I finished this book feeling emotionally wrung out, with a bittersweet happiness at the ending. But the more I thought about it, the less the emotional journey was matched by an intellectual strength in the plot, leaving me with too much pathos in the argument towards a happy ever after, and not enough logos or ethos. Yet weeks after finishing the book, I remember it with the breathless “Oh, my Gosh” sigh because the journey these two go through is just painful and so very, very well written. This is some fine, fine romangst.
Rose Marlowe’s father left her family destitute, and she bears the responsibility for her younger brother, who has no idea that they have no money. Rose is, of course, stunning, and so once a month she travels to London from way out wherever, and spends one week in the most exclusive brothel as the most exclusive and expensive courtesan in the place. She entertains men for one week, then goes home with her share of the money, using it to keep herself alive and her brother in the style to which he is accustomed (you can see where that’s going, right?). There’s no false virginity here, or lurid tales of booty calls that somehow miraculously preserve Rose’s virginity. She is a courtesan. No question – and she’s good at her job. She’s learned quickly, because (as Rose reveals) there are very few options available to women when they fall from some level of comfortable social status to utterly broke gentry status through no fault of their own.
One night, James Archer purchases an evening with her. James is impossibly, improbably wealthy – from trade. He’s married to a woman who is his spouse in the most minimal of terms, and he is miserable. So he purchases an evening with Rose with the most heartbreaking hesitancy, because while he’s originally after a night of welcome and indulgent sex, he’s really looking for simple companionship.
Collins takes a very simple emotion and weaves it through both Rose and James’ characters so well, you feel the empathy all the way through. Simply put, James and Rose are terribly, painfully lonely. They are alone in their burdens, they are unable to get help from anyone, and they are miserably isolated and cold. James has incredible wealth but no home to welcome him, really, because of the source of his wealth: shameful trade. And Rose has a home and no ability to support it except through shameful trade of herself. They are lonely.
Much of the story rests on James, and he’s a fascinating character. He’s a brilliant businessman, and personally rather shy. His alpha-ness rests in his intellect, because while he is very unassuming and quiet, the reader doesn’t doubt his competence in business and management. His wife knows exactly how to hurt him, and hurt him she does. He’s prepared to make the best of his arranged marriage. She is prepared to eviscerate him at every turn. As a result, he is lonely, as I mentioned, and emotionally lost, because no matter what kindness he shows to his wife, it is thrown back in the cruelest of ways, to the point where he isn’t sure what to do, as everything he does personally and emotionally is wrong.
What I find amazing is that instead of reducing James in status because he is, for all intents and purposes, an abused spouse, I had a lot of empathy for him, stuck in an abusive relationship that he didn’t feel he could escape from. Until he meets Rose, he sees no alternative that’s more attractive.
James is also prepared to endure the painful relationship because his wife has agreed to sponsor his sister Rebecca for her season – and as the daughter of a viscount, his wife has considerable social power. The status quo is painful but he can exist at his office at all hours until Rebecca comes to London for her season.
When James meets Rose, it is because he has purchased her only for the evening, desiring company that could at least pretend to want him around. Collins creates an unusual courtship between them: James visits Rose exclusively for a week in the brothel, and each night progresses painfully and almost sweetly from holding hands to kissing – and Rose identifies right away the kindness and emotional torment that James lives in. She recognizes his loneliness, and Rose recognizes in him an unattainable, forbidden treasure: a man she truly likes.
Having convinced herself he would not return, his appearance had been so unexpected it felt like a gift. On some level she was aware she should not want him to be here. It was a dangerous thing to be presented with her heart’s deepest desire night after night yet knowing nothing but the most painful disappointment could ultimately come from it. But it was becoming so very difficult to think beyond the moment when she was with him. Each moment precious, each one demanding she savor it to its fullest.
They sat side by side on the settee, so close she was pressed against him, one long line from her shoulder to her knee…. She should have asked him to prod the fire in the hearth when he had got up to open the drapes, but the fire could burn down to embers for all she cared. Just bring with James warmed her from the inside out.
He brought their joined hands up, pressing a light kiss to the back of her hand. “Will you take a walk with me in the park? It is a beautiful night, and I want to share it with you.”
It’s rather stunning to watch this courtship progress between two people who have no reason to have a courtship between them; he purchased her time and her person, and her acceptance of his pursuit is an item of commerce between them, and a foregone conclusion. Yet they do get to know one another through all the typical painfully awkward steps of being ferociously attracted to someone you don’t know.
Rose is less easy to empathize with, but they mirror each other marvelously. James is tolerating a hideous marriage to someone who mistreats him because he wants his sister to get away from their father (the man who coveted and demanded James’ marriage to a titled lady) and marry someone who will care for her and adore her properly. He wants to protect Rebecca from his own fate, as much as he possibly can. Rose is tolerating prostitution because her brother is a wastrel who hasn’t been informed of the actual financial straits of the family after their father’s death, and Rose sees it as her duty to care for her brother and protect him as much as possible until he can marry and possibly improve their financial status.
The problem is, of course, that Rose’s “care” is enabling, and James’ care comes at the expense of his own happiness. Both have to realize that they can and should choose their own happiness first, but James’ recognition comes in a more satisfying fashion – while Rose stubbornly insists on “Caring” for her brother, even when she can see the lack of progress of that care and knows that at some point, her brother has to man up and take care of his own wastrel self.
The scenes between Rose and James are powerful at times, giving me that cutting feeling of empathy and sympathy for their emotional pain and their desperate and almost forbidden desire to be with one another. Even the issue of gifts between them is troublesome – James wishes to give gifts that will not be thrown in his face, but to his wife, and to Rose, those gifts come with meanings that James cannot predict or really comprehend.
While the emotional turmoil of Rose and James is profound and moving, I kept waiting for more nuanced characters to surround them – or for either of the protagonists to honestly address the potential problems of their possible alliance. Rose’s best friend is extremely typical Ga y Best Friend, and James’ wife is prototypical Horrid Wife, with no sympathetic motivations for her actions. She’s so awful, I want her destroyed – but I don’t know that she is destroyed in the end. That leaves me worried because James’ wife? She’s a bunny boiler, no question.
My biggest problem isn’t specific to this book, but specific to me: I have a hard time, no matter the strength of the story, believing in the ever-after of the happiness of the couple when one is a former or current courtesan. I don’t think the children of that marriage would ever be welcomed in any social circle, nor would they be considered socially acceptable marriage partners, and so I always look at such pairings and feel badly for their future children – unless the protagonists sail off to a place far away enough that their reputations can’t follow them, but their money can.
Moreover, James’ father plays a terribly influential role in his life and the life of his sister Rebecca, but the man himself is never on screen or present enough to explain why they would both subject themselves to his whims to the detriment of their own happiness. James marries his horrible wife because she is the daughter of a viscount and can therefore elevate James and Rebecca, thus enabling Rebecca to make a very successful match. James’ wealth on top of his father’s already considerable fortune make Rebecca more desirable, despite her commoner status, particularly as James’ wife has agreed to sponsor her, and as hideous as his wife is as a person, socially she’s of a particularly desirable status. All of this misery at the direction of a father who never appears in the book.
If James and Rebecca’s father is so powerful and influential that both children would subject themselves to potential and actual misery to please him, why is he never seen in the story? His menace was diminished by the fact that the only portrayal we see of him is through James’ recollections, and they are more of an explanation than a motivation for his own decision to remain miserable.
Ultimately, if I separate emotions and logic, my heart had a lot to feast on with these two characters who have so much to give to help one another heal. But logically, the more I thought about the plot, the more it didn’t fully support the depth of emotion with an equal depth of strength and intricacy. That said, I believed in the pain and healing of these characters, and while I don’t always gravitate toward angsty-romance, or “romangst,” as it were, I would look for Collins’ next book without hesitation. I think she is incredibly brave and talented to create a romance of emotional power between a hero who is an abused spouse, and a heroine who is a courtesan with her own history of abuse. The emotional journey depicted in this book is still with me.