Book Review

Lucien’s Fall by Barbara Samuel

B+

Title: Lucien's Fall
Author: Barbara Samuel
Publication Info: HarperCollins 1995
ISBN: 0061083623
Genre: Historical: European

When I first wrote down my notes to review this book, I had downgraded it to a C- and mentally subtitled it, “A Review that Will Make Candy Stomp Her Foot at Me.” But since it was a Candy-recommended read, and because I know she enjoys a book that she can ruminate over for a good while, I figured I should let the plot simmer in the back of my mind for awhile and come back to it.

Sometimes, this is called “procrastination,” which is coincidentally my worst habit. Sometimes, it’s called “Sarah gets a lesson in reevaluating books” because after a week of thinking on it and writing down all the things that frustrated me, I realized that what bugged me was precisely what made the book good. And not “good” in the sense of, “Oh, it wasn’t so bad in comparison to some things I’ve read.” It was good in the sense that the author took risks and made real characters so that instead of villains that were cardboard and easily dismissed, I had secondary characters, fully-developed foils for the protagonists, and actions that were disruptive to the progress towards a happy ending, but that were driven by understandable motivation, not simple evil.  It was so good, in fact, that the grade was elevated after rumination to a B+.

Seems I have to face a sad fact about myself and my romance reading: I might have grown accustomed to being spoon-fed the antagonists and the forces acting against the protagonists. Maybe I’ve been reading too many paranormal evil-as-villain stories, or maybe I’ve been missing out, but clearly, I’m much better a romance reader for having read this story.

Lucien’s Fall, as evidenced by the title, is a romance that focuses mainly on the transformation of the hero, Lucien Harrow, Lord Esher. A terrible rake, a Lord Slut, even, Lucien is invited to a house party thrown by the incomparably beautiful Juliette, more appropriately known as Countess Whitethorn. Juliette’s stepdaughter, Madeline, is making a late entrance into society, and her stepmother is attempting to create an engagement between Madeline and Charles Devon, Marquess of Beauchamp, a man of considerable fortune. The Whitethorn estate, and the family living on it, are deeply in debt, and the house itself is falling down bit by bit. Juliette sacrificed jewelry to host the house party and clothe Madeline attractively, and scored quite a social coup by securing Lucien’s attendance. Lucien’s friend Jonathan is also Juliette’s current lover.

Lucien is a tortured hero like few others in romance. He’s tortured by his own actions, or inaction, his history, his past affairs, and by his own mind and body. As a result he’s barely functional in social situations half the time, and his reputation for outrageous behavior makes ample room for more of the same.

Madeline, however, is unimpressed – well, better to say she’s impressed but smart enough not to show any hint of interest. She knows that her bread is best buttered by an alliance with Beauchamp, and an affair with Lucien would lead only to ruin. Madeline is set on saving her home, Whitethorn, most specifically the gardens, which are her passion. She delayed her debut into society so she could travel the Continent and learn more about gardens and botany, and her goal is to restore the home and grounds with a marriage to a rich man. She’s not mercenary about it by any means, but she is honest with herself and her stepmother: there is no marriage for love in her future. And while Lucien attracts her, and he certainly has a fortune to spare, she knows he is not the sort to marry.

One of the most innovative and charming features of the story is the depth to which both Lucien and Madeline recognize their own roles as Rake Hero and Perfect Heroine. Well-schooled by a socially-aware stepmother, Madeline is more than conscious of her need to keep Lucien away from herself, as he would think nothing of ruining a virgin and walking away. But the almost meta-conversations they have on the topic are fascinating:

Behind her came footsteps…. Madeline smiled, unsurprised. “Join me, Lord Esher,” she said without turning.

“How did you know it was I without looking around?”

Madeline looked up at him. “I think there must be a book of rake’s etiquette,” she said lightly. “First rule is one must always follow one’s prey into a moonswept night.”

To her surprise, he laughed. “Well done…. What then would be my next step?”

Madeline straightened, knowing she must not show any hint of shyness or of blushing sensibility. If she were to put him off properly, he had to understand she knew well any technique he might attempt. “That would depend on the woman, of course, and the rake…. Pray tell, then, what tack you’ve chosen for your foray into my seduction.”

“Are you absolutely certain I’ve chosen to seduce you?”

“Yes, though you didn’t make up your mind until supper” (Samuel 27).

How completely refreshing to have two characters acknowledge their roles, and their awareness of the other’s motivations. This meta-conversation happens a few other times in the course of the story, and it’s wonderful. Madeline makes it clear that she’s on to whatever plans Lucien comes up with, and she calls him on his behavior each and every time he is less than genuine with her and falls back on his libido-driven actions aimed solely at the flower that is not in her gardens. He gets very little leeway with her and she won’t tolerate any of his rake-ful behavior, not matter how affected she is by her own very real attraction to him.

Lucien himself is delicious, and I say that as an admitted sucker for the tortured, artistic hero. Lucien is a gifted individual with a talent for musical composition, a talent he was forced to squelch due to abuse and pressure after a personal humiliation and tragedy. He pays for his attempts to ignore his gift with blinding headaches, but when he meets Madeline, he sees a parallel to his own gift in her love and talent for gardening, and the health that comes with embracing one’s passions. Madeline begins to see what Lucien tries very deliberately to hide: the heartless rake he appears to be hides an enormously sensitive synesthete who can experience colors as sound, specifically classical music.

His efforts to deny his gifts and hide his emotional and musical sensitivity are reflections of his ability to hide or squander any good intentions he might have of behaving with honor. Thus his music and his morals are tied to one another as Lucien faces his own demons and acknowledges that he must change himself and modify his own behavior if he wants to become worthy of Madeline.

Therein lies my one problem with the book: Madeline herself. Lucien has to endure a great deal of effort to turn his actions and intentions in an honorable direction, and his template for honorable is Madeline, who refuses to accept his habitual rake routine. But Madeline in my estimation does not grow or change as much, and her goodness brings forgiveness much too easily when her own actions hurt, humiliate, and mistreat those who have been kind and honest with her. She is self-aware enough to recognize that the marquess to whom she could be engaged is subject to the same forced treatment from her that she suffers from Lucien: interest solely for the purpose of attracting a person for selfish ends. Lucien wants to bed her; she wants the security of the marquess’ fortune to save her home. Her goals might be slightly more altruistic but they are selfish in origin, and she knows it. Even with that self awareness, Madeline seems to get away with minimal consequences for some very selfish behavior throughout the story.

The ending itself also gave me trouble, and far be it from me to spoil it. But to sum up:

she didn’t choose him. She allowed herself to be chosen or even taken over and over again, even as her own selfishness made her less and less worthy of him while he became more worthy of her.

By far the best part of the book for me was the writing, specifically the characters. Samuel does not take the easy way out with any of the emotional entanglements working against Madeline and Lucien. Her mother is not in favor of any interaction between them, and will risk her own happiness to ensure that her daughter does not end up a rake’s victim. But even as she interferes, the reader is privy to enough of her character and motivation that even though I hated what she tries to do, I understood and empathized with her position. Equally, Samuel could have easily made Charles, Marquess Beauchamp, a villain, a shallow fool, or even a non-character. But as Madeline’s intended fiance, he’s not as attractive as Lucien, but he’s a good, kind, honorable man, and the complete and deliberate opposite of Lucien. He pays attention to his responsibilities and those whose lives depend on his estate management skills, and he chooses those responsibilities over frivolity and vice. To witness Madeline caught in the choice of peaceful marriage without love, and passionate love without the defined promise of marriage isn’t any easier for the reader than it is for Madeline herself, because again Samuel’s ability to create completely defined secondary characters makes the story that much more lush and moving.

 

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Robin says:

    **********SPOILERS BELOW***************
    **********SPOILERS BELOW***************
    **********SPOILERS BELOW***************

    I totally agree with your characterization of Lucian, Sarah, as well as your appreciation for the way Samuel is playing with the Romance stereotypes in those two characters. Lucien may seem stereotypical by today’s Romance rake standards, but like Balogh’s Notorious Rake, IMO he’s more in the prototype category, a man who would prefer to live his life as a “type” than open himself up to the pain he suffered because of his artistic nature.  And I was a total sucker for the music thing, and felt the scene in which he and Madeline play (and its aftermath) was one of the most sexy and erotic I’ve read in a long time.

    I also adored the secondary romance in this book between Juliette and Jonathan, especially the way Juliette needed pain to enjoy her sexuality.  I thought that was a very daring aspect of the plot, especially because of the way Jonathan had difficulty with it and wanted a more normal relationship with her.  That Samuel portrayed Juliette as a woman who was trying very hard to make her relationship with Jonathan anything but romantic was so intriguing to me.

    I had a slightly different take on Madeline, though.  I felt she was very up front with Charles the whole way through their relationship, clear with him about her feelings and honest in her fears that Lucien is wresting her attention away from him.  So I didn’t see her as selfish, but more as torn between two imperfect situations.  I thought it was somewhat unrealistic that Charles was such a good sport about it all, but he did have a very realistic sense of who he was and what interested him, and it seemed plausible to me that he worried that his disposition and lifestyle would be a challenge for Madeline.  If he had truly loved Madeline, though, I would have expected some hurt feelings on his part.

    I like the way you articulated your response to the ending, because I kept wondering how Madeline would have decided if Juliette had not softened her heart and other circumstances had not made Lucien more acceptable.  That external circumstances effected their eventual HEA was a bit of a letdown for me, especially since Samuel had done so much to show us WHY these two were attracted and to track so carefully the way they came to know each other as people as not as types.  I totally agree with you that Madeline’s growth was not as pronounced as Lucien’s, but I was very grateful that she wasn’t the one to “save” Lucien.  I also think her most interesting transformation was one in which she no longer needed the orderly takes of gardening and the ordered world of her estate and could accept that her own emotionally volatile nature wasn’t a curse but a valid part of who she was.  In less skilled hands, Madeline would, IMO, have been one of those heroines who is transformed into a sex kitten after her requisite 20 orgasms the first night she spent with the hero.  She wasn’t as complex as Leda from Kinsale’s Shadow and the Star (another heroine who loved order), but at least she didn’t devolve into a temptress, either.

  2. 2

    Great review of a book I adore. Lucien stripped of his defenses and the fine line he rides between love and madness (for music and Madeline) made this book special for me. The unforgetability factor earned it a place on my keeper shelf.

    Another fabu romance by Samuel is A Bed of Spices, though it’s somewhat hard to find now. Really great Romeo and Juliet tension; very memorable.

  3. 3
    Lisa says:

    I remember when I first read Carla Kelly’s Libby’s London Merchant I hated it because the heroine didn’t end up with whom I thought she would. I felt the ending made no sense, all that build up had been for nothing, shoddy characterization, etc.

    But then I re-read it a year or two later, this time knowing where it was going, and I found myself liking it much much more, particularly the previously despised ending which I now thought of as a brilliant solution.

    I think my problem is that when I read romance novels, I read them with the understanding that certain things will happen during the course of the story (most imporantly, the two main characters will fall in love and live happily ever after) and that I will enjoy that. When a book doesn’t stick to the formula, I feel like it betrayed the contract. Only after I have re-formed my idea of what the book is going to be can I like it for what it is.

    …Not that I can’t enjoy a good twist ‘n’ turns tale or anything, it’s just that I have to know that’s what I’m getting into.

    I feel so shallow.

  4. 4
    meardaba says:

    Ahhh, the beauty of pushing boundaries.  I’ve started off hating so many books, only to actually THINK about them later and fall in love.  That’s one of the reasons I don’t think I could ever be a writer – I just can’t make those boundaries waffle by myself.

  5. 5
    Liz says:

    I need to read Barbara Samuel.  I like books that push the envelope.  I partiuclarly like three dimensional bad guys.

  6. 6
    Liz says:

    I also need typing lessons…

  7. 7
    Kalen Hughes says:

    Ok, bitches! I just ordered this book (and a couple of others by her, too). I’m really looking forward to reading it.

  8. 8
    DS says:

    The one thing that bugged me about this book was the era.  If it had been set about 40 or 50 years later in the era of muscular Christianity I could have more willingly suspended my disbelief.  As it is I have a hard time accepting that it would have been all that big a deal since gentlmen were expected to have accomplishments.

  9. 9
    Wry Hag says:

    Oh, boy…. 

    Don’t stone me, but those snatches of dialogue were pluperfectly awful.  I don’t think I could slog through an entire novel’s worth of that stuff.  And the narrative portions didn’t seem much better.  I mean, maybe the characterization is exceptional…but damned if I wouldn’t end up tossing the book into my dog’s food dish after reading some of that stilted prose and a few of those conversational exchanges.

    Maybe I need more of an education in the preferred diction of historical romance.  (Do they ever say “fuck”?  Huh, do they, do they?)  On second thought, I’m sure I do.

    Again, my apologies.  Now I shall take my shit-stirring self into the moonswept night.  (Or is it moonlit?  Or windswept?  Or neither or both or…?)

  10. 10
    Candy says:

    Wry Hag: Y’know, maybe it’s because I’ve been indoctrinated into the godawful stiltedness of dialogue in 19th-century novels, but Barbara Samuel’s diction doesn’t throw me off at all. Many historical authors have voices that sound far too modern and, well, too American to me. Not that it’s a deal-breaker, necessarily, it’s just that when somebody captures the feeling properly (not that we can know for sure how people in the 18th and 19th centuries REALLY sounded like, though I suppose letters and the like can give us some idea—what I’m seeking is a reasonable facsimile that FEELS right rather than being a note-perfect imitation, and dear lord how post-modern am I getting here, and how much longer can I drag on this parenthetical comment?), I’m happy as a motherfucking clam.

    Now, my question is: which historical romance authors do you think write dialogue that doesn’t make you want to kick puppies to pieces? Just so we have a baseline for comparison.

  11. 11
    Liz says:

    Candy:  I was brought up on 19th century novels—was there anything else in 50s Europe?—and I’ve been seriously put off American historicals by the cosy modernity of the language.  The “milk and cookies” Regencies.  Apart from anything else, the way they write down to the reader is downright patronising.

    I’d welcome a list of American historical writers who I could safely risk my hard-earned on, since I can’t get these from the library and give them a test run.

  12. 12
    Candy says:

    Liz: Loretta Chase and Laura Kinsale come to mind. Barbara Samuel is pretty good, too. Most other American historical authors tend to fall more towards the milk and cookies side of the divide. (Love that phrase, by the way. Am going to shamelessly steal it.) I’m trying to think of others—surely there must have been others—but none are coming to mind at the moment. Drat.

  13. 13
    Liz says:

    Help yourself and enjoy, Candy!  Thanks for the tips.  I’ve been told Laura Kinsale is great.  Let’s hope Santa is generous with the book tokens.

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