Portia Ashford decides she wants children therefore she needs a husband.
Simon Cynster (what were his parents thinking when they saddled him with that name? what if he lisped?) has inherited a house and decides he needs a wife and children.
(Right about now you’re thinking that this is a no-brainer. Two attractive, eligible persons of equal social status, acquainted since childhood, related by marriage, each wanting spouse and offspring. Match them up. Marry them off. The End. But wait: you’ve got to remember, this is a Stephanie Laurens tale - there has to be lots and lots of really hot sex in a vast variety of settings recounted in explicit detail before The End.)
Portia has accompanied Lady Osbaldestone to a house party at Glossup Hall, the country home of Lord and Lady Glossup. A close friend of the Glossup’s second son, James, Simon is also invited. Simon has always felt protective of Portia even as she has chafed over it.
The house party seems a perfect opportunity for Portia to explore her requirements for a husband; she will consider any eligible male. Simon observes her friendly manner with several of their fellow guests and decides that any broadening of her experience will be with him. He offers to introduce her to the physical aspects of male-female relationships. (What an accommodating guy!) Simon quickly decides that Portia will be his wife; she believes that this is only intended to increase her knowledge and will lead to nothing further. With remarkable ease, they are able to absent themselves repeatedly from the rest of the company as their intimacy deepens. (You’d think someone would notice that Simon and Portia have gone missing time and time again.)
The Glossups’ oldest son Henry is wed to the vivacious Kitty. It soon becomes clear from Kitty’s boldest flirtatious manner with the male guests that theirs is a troubled marriage. Kitty’s conduct is quite outside acceptable behavior, and all the guests are increasingly uncomfortable and embarrassed around her. When Portia discovers the body of a strangled Kitty, there are many possible suspects under the Glossups’ roof.
If you saw the 2001 movie Gosford Park, you may be wondering why this book isn’t titled Glossup Park. There certainly are parallels to the film’s plot - house party, idle aristocrats, hanky-panky between the sheets, murder, a plethora of suspects. What’s missing is the downstairs perspective that brought a contrasting point of view to the film. In The Perfect Lover the servants serve meals and bring tea trolleys but little else.
In this, the eleventh Cynster novel (what a prolific clan they are!), something happens that I wouldn’t have thought possible - sex is boring! After pages and pages and pages of hot kissing, hot petting, and hot everything else, I lost all interest in Portia and Simon. They’re the generic Stephanie Laurens couple: good looking, wealthy, sophisticated, socially upper crust, hot to trot. And boring. This works better as a how-to manual than as a touching romance. When you start thinking, “Yeah, yeah, he’s a great kisser, move on,” the thrill is gone.
Ms. Laurens has built a reputation as an author who writes hot sex scenes, and The Perfect Lover fits solidly within this mold. A polished technique in bed, however, doesn’t compensate for a lack of personality when fully clothed. Simon’s character is not much more developed by the end of the book than at the first page, and the story is the lesser for it.
Far too much time is spent while Portia diddles around wondering if she loves him, can she marry him. I could understand how she might resent Simon’s ultra-take-charge manner, but I couldn’t understand her this-isn’t-leading-to-marriage attitude. Remember, this was the first half of the eighteenth century. The free love and open marriage movements are a century into the future. Virginity was an expected attribute in a bride of that era, but Portia doesn’t give it a second thought when she demands Simon give her - ahem - more. She also doesn’t give a passing thought to a possible pregnancy that might result from this experimentation. For a supposedly intelligent, well-educated woman, she demonstrates some definite airhead tendencies.
What makes the story come alive between marathon sex scenes are the two characters who don’t fade into the woodwork: Kitty Glossup and “Lady O” - Lady Osbaldestone. Kitty may be a tramp, but she enlivens the narrative as she sluts her way through the men and the actions of all the guests revolve around her. Lady O, a recurring character in the Cynster series, is one of those older, incorrigible characters who can say or do most anything and get away with it. It’s too bad those two are secondary rather than the main characters because they steal every scene.
A teaser at the back of the volume indicates that the Cynsters are being retired to wedded respectability at last and Ms. Laurens’ next book will be the first in a series to be known as The Bastion Club. (I’m hoping that Lady O will still be around to liven up the action because these guys look to be cut from the same old Cynster pattern.) If you’ve avidly followed the Cynsters since the first book, Devil’s Bride, you’ll probably want to read the most recent installment. With the hefty price of $22.95 for this hardback edition, I recommend borrowing it from your public library or waiting until the paperback version is published.