Almost a Gentleman
Pam Rosenthal
Brava, $14, R
Reviewed 6/5/03 (JRB)

The Bookseller’s Daughter
by Pam Rosenthal
(Brava, $14.00, R) ISBN 0-7582-0445-0
This book has quite a lot to recommend it. The hero and heroine are nicely drawn, the era (pre-revolutionary France) is vividly evoked, and there is actually some credible dramatic tension. There’s just one problem – it’s neither erotic nor romantic. This won’t be a fun surprise to anyone paying a premium for romantic erotica from Brava.

Marie-Laure Vernet is minding her father’s bookshop in Montpellier when the smuggler who brings in forbidden books from Switzerland arrives. She’s angry because the man has obviously sold part of their order to a rival bookseller. When he collapses, bleeding, however, Marie-Laure and her brother patch him up and give him shelter. He’s only in the house for a couple of days, but he and Marie-Laure develop a swift intellectual rapport. When a carriage arrives to take him away, the smuggler disappears as precipitately as he arrived, never, or so Marie-Laure thinks, to be seen again.

Several months later, Marie-Laure’s life has fallen to pieces. Her father is dead, the heavily mortgaged bookshop she loved is gone, and Marie-Laure is supporting herself as a kitchen servant on the country estate of an aristocrat. Then, once again, she finds herself face to face with the book smuggler; he is actually Joseph Dupin, Viscomte d’Auvers-Raimond, younger son of the Duc for whom she now works as a servant.

Bemused by the coincidence that has brought her back into his life (as are we all), Joseph discovers that pretty Marie-Laure is in grave danger from the sexual predations of both his father and brother. To protect her, he acts quickly, elbowing his relations out of the way for her sexual favors – except Joseph’s intentions are actually honorable. He does not ‘take advantage’ of servants, but to maintain the pretense he has her brought to his room every night. While she’s there they read and discuss books.

The beleaguered pair is divided by economic as well as social difficulties. Deeply in debt and faced with prison, Joseph will have no choice but to marry the wealthy bride his family has chosen for him.

As I mentioned, there is some excellent writing in this book. I had a clear, authentic-feeling sense of the era and the lives of both aristocrat and servant within it. Although the secondary characters were a bit two-dimensional, I had strong impressions of Marie-Laure and Joseph. I also liked them – right up until the point these two supposedly intelligent characters made dumb-as-a-fencepost decisions.

Rather than feeling like inevitable choices based on the demands of character and situation, these developments felt contrived by the author to force the story in her chosen direction. So, by the way, did several whopping coincidences that, by the end of the story, were squarely in eye-rolling territory.

Even more baffling, however, was the oddly aloof style of the writing. Even in an erotic romance, I have no objection to an extended wait for the consummation – as long as the sexual tension builds in a compelling way. It didn’t. While I enjoyed watching Marie-Laure and Joseph become friends, there was no innate sense that their feelings included any passionate emotions. We’re told about it occasionally, but most readers would far rather be shown.

Once they do get around to having sex, it’s described with a kind of detached anatomical correctness that’s graphic without being at all sexy. The detachment becomes even more pronounced when several of the sexual encounters are reported after the fact, as the character relives them as memories. Without emotional heat or physical steam, I’m wondering what this book is doing in the Brava lineup – and why I’m reading it.

Pam Rosenthal is, without question, a writer of talent and ability. Unfortunately, based on this book, I couldn’t say that she is a writer of romance, erotic or otherwise.

-- Judi McKee

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