I really thought I might have an F book on my hands when I was reading Lady in Red: A Novel of Mad Passions by Maire Claremont. It may well have been an F book, but I couldn’t push myself past the casual violence it contained to finish it.
Basically if you gave Tim Burton the plot for a Victorian romance novel and a bottle of absinthe, you’d have Lady in Red. It’s a dark, twisted version of a traditional historical romance; I think it tries to be moody and vaguely gothic, but instead it feels gratuitous and melodramatic.
The book opens with Lady Mary Darrel on the lam. Mary is supposed to be dead—her father, an evil dickbag of a duke, faked her death and threw her in an asylum. Mary has escaped and is seeking sanctuary with her late mother’s only friend, a Madame named Yvonne.
Why would a duchess be friends with a Madame you ask? Because she was a prostitute. Because as we know, Victorian England was very liberal in its thinking about sex and women, and so it would totally make sense that a duke would marry a whore. In case you missed it, that was sarcasm, Sheldon.
So anyway, Yvonne agrees to shelter Mary. Mary saw her father, the Evil Duke, push her mother down the stairs and kill her. That’s why he faked her death and threw her in a madhouse. I don’t know why he didn’t just kill her too. That may have been addressed later in the book (I quit right around the midpoint), but it definitely wasn’t because he had a soft spot for his child.
Also at the brothel is Edward Barrons, Duke of Fairleigh, our intrepid hero. Edward is in a funk. Even the whores can’t tempt him. He’s got full on ennui of the wee-wee.
Then he opens the wrong door and sees Mary in the bath and BAM! Full on Insta-Lust/Love/Desire to Possess/Whatever. Mary is all like “WTF, get out!” But Edward doesn’t hear this. He’s deaf except to the beating of his own heart (*cough* penis *cough).
Her words somehow found his heart. A heart he’d been so certain had vanished. She was a wise woman to be untrusting, but her wisdom had come from fear. Perhaps he should have let her go, but he needed to see her, to see deep inside the woman who had hypnotized him with her spirit. Nor was he ready to sacrifice this moment in which he suddenly felt so intensely for someone and it had nothing to do with sex.
1. Right. It has nothing to do with sex. You’re ogling her naked, wet body, and is has nothing to do with sex. Pull the other one.
2. These people met THREE FUCKING SECONDS AGO! And the words that captured his heart? Her basically telling him to get the fuck out of the room because she’s fucking naked.
3. I’m sorry, but if a guy sees a woman for the very first time (i.e. three seconds ago) and he says he wants to ‘see deep inside’ her I automatically assume he’s a serial killer and he’s talking about her entrails. Because WTF.
So of course he doesn’t immediately leave, which would be the right thing to do and make this less rapey, but instead he ogles some more and decides he must have her and saver her from whatever horrible fate she previously suffered.
A tired wave of frustration hit him. Trust was not achievable tonight. Not now—possibly not ever. This was unlike anything he’d ever experienced. At least, not with a human. He’d see that haunted look before in animals beaten so cruelly by their masters that they were past any sort of taming.
Okay, at the point Edward is thinking this, they’ve known each other about five minutes, he’s refused to leave, and she threw on some clothes. Basically I interpreted his thoughts as being “Damnnn this woman reminds me of a beaten horse. I gotta get me some of that.”
What. The. Fuck.
I think Edward is supposed to be some sort of gothic Victorian hero who saves our wounded heroine, but instead he’s just creepy. Also she won’t tell him her name so he nicknames her ‘Calypso.’ Yeah. Just let that settle in.
Once Edward leaves Yvonne comes in and tells Mary she has a solution to their problems. Mary is on the run from the Evil Duke who will no doubt know to look for her at the brothel (because her mom was a whore and where else would she go). But Edward is clearly smitten (psychotically obsessed, whatever) with Mary so Mary should go with him and be his mistress and then he’ll protect her.
Frying pan. Fire.
So of course Mary does this. Except she doesn’t like the hot sexing part of being a mistress to a duke. You see Mary was repeatedly raped by the keeper of the asylum, and basically farmed out to whichever guy he felt like passing her along to. For years.
This is a horrible, horrible thing to read about. That level of sexual abuse in a heroine’s backstory has to really be treated with respect for me to buy that it’s not just being exploited for convenient angst. And halfway through the book, I still wasn’t sure it was being given the gravitas it deserved. Mary is attracted to Edward, sure, but dude, she just escaped from a madhouse where she was raped repeatedly. Having her jump right into being Edward’s mistress felt weird and gross.
And yeah, I know, women didn’t have a lot of options back then, but if we’re going to suspend disbelief long enough for me to believe that a duke married a hooker and it was all okay, then I also want us to go to a fantasyland where Mary gets quality mental health services and the tools she needs to recover in time.
So back to the story. Mary waits for Edward to come home, and she’s nervous because of the aforementioned abuse and her revulsion at being touched, so she drinks some wine and then takes some laudanum. The asylum force fed Mary laudanum and now she’s dependent on it. She craves the oblivion it brings.
Edward shows up and finds Mary near death. She’s accidentally overdosed, and with some quick thinking he saves her life. He recognizes the symptoms of addiction. His own mother is an opiate addict and tried to kill herself. He blames himself for not being able to save his mother so he is determined to save Mary.
This part of the book had potential. I’ve never read a historical about a heroine with an addiction. It seemed like a plausible and interesting conflict. Edward’s past as the child of an addict was similarly intriguing.
But then Mary got over her addiction in a week. I’m not even kidding here. She weaned herself off of laudanum over the course of the week with Edward’s help.
Yes, yes I’m sure a woman who turned to opiates to HELP SUPRESS THE HORROR OF HER VIOLENT SEXUAL ABUSE WOULD GET OVER THAT SHIT IN A WEEK.
At that point I actually gave the book the finger.
So now that’s she clean, Mary confesses to Edward that her father is the Evil Duke and that he killed mother and sent her to a madhouse. Edward, the voice of rationality, decides that he’s going to help Mary get revenge on her father and teaches her to shoot a gun. To be fair he doesn’t say “This is so you can put a cap in your old man’s ass,” but it’s kind of hard not to infer that.
Oh, and to make the gun shooting session more fun? Edward’s friend and “spiritual brother” (I’m not making that shit up), Viscount Powers shows up. He’s also high on opium (Mary notices his pupils), and for reasons I didn’t understand said some very cruel things to Mary about her being a whore which incites her to attack him.
Edward tells her he’s not here to “soften the world’s blows [but to]…lead you past them and teach you to give more than a few of your own.”
Presumably this is why he brought his really threatening friend along to verbally abuse her. To teach her to be mad. Or some shit like that. It’s not even fucking funny. In the course of half a book Mary has
1. Gone on the run from her murderous father
2.Recounted the rape she suffered in a madhouse and
3. Overdosed on the laudanum she’s addicted to.
So how does Edward help her? By bringing along his vaguely sexually threatening and entirely physically threatening friend WHO IS HIGH to verbally abuse her.
Great job Edward. Gold star for you on the Douchebag Chart, you goddamn idiot.
And then to make things more weird and super uncomfortable, Powers tells Mary that “like good brothers…we share.”
I’m not sure what that was supposed to accomplish. I didn’t get the impression there were going to be any three-ways in this book. I think that’s just who Powers is; a bully and douche canoe. He’s the guy who says something sexual to make the woman uncomfortable. I hate the guy. I want to feed that guy to bears.
Also, Edwards doesn’t say shit about this, so that’s nice too. Gold star number two for you, Jacko.
So after that weird note, we cut back to Yvonne at the whorehouse getting the snot kicked out of her by one of the Evil Duke’s lackeys. Said lackey then leaves her on Edward’s doorstep as a threat to Mary.
That was when I took a few deep breathes and book the book down. I deleted it very quietly from my Kindle. I did not order a paper copy so I could throw it at the wall like I wanted to. I was very calm and rational about this. I maybe had some ice cream.
I can handle violence against women in books (violence against children, people, centaurs, whatever). I read a lot of thrillers. I read Karin Slaughter, and I’m pretty sure every single of one of her female characters was raped somewhere in the course of her series. I can deal with it as long as it’s integral to the story and it’s not cheapened into violence-against-women-porn.
This was exploitative, I think. There was just so much physical violence, recollections of sexual violence, drug abuse, and verbal abuse that it became gratuitous and pointless. When we weren’t with Mary and Edward, we flashed over the Evil Duke terrorizing his new wife.
I don’t think the author was trying to be titillating in that way, I think she was going for an edgy, dark Victorian book. It didn’t work. It reminded me vaguely of the later Anita Blake books where she goes through mental contortions trying to justify why she has to kill/fuck/torture so many people and none of it rings true.
Maybe I was over-reacting to the book. I didn’t get the impression it set out to be misogynistic or exploitative, it just sort of devolved there in a super crazy fucking way. The way my algebra notes sometimes devolved into a doodle of a Tyrannosaurs Rex attacking a bi-plane. I’m 1000% sure that this book was setting up Viscount Powers to be the anti-hero of his own book, and I’m 1000% sure I don’t want to read that book (unless he gets eaten by a T-Rex while flying a bi-plane).
What was probably meant to be a dark, gothic, hyper-dramatic romance turned into a really sad tale of abuse for me. I’m backing away from this one slowly.