gee, Paul, that sure catches the flavor of part of what I found unlikable in the story. I mean, there seems to be almost every plot device known to modern man. And the behavior of the characters simply doesn’t make sense. Alexander (our earl) seems like a fairly cool guy in the first part of the book. Even his ravishing Charlotte (our heroine) is understandable, given that he thought she was a hooker. (Well, he couldn’t have thought she was a “hooker” since no one used that term until the Civil War, but he did think she was a prostitute.")

"Then in the second half of the book, Alexander turns into a real jerk."

Paul says:

"Yes, and I didn’t think the author provided any real motivation for his radical change in behavior. He didn’t seem all that broken up about his first marriage and he didn’t have any reason to think that Charlotte was like his first wife."

"But I know that you had other serious problems with the book that had less to do with the plot and characterization and more to do a lot of other things."

Jean says:

"You are so right! The publisher promoted this book as a“Regency historical.” Well, in my opinion, it is neither a Regency nor a historical."

"To begin with, it’s set in 1798 and 1803, long before the Regency began. But that’s a minor part of my objections. You know, this era is one of the most popular settings for historical romances and most readers have certain expectations about the books they read. They expect that the author will have made an effort to describe the historical background with at least a modicum of accuracy. And then there are readers like me who look for a lot of historical accuracy in their Regency historicals."

"As far as I am concerned, Potent Pleasures displays virtually no knowledge of the Regency era. We can start with the “Hookers’ Ball in the wilds of Kent. We can continue with characters dancing a waltz a decade before it appeared in England, or the season starting in August, or the reference to the Prince of Wales as the Crown Prince, or the use of the term policeman in 1802, or the allusion to nudists migrating to America, or Lady Marion Lamb and her short hair, or the idea that there were illustrated gossip papers, or, or, or. And that’s only in the first couple of chapters. One of my favorites was her description of Charlotte’s friend’s husband as “a red-coated major who seemed to be on his way to becoming an admiral.” Oh, and yes, there’s the wedding in Westminster Abbey, a royal church that is not “rented out” for special events."

"James has little grasp of the social mores of the era and displays no understanding of British titles. She gets them wrong all the time, like when she refers to Lord Reginald Peterson “who is only a baronet.” Her lack of historical knowledge leads to all kinds of improbable events. I mean, how likely would it be for a British earl to send his valued eldest son to Italy in 1798, right after Napoleon had conquered much of the country or keep him there while Napoleon is conducting his second Italian campaign in 1800?"

"You know, we Regency readers really think things like this are important and we really know our stuff. James’ disregard for historical accuracy made me wonder if she doesn’t have a pretty low opinion of her readers. Since I hoped this isn’t the case, I was much taken by your suggestion after you had read a couple of chapters that Potent Pleasures is a parody or a spoof or perhaps a comic novel, but not a romance."

Paul says:

"Well, Jean, I really did look at the book that way, at least at first. It’s hard to resist the idea that the book is a spoof when the heroine responds to her ravishing (next to a statute of Narcissus) by saying, “Thank-you. Good-bye.” Or when later, having experienced her first orgasm, she composes herself by reaching for a cucumber sandwich."

Jean says:

"And then there’s the way you could pronounce the hero’s last name, Foakes. You know, after thinking of this and remembering all the other strange names and titles that James uses in the book, I thought of checking them out to see if there weren’t other cutsey, clever devices here. But I decided it wasn’t worth it."

Paul says:

"But, I did have lots of chuckles reading the book which I did not feel were inadvertent on the author’s part. Still, the last few chapters of the book really bothered me. As they are described, the marital troubles of our hero and heroine can no longer be considered a spoof of a romance. They are, I regret to say, a spoof of melodrama which descends into melodrama itself."

Jean says:

"I noticed that while you were reading the book you often chuckled out loud. I do recall that when you read some of the parts that you thought were funny to me, I did see the humor. But I also know that while I was reading the story, I didn’t think it was all that hilarious."

"Did your attitude towards the book change when you reached the end?"

Paul says:

"I’m afraid it did. The descriptions of the marital troubles of our couple are pretty unpleasant and the writing felt manipulative."

Jean says:

"I really didn’t like this book. I knew exactly where the author was going, and I didn’t want to go there. For all the lighter moments, I found the entire book pretty unpleasant. But this time, Paul, you get to have the last word."

Paul says:

"Well, I really have mixed feelings about this book. Eloisa James writes really well. I truly admire that. But, on the other hand, the book seems to me to be neither fish nor fowl. It reminds me of much of new American cuisine. It’s very clever, but when you’re finished with it, you’re not sure that the ingredients which have been presented to you go together very well."

"In fact, you’re not even sure you’ve had a meal."

September 10, 1999


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