by Janet Mullany, regency (2005)
Signet, $4.99, ISBN 0-451-21636-9
How long does a Signet traditional regency book stay in circulation in bookstores? If it's not for long, I suggest that readers who enjoy reading romance stories that feature lots of things that stray from convention to run out and at least read a few pages of this book to make up their own minds about buying it before this book meets an unjust demise before it finds an audience. Janet Mullany's debut Dedication looks like a typical traditional regency from its packaging and its back blurb suggests that this is a story of a reunion following an estrangement that was sparked by some Big Misunderstanding, making it come off like some potential wallbanger. Instead, it's a lush and sensual story that is very different from many traditional stories and therefore is fresh and new.
Fabienne Argonac Craigmont is a French noblewoman who left the country after the French Revolution to settle down in England. She is now 37 years old and acting as a sponsor for budding young artistic talents in town. Adam Ashworth was her ex-lover as they had a passionate if brief love affair when they were so much younger. He is now 43 and a widower as well as a grandfather. They meet again when rumors of his ward Viscount Tillotson openly keeping a mistress in the Viscount's home sends Adam to the home in question to knock some sense of discretion into the younger man's head, only to learn that the mistress in question is actually a young female artist using the Viscount as the model in her paintings. This woman is chaperoned, sort of, by Fabienne in the house. These two really don't intend to rekindle anything between them, but Adam is at the same time the author of two wildly popular Gothic books under the pseudonym Mrs Ravenwood and Fabienne begins to write to her favorite author all this while. Adam can't help but to respond to these letters after knowing who the author of these letters is.
The characters make this book a fascinating read. Fabienne is a wholly and an unapologetically sexual creature. Her relationship with her late husband (the one that she married after ending her affair with Adam) was a sexual as well as a warm one; in fact this husband was a much better lover than Adam was the first time around. She also had lovers before she meets Adam again, although this aspect of her life isn't elaborated on. I also love how she isn't blind to Adam's nonsense in this book - Adam dishes out a fair amount of nonsense to her in this book but she never allows him to step all over her. Adam is a trickier character because he isn't a clear cut hero or antihero. At 43, he often jumps to conclusions or behaves in a manner that doesn't befit someone of his supposedly mature age, but at the same time he has many worthwhile aspects of his character to emphatize with. He reads people very badly and can be very cruel to these people when that happens but at the same time he is someone who stands by those he cares for. He, in fact, isn't a rake at all, and by "at all", I mean that you'll never see another hero in a romance novel who cherished the memories of his late wife (whom he loves) to the extent that he does. Like Fabienne with her late husband, Adam had a very real and warm relationship with his late wife, and these past relationships never in any way make their current relationship less intense in any way.
So sexual is Fabienne, in fact, that when she and "Mrs Ravenwood" start entering lesboerotic territory in their correspondence, she actually considers the idea of embarking a more sexual relationship with Mrs Ravenwood. She is so excited at the idea of meeting Mrs Ravenwood and exploring this new aspect of their relationship that a big part of me starts wishing that there is a very real Mrs Ravenwood. I like how Ms Mullany manages to take risks that may alienate readers more comfortable with light-hearted traditional regency stories like this one, which is actually well done because Fabienne and "Mrs Ravenwood" connect on an intellectual and emotional level, thus making Fabienne's considering a possible intimate relationship with Mrs Ravenwood very plausible in many ways. This book could have been a fabulous coming-out lesbian traditional regency if you ask me. There are many other fun moments to be had: Adam's reaction when Fabienne tells "Mrs Ravenwood" in her letter how her previous lover (Adam) was so lacking compared to Fabienne's late husband and when Fabienne later tells him that she had been faking it during their affair because he wasn't as splendid a lover as he thought he was despite his hedonistic rake background.
In fact, barring the language stylistics, there is very little of this book that is similar to a typical formulaic traditional regency other than a lack of explicit sex scenes. Even so, this book has many somewhat graphic descriptions of sex. Adam and Fabienne think quite often about sex with each other. They have a memorable foreplay scene involving elements of bondage (nothing too heavy - Amanda Quick had gone down this territory before in Scandal). Other than the characters not moving past third base, this book is sexual, just like Fabienne.
The only downfall of this book is the way the author rushed through her story and its subplots later into the story. Many things about her story are hurried to their endings to the point that Dedication ends on a rather dissatisfying note. Maybe this book was much longer in its original format before it was trimmed to meet the word count of the Signet traditional regency line, I don't know, but while the build-up and development of the story are fabulous, the closure is disappointing in how rushed and superficial getting there is, although I'm glad Fabienne manages to knock some sense into Adam before they find their happy ending. The last chapter, in fact, is appropriately showy and melodramatic enough for my eyes to mist a little over.
While Dedication is far from a perfect book, I love it and I love the fact that I have the opportunity to read it. There is so much about this book that appeals to the aspect of me that makes me a fan of Judith Ivory and Pam Rosenthal. It's sexy, it's romantic, it has some tumultuous emotional conflicts, and it has characters that are rough around the edges but remain real enough for me to root for. If you love stories that are not of the usual formulaic variety (spies, bluestockings, Daddy died and we're all poor, et cetera), try to look past the generic cover of this book. When is this author's next book coming out?
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