Total Surrender by Cheryl Holt
(St. Martin’s, $6.50, NC-17) ISBN 0-312-97841-3
I know it’s a bad sign when, while reading a review book, I not only take notes on my annoyances - but also mark passages with Post-It notes. Total Surrender had me running out of Post-It notes. Written with an almost gleeful verbosity, it also has me wondering if there were psychiatrists in Regency England. If there were - they could have made a killing on this unsavory bunch.

Lady Sarah Compton has lost everything at the hands of her now deceased father and wastrel brother, Hugh. While Daddy was just guilty of bad business judgment, Hugh gambled away the rest. Looking for his sister to rescue him, Hugh suggests she go to a country house party and hunt for a rich husband. Sarah has no intention of marrying though, and instead attends for a much needed vacation.

Unfortunately, Sarah doesn’t know that this house party is a notorious gathering place for bored members of the ton looking for hedonistic delights. The virginal spinster quickly gets an eyeful when, after dozing off during her bath, she finds notorious rake Michael Stevens lounging about half-dressed.

Michael goes to Sarah expecting a romp, only to discover her scheming cousin, Rebecca, tricked him. He’s the illegitimate son of an actress and an Earl, so he has the omnipresent emotional baggage of an alpha ape-man. Michael figures the only way he can cope is by having lots of meaningless sex. Naturally he views his sexual partners with disdain and they are mere vessels for his own pleasure. However, once he meets Sarah he finds himself craving “the opportunity to have her reliably sheltered so that she would never be adversely affected by this harsh, unforgiving world in which they were both enmeshed.”

I gave the author some initial points for actually writing Michael as a rake. So often in Romance Novel Land, rakes are immediately reformed upon just seeing the heroine, and if they try to dally with their mistress they can’t get it up. Not our boy Michael. During early portions of the story he goes to a secret hidden room to have relations with several mysteriously cloaked women.

Unfortunately Michael’s rake persona is also the beginning of the end. For the resident voyeurs, the secret room is filled with peepholes - one of which Sarah can access from her quarters. She watches. Repeatedly. She then decides she wants Michael to school her in the art of sensual pleasures. Why? She just knows that Michael doesn’t really want to do those things with all those women. She just knows that he must feel the same connection to her as she does to him. Meet Sarah, she’s too-stupid-to-live.

The whole sordid mess gets messier when the couple does finally begin the reindeer games. Michael contrives “to debauch and defile Sarah in every despicable way” and speculates, “a few lies were permissible between lovers weren’t they?” My hero. In turn, Sarah finds that “while she might have bristled had they been elsewhere, in this secluded situation, poised on the brink of sexual ecstasy, she was thrilled by how he ordered her about.” This was about the time I began to mutter vulgarities under my breath.

If all this weren’t insulting enough, the portrayal of the virginal Sarah against every other woman in this book was enough to make me gag. Michael has this inane urge to protect Sarah? Why? Not because she’s a moron, but because she’s a virgin! Every other woman in this story has been around the sexual block a time or two (or three…) so naturally, after he consorts with one of them he feels dirty. Meet Michael, he’s a hypocritical jerk.

By the time it all plays out, Michael is giving Diana Palmer heroes a run for their money and Sarah grows some brains only to toss them aside. This was about the time I began craving a sedative.

I’ve long admitted that romance-erotica is my guilty pleasure, but with Michael and Sarah at the helm of the naughtiness I was so disgusted that there wasn’t any room left for titillation. If you can’t get enough of the alpha-jerk hero educating the clueless, virginal miss - or the prequel, Love Lessons, has a hallowed spot on your keeper shelf -- feel free to ignore my very strong objections. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

--Wendy Crutcher

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