by Loretta Chase, historical (2011)
Avon, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-06-163268-6
Loretta Chase is an author who can be inconsistent when it comes to her stories. When she's just so-so, the story is served up in a soup of historical romance clichés livened up by the banters between her main characters. But when she is inspired, the result is spellbinding. Silk Is For Seduction is the historical romance book to read this year so far if you ask me, because it dares to be different from the usual formulaic stuff out there for the sake of telling a love story and succeeding amazingly in the process.
We have a bunch of different people who would have never met under ordinary circumstances. First, we have Gervaise Angier, now the Duke of Clevedon, who is busy enjoying life in Paris. He is supposed to marry Lady Clara Fairfax, the daughter of the family who took him in after the rest of his family were killed in a tragic accident, but he seems to be taking his own sweet time to do so. Well, Clara's brother has taken steps to drag Clevedon back to London when the story opens, and the blue-blooded folks of London, always in need of a diversion, is pretty amused by this turn of event.
Our heroine Marcelline Noirot and her two sisters run Maison Noirot, a dressmaker shop in Fleet Street. Oh, they are blue-blooded ladies, but their pedigree is not exactly the most pristine as they are, frankly, daughters of the black sheep from two of the most notoriously disrepute families in England and France. While their parents charmed and grifted their way all across Europe for a living, the Noirot sisters decide to lead a more honest life in London. Unfortunately, the ladies of the Ton tend to gravitate to established dressmakers, so the new kids on the block like the Noirot sisters will have to find a way to connect with these ladies. Now that the Duke of Clevedon is coming back to marry Lady Clara - not exactly the most fashionable lady around - Marcelline believes that getting Lady Clara as a client will be just what they need to become the leading dressmakers in London. How convenient that it is time for Marcelline to travel to Paris for her annual scouting for fashion ideas and renewing business contacts. She will corner Clevedon and attempt to convince him that she is, indeed, the finest modiste in the world and Lady Clara will just bloom with her marvelous creations.
You can guess what happens next, surely. Can a Duke, who is as good as engaged to another woman, actually have a happily ever after with a dressmaker?
This summary may seem detailed enough, but it barely scratches the surface of this deliciously complicated story. These two characters face plenty of issues, starting from the fact that he's a Duke and she's a dressmaker who is determined to be a success in her trade. Yes, you've read that right - Marcelline isn't content to become the Duke's wife and the mother of his children - she wants to prove to everyone that she is, as she claims, the best modiste in the world. Ms Chase handles this issue by defiantly asking me to suspend my disbelief a little even as she also retains some semblance of historical authenticity into their situation. The end result is a fairy tale style happy ending that could very well just happen because love is really that magical.
And it's really magical, that love, as this story has some of the best sizzling sexual tension between the hero and the heroine. In fact, Marcelline comes off as a very sensual creature here whose passion gives life to her marvelous creations, thanks to the author's vivid and sometimes even erotic descriptions of the dresses made by the heroine. Silken porn - I don't believe that exists until I read this book. Marcelline is a gorgeously different heroine - she's a widow who loves her late husband even as she does not hesitate to feel desire without whipping herself in guilt afterwards. She is also smart, ambitious, sometimes vain, and very secure in her knowledge that she is the best in what she does. Some readers will be put off by what they will perceive as arrogance, and I can see where they are coming from. I love Marcelline, however. I wish the author has toned down a bit Marcelline's tendency to be self-righteous about being a self-made woman, though, because her behavior in those moments doesn't make sense. Such behavior makes sense in Ms Chase's crusader heroines, but in this context, Marcelline is trying to persuade Clevedon into letting his future wife be her client. Therefore, her tendency to nag is actually counterproductive. It's a good thing that Clevedon is too infatuated to care.
Oh, Clevedon. Now this is a less straightforward character than Marcelline. Sure, Clevedon has some childhood baggage, but he is too self-absorbed to even realize that these issues affected his perception of life. This is a good thing, because by having the hero and the heroine using these issues to justify Clevedon's antics, Ms Chase allows me room to form my own judgment about the hero. And I just adore Clevedon. Yes, he is planning to marry Lady Clara even as he tries to seduce Marcelline into being his mistress, but that's what men like him do in his time. What really amuses me about Clevedon is that he is what he is - a selfish and self-absorbed man who thinks very little beyond his immediate pleasures - which is why it is just glorious when he finally realizes that he wants to marry Marcelline. It's not something that he has to do, it's something that he finally understands that he wants to do. He's the last to know this, naturally, as Clevedon is not very bright despite his prodigious amount of charm. But I know this early on because I get to see him slowly fall in love with Marcelline more and more without realizing it. Let's just say that when he actually begins to take an active interest in women's clothings as they are part and parcel of Marcelline's business, he's a complete goner. You can say that him wanting to defy society by marrying Marcelline is just another part of him being the selfish and reckless Clevedon who lets nothing stand in the way of his pleasures, but I think Ms Chase has succeeded very well in showing me that Clevedon is in for the long haul here. He's willing to go all the way to move mountains just to make it work with Marcelline.
Oh, and the two sisters of the heroine are adorable. I even adore Marcelline's daughter, who is a complete brat, and I normally cannot stand brats. Lucille works in this story because she comes off as a genuine brat of her age instead of some precious brat who exists only to matchmake Marcelline with Clevedon.
Really, Silk Is For Seduction reads like the historical romance to me. It has everything I love - a romance that works, spellbinding sexual tension, great humor, wonderful main characters, and beautiful storytelling that makes me forget the world around me. It's not perfect - but then again, which book is? But the reactions it elicits from me - that wonderful high, those tears, the pain in my sides from all that laughing - these are the perfect reasons why I read in the first place. I will need to buy another copy of this book, as I'd no doubt wear out my current copy in no time from constant rereading.
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