I checked the reviews on Amazon before I wrote my review for this book, just because I was curious to see how other people’s reactions stacked up to mine, and found that the two most popular complaints were:
1. OH MY GOD THE HEROINE IS A WHORE YOU GUYS THIS IS TOTALLY GROSS.
2. Loretta Chase has lost her zing.
The first criticism is something I can empathize with, even though I strongly disagree with it. I love Francesca because she’s an unrepentant, magnificent, ruinously expensive whore, and because she doesn’t mince words about it. On the other hand, I can understand people finding that utterly repulsive, an affront to their moral sensibilities. I’d feel the same way if I had to read a romance novel featuring, say, right-wing talk radio hosts, or Carrot Top. We all have our lines in the sand, and apparently, Francesca crosses it for many people. And what’s more, I love James, the hero, because Chase sets up his character and motivations in such a fashion that he recognizes Francesca as a kindred spirit, thus bypassing most beautifully the whole “You’re a whore, and therefore untrustworthy in every way” conflict I was dreading when I first picked up this book.
Anyway, I could go on and on about the unfair standards we hold heroines up to, but for now, I’ll just say that the fact that a heroine who unabashedly breaks the rules and gets away with it is given infinitely less slack than a hero who does the same thing tells us every bit as much about the reader and the dominant cultural mindset than the book itself.
The second criticism, however, addresses something I have observed in the last few books Chase has released. Not Quite a Lady, in particular, had me checking the cover continually to make sure Loretta Chase was actually the author, because it was so shoddily constructed and lacking in Chase’s signature sparkle and vigor. Is the zing of her best work fully restored in this book? Not really. But it is present in substantial amounts throughout the book, and while the ending is a touch too neat and the villains lack complexity (which is a shame, because Chase has written some damn fine villains), she makes some highly unusual choices and pulls them off with great panache.
The plot goes thusly:
Two whores meet in Venice. (This could almost be the opening line for a Shakespearean comedy, couldn’t it? Except it’s trochaic, not iambic.) One is a jewel thief and spy and whores for his government; the other is a disgraced divorcée exiled from polite English society who whores to secure her own future. Whore #1 is tasked to steal some Supah Sekrit papers from Whore #2. They really don’t want to fall in love because it’s bad form. Whore #1 wants to marry an innocent milksop miss to counteract the darkness and moral ambiguity he’s been immersed in for far too long, and knows he’ll have to betray Whore #2, which doesn’t exactly thrill him. Whore #2, on the other hand, knows Whore #1 can’t afford her. That, and her vile ex-husband left her with beaucoup de scarring in the squishy bits of her psyche where trust, love and security reside. And then people try to kill them, because that’s what you get when there are Capers Afoot, and lots of people are tossed into canals, because that’s what you get when there are Capers Afoot (A-boat?) in Venice. But the bad guys are caught in the end, and, being exceedingly naughty in our sight, snuff it. A gratuitously happy ending is presented to us in an epilogue, wherein I almost expect rainbows to start shooting out of people’s asses, it’s that sappy-shiny-perfect (even if it does have some clever repartee), and I really wish romance novels will stop with that shit, already—but that deserves a separate rant of its own.
Francesca Bonnard is one of the most unusual heroines I’ve encountered in Romancelandia: she’s been deeply damaged by her husband’s treatment of her, and as a consequence, her skittishness about falling in love and allowing any man to have ultimate power over her is genuine and consistent. She sincerely loved her handsome diplomat husband, so when she found out about that he’d never been faithful to her and cheated on him in retaliation, only to have him divorce her for her one infidelity, her life was, in a literal way, wrenched away from her. But instead of playing the martyr or retreating to the country to lick her wounds, Francesca decides to become a courtesan—a very expensive, very successful courtesan. And what’s more, she decides to steal some highly incriminating letters from her husband to ensure her continued safety and to rub her husband’s nose in her newly-chosen profession by writing to him periodically about her amorous conquests on the Continent, as well as the shockingly expensive jewelry her lovers shower on her.
Francesca is, in short, fantastic. Magnificent. Easily one of my favorite romance heroines of all time. She’s strong-willed and strong-minded, and what’s more, she’s effective with it. So many romance heroines are presented as being competent and (gag) feisty and full of strength, only to be systematically emasculated by the story so she can be proven wrong and then rescued by the hero—even in really excellent romance novels, like The Spymaster’s Lady by Joanna Bourne. Not so Francesca. Every time James tries to pull one over her, she pulls a judo move on him and flips him onto his back before he quite knows what happened. She genuinely outwits him a time or two, and instead of setting up an adversarial relationship in which the hero is clearly the protector and the heroine’s attempts to subvert him lead only to further danger, the story features two true equals, worthy adversaries who never quite successfully get the upper hand on each other. When Francesca outwits James, he’s filled with admiration for her—and so am I, because it’s so rare to have a romance heroine who’s genuinely clever. I’m so tired heroines who are presented to the reader as the smartest biped to promenade around Almack’s, only to have the author show, over and over and over again, that her particular hamster is sleeping at the wheel. Francesca doesn’t have a hamster powering her brain. Perhaps something more like a devious robot ninja.
Oh, come on, if I didn’t have at least one of these cockeyed analogies in my review, it wouldn’t be the same, and you know it.
Francesca also refuses to portray herself as some sort of wounded, misunderstood soul, which only underscores the pathos of her situation. Her choice to be a high-priced courtesan is an expression of her desire to control every aspect of her intimate interactions with men, as well as an attempt to free herself from depending on a man for security, either emotional or financial. Even the way she refuses to paint herself for anything else other than a courtesan is a defensive move, designed to defuse any barbs slung her way, much in the way an overweight girl will make a joke about the size of her ass before anyone else gets there—and make it funnier and more cutting. This exchange, in particular, is telling; it takes place when Francesca is retrieved from the canal, shivering and dressed only in a transparent chemise:
“You’re creating a diversion, all right,” [James] said. “You’re wearing a shift that’s soaked through. You might as well be wearing nothing. And everybody’s looking.”
“That will never do,” she said. “I’m a harlot. They must pay to look.”
Even better, Francesca doesn’t have a problematic sex life, and she doesn’t find True Luuuuurrrve because James turns out to have the one and only cock in all of creation capable of giving her orgasms. She enjoys sex, and she feels lustful when she notices a beautiful male form. (One of my favorite lines in the book is when Francesca says to James “You’re beautiful when you’re angry.” The inversion of gender tropes and the switching of the focus of the gaze makes me profoundly happy in the pantalones.) Francesca gets an inkling that what she feels for James is out of the norm, however, when the sex isn’t just excellent—it’s extraordinary. In short, the experience that’s reserved for showing slutty heroes that He’s Found the One is the exact same one used for a slutty heroine, and it works.
And I think that’s why I’m somewhat disappointed by the readers who seem to dismiss Francesca as an unworthy heroine simply because she’s a whore who isn’t repentant for her actions or condemned by the characters who serve as the ultimate moral compass—James, in fact, tells Francesca that if he can’t keep her interest, it’ll bloody well serve him right to be a cuckold, which just about knocked me on my ass with glee. Francesca becomes a prostitute in a way that’s completely in keeping with her character and motivations, and her lack of shame about it is refreshing. None of the same readers who are bothered by Francesca seem similarly bothered by the way James whores himself and calls himself such. Part of it may be related to the fact that James is doing it for King and Country and not filthy lucre, but I feel like Chase manages to set up Francesca’s circumstances in a very sympathetic way. Mostly, I think, readers tend to be much harder on heroines because they’re simultaneously placeholders and competition, with the added complication of not being the object of desire the way heroes tend to be.
James is a worthy partner for Francesca, though because he’s set in a somewhat more conventional mold, I’m not quite as gleeful over his development as I am over the flaming hoops Chase has made the genre conventions governing heroines jump through for this particular book. James’ brutal honesty about what he does and the methods he chooses to employ are refreshing, and I greatly enjoy the fact that he never judges Francesca by a different standard than he does himself. It’s to Chase’s credit that she makes this egalitarian honesty so much a part of James’ nature that I never pause and wonder if this would’ve been a convincing attitude for a man of that time, because she makes it clear that he is not an ordinary man.
Chase’s knack for wry observations and witty banter stand this book in good stead, too. Several bits made me laugh out loud, such as this observation from Francesca, when she swoons after running too much:
She’d fainted because she was not used to running, Francesca told them as they fussed over her in the gondola. (…) “Have you ever run in stays?” she said to James. “Oh, why do I ask you? Of course you have. But you’re a man, and your lungs are larger.
This book isn’t quite perfect, however. For one, I feel that Chase’s prose has gotten choppier over the years, and it’s not an improvement. Her current style doesn’t quite flow in the same way it used to, and I miss that. I also wanted more book. I wanted more detail, more depth of emotion, more details on what Francesca went through during and right after the divorce, and James’ (mis)adventures.
The villains aren’t especially interesting, either. In the past, Chase has made the effort to give us a glimpse into the villains’ motivations, making them, if not outright sympathetic, then at least characters in their own right. The bad guys in this story, however, lack depth. The female villain is a screaming bundle of irrationality, poor breeding and homicidal urges; the male villain, Francesca’s ex-husband, is a scheming, cold-hearted, voracious predator. They weren’t particularly scary to me, and they were never any genuine threat to the safety and sanity of the protagonists. This is a shame, because there’s so much delicious territory to be exploited by a villain who’s genuinely scary, who actually makes you doubt whether the protagonists will survive him, despite knowing there will an HEA waiting for you by the end of the book.
And lastly, I didn’t particularly enjoy some aspects of the ending. Certain bits made sense in the context of the plot, but other bits of Happy Ending were gratuitous and pushed me from feeling satisfied to mildly incredulous. Srsly, why do romances insist on making everything nauseatingly perfect for their characters in the happy ending? Authors: it’s OK for the protagonists to not get every single goddamn thing they want. I just want a solid reassurance that they’ll be happy. In fact, knowing that there are one or two things off-kilter makes the sweet parts even sweeter. You don’t want to douse a decadent brownie with maple syrup; you want to complement it with some slightly tart berries, or pair it with the subtle sweetness of freshly-whipped cream, or the mellow accents of vanilla ice-cream.
All in all, though, these flaws are inconsequential. Your Scandalous Ways is a fantastically entertaining book with a heroine who quickly shot to one of my top spots for all-time favorite and a hero who matches her in every way. If you’ve enjoyed Chase in the past but have found her last couple of efforts somewhat lackluster, I highly recommend that you pick this up.