Don’t Tempt Me was a strange reading experience for me. While I was reading it, I was so captivated by the chemistry between the hero and heroine that I couldn’t bear to stop. I resented every minute I had to spend working, sleeping or shopping. I cheerfully ignored cats, friends, roommate and boyfriend in favor of finishing the book. I haven’t read a book this way in a very long time—I think the last time I felt like this was when I read Victory of Eagles by Naomi Novik last summer.
But once I put it down and I was released from the thrall of the words, my brain slowly started noticing the skips and gaps in the plot, the characterization, and the writing. Like I said recently to @redrobinreader on the Twittertubes, reading is not unlike experiencing a fragrance. There’s that first hit of scent, with pretty much everything hitting you all at once. Then the more volatile compounds start degrading, and you start noticing the more subtle notes. After a few hours, the scent has morphed into something else: mostly base notes will remain, and they’ve had time to blend with your own body chemistry. That’s when you find out if the fragrance has actual staying power and works well with you, or whether it’s gorgeous at first but eventually mellows into something that smells like your Aunt Millicent’s coat closet.
Don’t Tempt Me, alas, comes a lot closer to Aunt Millicent’s closet than I’d like it to, but hey, at least it’s not Uncle Ted’s jockstrap, right? To be honest, I had a hard time deciding on the grade, and I finally decided on a B, as an average of the strange dualistic experience I had while reading the book: while I was reading it, it was a pretty solid A-, but once I put it down and thought about it, the problems with plot and characterization nagged at me more and more, and it rapidly dropped to a B-. It’s a lot of fun and very cleverly written, but ultimately hollow.
The story had a great deal of potential that, in the end, went largely unexplored: Zoe is the daughter of Lord Lexham. When Lucien de Grey’s parents die, leaving him and his older brother, Gerard, orphans at a young age, Lord Lexham steps in as guardian and gives Lucien and Gerard some much-needed structure and affection. Zoe and Lucien are drawn to each other almost immediately, and they form a close and affectionate friendship as children.
(This bit is covered in record time, by the way: four pages. Four pages, moving from howling grief to childhood love. FOUR. Most of them composed of choppy sentences. Gah.)
Moving along: Zoe has always had a talent for escape, so when she disappears at age 12 at an Egyptian bazaar while on holiday with her parents, they assume she ran away and was kidnapped. Her family is devastated. Her father does not give up hope, and searches for her relentlessly, turning away countless impostors from his door.
Lucien, on the other hand, has another tragedy to deal with: the death of Gerard in a riding accident. To cope, he teaches himself to stop caring about anything. He lives a life filled with pleasures and distractions, but he experiences everything from a remove: he delegates everything he can to his servants, and even has his secretary buying the presents for his mistresses.
Lucien is shaken out of his pleasant complacency, however, when he hears that a mysterious blonde girl has showed up at Lord Lexham’s doorstep, and instead of rejecting her out of hand, as he has so many others, Lord Lexham has enfolded her into the family’s bosom. Lurid rumors are circulating about how she was a harem girl, with the requisite humiliating caricatures. Lucien, to his surprise, finds his protective instincts in an uproar. Convinced that the girl is another Princes Caraboo, he immediately pays a visit to the Lexhams, determined to expose the impostor.
Only to find that Zoe truly has returned. Kidnapped twelve years ago with the aid of a nefarious maid, she was sent to the court of Yusri Pasha, trained in the sensual arts and then given away to his oldest son, Ali. She rapidly becomes Ali’s favorite toy, but he’s both fat and impotent. (Of course he is—this is a romance novel. It’s not so much “love, thy will be done” as “virginity, thou wilt be preserved.” Plus: Zoe doesn’t have all that icky sexual trauma to get over, so it’s a really convenient way to deal with the conflict all the way around.)
At any rate, Lucien finds his old feelings for Zoe reviving, to his discomfort. Spurred by a combination of loyalty to their old friendship, love of his erstwhile guardian and a desire to remove a temptation who threatens his pleasantly numb existence, he decides to reintroduce Zoe to society and help her find a suitable match. Hijinks, of course, ensue, and the only suitable match for Zoe turns out to be, surprise surprise, Lucien.
Part of what carried the book for me is the gorgeous chemistry between Zoe and Lucien. The dialogue is, as always, witty and sharp, and Chase does a lot with the decreased wordcount she’s working under. (I was anal-retentive enough to do a quick-and-dirty comparison: Lord of Scoundrels was 375 pages and 37 lines per page; Don’t Tempt Me runs 355 pages and 32 lines per page. Hmmmm.) Lucien and Zoe don’t just love each other, they like each other a great deal, and their affection for each other shines like a beacon. That’s relatively rare in a romance—most authors focus almost exclusively on explosive chemistry and leave affection in the dust. Watching them fall in love and seeing Zoe’s determined seduction of Lucien is tremendous fun: she’s an improbable virgin, but she Learned Things while in the harem, and her sexual mores are certainly not that of a well-bred English miss. In fact, Zoe’s sexual assurance and her ease with her sexuality are what ultimately salve my irritation at her Improbable Virginity.
But like I said, once the giddy pleasure of reading about Zoe and Lucien wore off, questions started popping up faster than boners at the Playboy Mansion. For instance:
- Why was Lord Winterton, who helped rescue Zoe, set up to be a Major Character, only to be dropped without so much as a ripple partway through the book?
- Why is Zoe so eerily well-adjusted, despite living in circumstances that would’ve inspired PTSD in other people? And no, Because She’s The Heroine and Endowed with Supernatural Powers of Endurance isn’t a good answer, it’s a lazy one, and it seems like that’s the route Chase went with. And that? Makes that special part of my heart where the Baby Ganesh lives weep bitter, bitter tears.
- Why was the introduction so quickly glossed over, when there could have been a wealth more detail, including the death of Lucien’s brother?
- Dammit, I wanted to know more about Zoe’s captivity, other than the bare details we were given.
- What’s with Chase’s penchant for stringing together many short sentences in a row? I’ve noticed this trend in her more recent books, and reading her novels is a much choppier experience than it used to be.
- Only the people who read The Lion’s Daughter will get this, but: remember the pasha in that book? How he was basically bugfuck and dangerous and not at all a good man, but he was interesting and you actually felt the menace so much more acutely? I wanted the same from this book. Not exactly the same thing, because the story starts after Zoe escapes, but I would’ve taken a flashback scene, or Zoe recounting some of what she went through, but instead, all we had were a lot of comments from Zoe about how she’s used to handling eunuchs (the book makes a point of noting how they’re even more temperamental than women. Oh, dear) and how kissing Ali felt like kissing furniture (which is a fair assessment of how he’s treated as a character in the book, so hey).
I think I can sum up the problems with this book thusly: it needed about 40 more pages, or about 20,000 more words. The book was tasty, but it was insubstantial, and it killed me that it could’ve been so much more—could’ve been GREAT, in fact, one of Chase’s best; as good as her best work so far, or even better. It could’ve been Chanel No. 5, and it ended up being yet another cheap body splash. And I don’t have anything against cheap body splash (it’s what I use for daily sprucing-up), but… Let me put it this way: ten years from now, I don’t think too many people will be haunted by Don’t Tempt Me or debating its merits the way they do Lord of Scoundrels, or even books that I don’t like or think are particularly good, but that are nonetheless incredibly compelling, like Whitney, My Love or The Flame and the Flower. I feel like Chase’s writing has been unduly constrained by word counts, and that this book lacked complexity and nuance because it was way. Too. Short. But to be fair, I can’t remember the last romance I read published post-2005 that didn’t make me feel that way. Chase is still better than the average author, don’t get me wrong, and if you’re looking for a well-written bit of fun to occupy you for a few hours, I highly recommend this book. I just wish Chase hadn’t gotten into the body splash business.