by Candice Hern, historical (2006)
Signet, $6.99, ISBN 0-451-21784-5
Candice Hern kicks off her new series for Signet, The Merry Widows, with In The Thrill Of The Night. The Merry Widows are five widows who decide to take lovers because it's not seemingly to go without intimacy for the sake of propriety, although they will of course look for discrete men who will be happy to sleep with married women and widows but not spread the word around. It's like a personals ad of sorts: "Want men willing to forgo scruples for adultery opportunities with married women or illicit sex with proper widows in a Society That Do Not Approve - honor and integrity a must, please." The spearheads for this movement are two of the, shall we say, faster women who of course will not be getting their love stories. Maybe Ms Hern and her editor don't want to invite the predictable "Women who like sex? In a romance novel? No such thing!" slams from readers who know everything. So, lucky me, the three frigid ones are getting their stories, starting in this book with the youngest of the Merry Widows, Marianne Nesbitt.
The Merry Widows are actually a society of sorts that raise money for widows of the current war going on in Europe in 1813. Yes, widows involved in charities seeking to risk their reputations in the name of the jollies. Can these women find any way to make their lives even more fraught with opportunities to be miserable? I suppose, with romance heroines being what they are, the only reason why our Merry Widows aren't nuns in this book is because the god-fearing readers will then start hollering for Ms Hern's deportation to Canada or Greece for being a blasphemous heathen. Oh, and the Merry Widows will find lovers and then share the details of their sexual escapades with each other. I feel like I'm reading a gathering of typical romance heroines in the everyday Regency historical - you know, the sheltered martyr-prone impractically virtuous kinds - who, after the deaths of their husbands, are left to their own devices and are therefore very stupid as a result because heaven knows, it's not like their dead husbands and daddies weren't the ones who did all their thinking for them.
Even so, the Merry Widows' plan - to experience sexual freedom (discreetly, of course) like it's a feminist thing - turns out to be false because quickly Ms Hern reveals in this very book alone that the three heroines in this trilogy aren't meant to play the field. They are the ones who always feel that if they sleep with someone, it's because they love that man. So at the end of the day, the whole trilogy boils down to the same old thing: women wanting to get laid only to fall for the first man that wags his... I mean, winks at them.
I've just spent three paragraphs just talking about this premise of the series because I'm disappointed that the author, who has done some fabulous unconventional heroines before, chooses to settle for such safe stereotypes of heroines not just once but three times over in a single trilogy that promises to be something that it isn't.
Oh yes, the story. Marianne Nesbitt loves her late husband David. David's best friend Adam Cazenove loves David too. So when Marianne decides to pick a lover, she creates a list and asks her late husband's best friend for advice on who to pick as her lover and how to go about flirting with a man. She'd ask Adam to be that man since he is a rakish playboy with plenty of charm to go around but he's determined to marry the shallow debutante Clarissa Leighton-Blair. Adam can't bear the idea of Marianne with another man but rationalizes his emotions as a need to keep David's widow safe. Marianne can't bear the idea of Adam marrying someone and therefore not visiting her again as David's good friend, but justifies her emotions as protectiveness - she knows Clarissa isn't the right woman for Adam! This is a tangled web indeed between the players in this romp.
One thing Ms Hern did right in this story is to point out how heartbreakingly ignorant Marianne is when it comes to sexual matters. Her marriage with David was arranged so she never had to flirt in Society with members of the opposite sex. David was also her only lover and until she hears the two faster Merry Widows talk about their escapades, she doesn't even know about orgasms. Marianne's realization of what she has missed out drives her into this need to discover more about sexual relationships between a man and a woman. In this story, therefore, Marianne's determination to find a lover is one I can certainly understand and sympathize with.
Unfortunately, as the story progresses, it becomes clear that the author is going to have the main characters behaving silly to make sure that the story can be as long as it is. Adam, especially, turns into a most unappealing craven fellow who could do well to grow some testicles of his own. I quickly lose patience with this man who keeps stringing Marianne along while sabotaging her attempts to know other men better and trying to get into Clarissa's pants at the same time. It is alright if he insists that he wants to keep Marianne pure as snow just to make David happy but at the same time he has no problems kissing Marianne and doing more when he loses control and gets too hormonal. By the way, Adam gets hormonal very often in this story. He would have been a more palatable hero if he has more grips on his libido and he will be more of a man when it comes to taking responsibilities over his actions. Wanting to sleep with Marianne while at the same time wanting to marry Clarissa does not reflect well on his character. Sleeping with Marianne and then deliberately letting her remain ignorant of the identity of her lover and then planning to avoid Marianne so that he can finally move on with Clarissa WHILE SAYING HE IS DOING ALL THIS FOR MARIANNE'S OWN GOOD - boy, it feels good when this book hits the wall hard, I tell you.
Adam conveniently decides that he loves Marianne after Clarissa is made unavailable to him through events that he has nothing at all to do with directly. You should hear my snort of derision when I come across his "epiphany", I tell you. And then it's Marianne who decides that she can annoy me thoroughly too so she becomes ultra-stupid as well. Early on in this book she decides that she will stop being a martyr to David's death and moves on with her life. Now, when Adam wants to marry her, she decides that she can't marry Adam because she can't betray David's memory. Doesn't the author have any better conflict to fire up the last few chapters of her book other than forcing a complete 180 on the heroine in a way that never makes sense?
And poor David. I don't know whether to laugh or feel sad that by the last page of this book, his sexual prowess has been mocked and derided and not only that, Marianne also announces to Adam that David is now her "best friend" while Adam is her "true love". Come on, people, David is already dead. Give the poor man a break!
Oh David. He's the favorite punching bag and excuse for the main characters to behave like complete idiots throughout this book but who he is, I have no idea. I don't know why he and Adam never exchanged sexual stories or why he never asked Adam for any tips on pleasing the wife. Men talk about sex, after all, and I don't think there is any man, then and now, who is not concerned about his sexual prowess with women. Adam's ignorance of David's sexual ineptness, therefore, feels forced and contrived. I have no idea why Adam puts David so high on a pedestal. Is there something about those two men that I - and Marianne - don't know about? (David and Adam fancy themselves artists, after all, and you know how these creative folks can be.)
In The Thrill Of The Night on the whole is a story of silly people running around doing stupid things and the only reason why poor Clarissa isn't a casualty of heartbreak is because events happen to remove her from Adam's prospective bride list before any damage is done. If those events never happen, Adam will have never admitted that he loves Marianne and this story will go on and on and on until I scream in agony and throw myself into a padded cell. There are many background elements about this book, especially those concerning David, that aren't fleshed out fully and therefore many aspects of this story feel stilted, awkward, and underwritten. Marianne deciding to be as stupid as Adam in the last few chapters is the last straw.
I've been waiting eagerly for a new book by this author all this while so you have no idea how painful it is for me to admit to myself that In The Thrill Of The Night is a terrible book by my standards no matter how hard I try to pretend otherwise!
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