by Evangeline Collins, historical (2011)
Berkley, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-23983-4
Lady Isabella Stirling is a most charming professional martyr. Five years ago, she succumbed to temptation and met a handsome fellow in the stable, only to be discovered by her brother. Ruined, she was married off to Lord Stirling, who turns out to be an impotent monster who treats the wife like a punching bag when he's having his off days. Bella, naturally, keeps quiet because she decides that she deserves to be punished for failing to be a good girl and make her family proud. Her charming brothers in the meantime leave her be, because it is so easy to take a martyr for granted.
The only smart person in the story, Esmé Marceau, a cousin, decides to hire a male prostitute to cheer Bella up when the story opens. Mr Gideon Rosedale is amazing, solicitous, and talented - he can bring Bella to orgasm with a flick of his hand. Bella is in love with the first decent man she has ever come across in her life. But we all know the bliss can't last, since she's still a married woman and she is a martyr, so it's not like she will run off with him to the Continent or something like that. What will happen to our lovesome twosome?
Her Ladyship's Companion is quite a good read. Why didn't I read this book when it was first issued in trade paperback back in 2009? Oh yes, because it was issued in trade paperback and it wasn't as if money grew on trees in my backyard. Still, all hail the mass market paperback format because this one is a pretty unexpected pleasant surprise.
Prostitutes in romance novels, both male and female, tend to fall into one of two extremes. They are either shrill, evil, and treacherous sluts or they are over-educated, very proper, misunderstood people with nary a dark spot on their souls, who are forced by dire circumstances into selling their bodies. Gideon is naturally the second type of prostitute. Still, the author doesn't whitewash too much the nature of Gideon's job - although he's naturally one of those unrealistic male prostitutes who have never serviced male clients before - and, all things considered, he's a likable fellow.
He has plenty of great chemistry with Bella. Their quiet moments in and out of bed are very well drawn. While a part of me is skeptical about the romance because it resembles in many ways the infatuation harbored by someone for the shrink, but there is an underlying tenderness in those scenes that works for me. In addition, the author's narrative is engaging and the pacing is fine up to the last few chapters, so this story is most readable as a result.
I'm not sure about Bella. The story has a growth arc for her - she develops a little bit more spine by the end of the story - but on the whole, our heroine has completely zero sense of self-preservation. She endures... endures... endures... and endures in silence on the mistaken belief that she deserves to be punished, and it takes her a while to even reach out to Gideon. And yet, she supposedly comes from a family that was once close knit, which makes her personality hard to believe. What kind of woman who has had a normal upbringing will turn out to be completely devoid of any sense of self-worth? Even when her husband beats the crap out of her, she just takes it silently and never once complains to her brother who arranged the marriage. This brother gets off lightly, by the way - the heroine never harbors any grudge towards him for putting her in that nightmare she had to endure in the last five years because she's such a charming martyr that way.
And I also roll up my eyes when, late in the story, the hero also shows the same brand of stoic self-suffering like Bella. Bella is in danger and he'd like to take her to a safe place... but maybe he'd wait three days, because heaven knows, it will be so improper to impose. Early on, I can understand his inaction. He is a prostitute and therefore, he has no power to stand up to members of the nobility. But come on, after he and Bella supposedly love each other so desperately and that silly chit is completely dependent on him to keep her safe, he's concerned about imposing on her brothers? These two should just run away to the Continent or something. Or at least, think of it, or do anything to convince me that they are human beings and not robots programmed to suffer in polite silence even when it comes to matters of life and death.
The story has some popular, if unrealistic, clichés to mar the fun as well. Bella is a virgin despite having been married for five years, because the husband is a cartoon impotent monster. Also, Bella doesn't do anything for herself other than to hire Gideon for the second time, because heaven knows, she's too polite to impose even when she's been beaten bloody all over by her husband. It's the brave strong men around her who have to protect her from the evils of the world once they discover her predicament (she's too polite to tell them that her husband is a monster who beats her). Even when she says that she's finally more in control of her life, she's still being propped up by Gideon. Seriously, Bella takes professional martyrdom to a magnificent level that will drive the heroines of Catherine Anderson green with envy, and this is one major stumbling block when it comes to viewing the characters in this story as real people.
Still, Her Ladyship's Companion is at the end of the day a solid read because of the well-drawn emotions and the author's engaging voice. This story isn't as groundbreaking as it is marketed to be - take away the male prostitute angle and the rest of the story is in familiar territory - but there is enough here to convince me that I could very well be bowled over by this author one of these days. This story doesn't work completely for me, but it works well enough by engaging me with some well-drawn and intense emotions. The author's next book is available only in trade paperback still, but I'm seriously tempted to get it now.
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