by Emma Holly, historical (2001)
Jove, $6.50, ISBN 0-515-13099-0
The cover of Beyond Innocence is nothing more risque than many of the clinch covers out there. Boy, what I wouldn't give to be a fly on the wall when Ms Prudish Fusspot "No Swearin' In My Romances!" Romance Reader (blissfully unaware that Emma Holly writes erotic, sometimes bisexual stuff for the erotica market and BI is her debut "mainstream" romance novel) turns to page 18 and reads about the hero Edward Burbrooke spying on our heroine getting dressed by the modiste and starting to have naughty lesbian fantasies. Or how the heroine Florence Fairleigh is also being turned on despite herself at the modiste's hands on her body.
And Ms Reader will probably have a cardiac arrest by the next chapter where Horny!Edward has Frustrated Sex with his mistress Imogene ("You're a monster," she breathed... "You're the biggest f**king cock I've ever had!"). That is, if she doesn't become a new convert to the Church of Erotoromance first.
Beyond Innocence isn't as meaninglessly oversexed as sometimes Susan Johnson, Thea Devine, and company can get. In fact, there is a story, and apart from the above mentioned lesboerotic elements and the Ow!Yow!Fuckmebay-beeeeee!Oh!Oh!Oh! skanky sex, the rest of the story is pretty much something Regency Granny can read (if she can stand the cock word being tossed around, that is). Of course, someone then has to shield Granny's eyes when Flo and Ed consummate their relationship.
But something is wrong when I find the skanky sex more fun than the Tender Sex scenes between Flo and Ed. Despite being an erotic romance, it seems Beyond Innocence can't avoid passing the message that while sex with bad girls are more fun, guys end up marrying the good virgin and having prim, proper sex instead.
The story, oh yes. Edward's brother Freddie is caught in an "Oops!" situation with his footman. Ed doesn't understand that Freddie is gay, though, and he decides that the only way to cure Freddie is to marry him off. Hmm, sounds like some religious twits I know in real life. Anyway, the lucky beard for Freddie is Florence, an impoverished vicar's daughter hoping to marry well so that she can have a nice life. Ed, however, feels the poppers in his pants whenever he sees Flo. Oh dear.
Unlike another erotic romance author, who shall remain unnamed, who claims that her books "are not for the conservative" while oddly espouses right-wing fundamentalist homophobic views in her books (apparently, sex is good and "liberal" only if it's heterosexual, and yes, this includes butt stuff), Emma Holly treats Freddie with surprising respect, even giving the lad a happy ending no doubt filled with hedonistic gay man-man loving. This is something new in a romance novel - a sexual, non-martyr homosexual who actually finds a happy ending. Nice.
Edward is a decent hero, too, and if he is a chauvinist prig at time, that's because everyone lets him be. Even Florence (more about her later). But Edward is sexy. Frustrated and horny Edward is fatal and should be made illegal, really. His obsession with Flo is just luscious and cute in a dark, not-sweet way, and I've no doubt he would turn psycho if Flo doesn't come back to him in the end. Magnetic, arrogant, but oh-so-vulnerable and in need of love, poor baby.
But like too many Regency heroines, Flo is a brown cow with no personality, no charisma, nothing. She is nothing more than a patchwork of the usual Regency tricks - stupidly virtuous, blindly clueless, and a walking doormat where Edward is concerned. She keeps protesting - "No, I'm not pretty! No, don't buy me expensive dresses! No, don't call me sexy!" - or blaming herself for everything - "My fault! My fault! My fault!" - will she blame herself if I push her off the cliff? Irritating, dull cow. She does get a big makeover in personality though, when she discovers that she has been lied to since day one by Edward, but then the author botches her chance to make Flo human.
Instead, Ms Holly takes the chance to make Flo even more silly. Edward grovels to me, but he never grovels to Flo, hence Flo's ridiculous reason for her easy forgiveness of Edward (because she doesn't want to be bitter like Edward's mistress or the mistress' aunt who happens to be Edward's father's jilted girlfriend... never mind) makes her even more a doormat. And her trust in him starts coming back, it seems, soon after the first Reunion Pumpies. How easy it is to keep this woman happy, really. Just pump her and she'll let her man walk all over her.
And I find it odd that while the author acknowledges that Edward and her father have treated their mistresses badly, she also lets these men win at the expense of the wronged women's pride. Edward will do well to view Imogene with a little respect, especially, but in the end, the old Madonna/Whore polarization prevails: a man can fuck a "dirty" woman all he wants, but in the end he marries the "pure" girl.
Hey, whatever. It's Flo's loss. Edward's treating her like an ornamental china doll will never let her experience what it's like to enjoy Rough!Angry!Sex. She will never experience what it means to live and enjoy the thrill of life for the sake of living. But the sad thing is, I think she'll be perfectly happy in her own narrow world of self-depreciation and extravagantly stupendous self-sacrifice for the sake everyone and his granny.
Beyond Innocence is very readable, but ultimately, it's yet another conservative chastity preach pamphlet masquerading as "sexy stuff". Maybe someone should write a sequel: since Edward loves older women (Imogene is twelve years his senior), in Even Beyond Innocence, a fiftysomething granny walks right in, pushes Flo screaming ("Don't blame her, it's my fault I'm so boriiiiiiii...") down the stairs, and o-la, Edward and me, I mean, the fiftysomething heroine can take out the whips and party. He will look good in a dog collar, I'm sure. Ahem.
Where was I? Oh yeah, Beyond Innocence. Not bad. It's very readable, and the sex is good. Too bad it lacks emotional zing, relying on too-quickly-resolved conflicts and stereotypical heroine characterizations to carry the story. Fans of hot sexy romances, but wanting frank talks instead of the usual "petals" and "shafts" overdose can do worse than to pick up this one. But those expecting a strong heroine will have to keep searching. I don't find BI a long-term love affair, more like a torrid one-night stand, good while it lasts, but don't expect me to stay for breakfast.
This book at Amazon.com
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