Well, I just don't know what to say. Sherry Thomas took a generous handful of my very least favorite tropes and said, “Carrie, my book has an asshole hero and a selfish heroine and several plot devices that you loathe. Go on, read it. I DARE YOU”, and I loved it.
How does she do that? The lush writing and the layered, complex characters who are always far more complicated than they first appear, the attention to history, and the fun and lovely details of life help, but I'm also convinced that there must be some sort of magical influence at work.
Tempting is the third book in the Victorian Era Fitzhugh trilogy, but I think it would be fine to read this as a stand-alone novel. There are a lot of descriptions of the other Fitzhughs being lovey dovey, and of course that's more emotionally satisfying if you know who these people are, but it's not necessary in terms of following the story. Helena is the Fitzhugh sister who is a book publisher. She has been teased and pestered and harassed all her life by the obnoxious David Hillsborough. She also is madly in love with a married man, Andrew Martin. When David has to save Helena from scandal due to her affair with Andrew, romance, angst, and plot devices ensue including a forced, sham marriage between Helen and David and…AMNESIA!
What amazed me about the book was the fact that the author managed to make me care – a lot – about two rather obnoxious and cruel people and made me willing to overlook all the irritating plot devices. Helena shows an utter disregard for Andrew's marriage. However, she ultimately shows compassion and grudging respect for Andrew's wife, in a subtle yet enormous moment of character growth and redemption. She also earns the reader's respect as a professional woman. Her ability to pursue a goal with determination and disregard for the opinions of society serves her poorly with regard to Andrew but also makes it possible for her to have a thriving professional career in a repressive era. I realize this sounds like a version of the contemporary romantic comedy trope of the woman who is successful at her career but terrible at love, but the Victorian setting and the nature of Helena's obsession with Andrew make the situation a little different. I loved reading about Helena reading, and I loved watching her stand up to David – one reason he can't resist teasing her is that she always has a witty comeback. Helena is also loyal and devoted to her family and is able to set aside her own problems to share in their happiness and sorrows.
As for David, he gets as much, if not more, point of view time as Helena, and boy does he need it. David's charm lies in the fact that he is perfectly aware of how awful his behavior is, but he's set himself in such a pattern that he can't change it, and every time he says something awful he does a metaphorical head/desk bang – and then he does it again. He sets this pattern as a young teen as a way to capture Helena's attention and save his pride from her rejection. Every time he feels he is losing her attention, he says something horrible to her with an instinct that it is better to be hated than ignored. The older he gets, the more he understands how bad and self-defeating his behavior is, but the firmer the pattern is set. I ended up loving David and if you had asked me at the beginning of the book if I thought I'd ever like him I would have laughed in derision. He's just so human, so flawed, and sort of adorable once you see inside his mixed-up head. He also has hidden literary depths that gave his character a fun and intriguing layer.
There are three main hurdles to this romance and each has a plot device to match.
Helena hates David and will not voluntarily be in the same room with him. Plot device: David has to marry her to save her from shame. This provides forced proximity.
Helena and David have never seen any kind of kindness from or to each other. Plot device: David is raising his illegitimate daughter who has some sort of disorder (autism?) and both David and Helena are touched by how kind the other is to the daughter.
- Helena and David see each other in rigid and unforgiving way based on years of past frustration. Plot device: Amnesia – Helena loses her memories of knowing David so she gets to know him with no preconceptions, and he is able to change his patterns towards her and behave with kindness because his pride is not being threatened.
I have to tell you that if I were reading this review so far, I would not buy the book – and yet, I urge you to buy it because it was incredibly engrossing and moving. I'm just in awe of how Sherry Thomas was able to make this work. Ok – I always thought the amnesia was dumb, but it is used to great effect. The characters are flawed, but they are complex and interesting. They have funny and infuriating and moving things to say. You want them to be happy. The language is lush and beautiful, the discussions of publishing and literature are timely and interesting and in one case very erotic, the sense of place is vivid and I got a little teary at the end – all the little touches are poignant and effective. Not much happens in the story other than two people trying to connect, but it was unbelievably engrossing.
Sherry Thomas should teach a master class in the concept that any trope, no matter how bizarre or repugnant, can be made to serve a higher purpose. Both lead characters sound horrid when summed up and yet both are deeply sympathetic as the book unfolds. Even the ending works. Sherry's one weakness in most of her books is that she sets up such a compelling conflict that she can't really fix it, so she has to come up with some sort of quick fix and it often feels rushed. If anything, this one dragged a little, but although it was aggravating to see Helena say, “I love you, no I don't, yes I do, no I don't” it did make sense given the story. Really, truly, give this book a chance – it was amazing. I expect a lively and divided discussion on the comments thread about this – at least, I'm hoping for one, because I'm dying to hear if this story worked for anyone else. If you are curious about the erotic novel within a novel that this story contains, it is also for sale under the title The Bride of Larkspear ( A | BN | K | S | ARe | iBooks ).
I'm giving Tempting a grade of A- on the strength of the layered, complicated characters and the overall beautiful writing and emotional punch. It does waver on the brink of a B+ because the plot devices are quite obvious but the emotional impact of the story swings it over the edge to a A-.