by Katherine Sutcliffe, historical (2001)
Sonnet, $6.99, ISBN 0-7434-1197-8
Fever is an appropriate title for this book - like the steamy 1853 Louisiana bayou where this story takes place, Fever is a hedonistic, abandoned celebration of the Whore in Women. It's fascinating and sexual, and the true star of this story is actually a dead woman named Maureen Jarod.
Maureen is Juliette Broussard's mother. Juliette has a love-hate relationship with her parents. Maureen was a chronic nymphomaniac who, to put it tastefully, had probably seen half the men in the neighborhood naked. The other half were probably still too young. But Maureen's husband was obsessed with her, and just couldn't let go, hence when Maureen passed on to what everyone was sure a burning end in the pit down below, the father just lost it. Juliette has the misfortune to be the younger mirror image of her mother, and her father exiled her to a convent run by some unpleasant nuns.
Today, Juliette is an orphan and the heir to a run-down (but large) cane plantation called Belle Jarod. She wants to rebuild Belle Jarod to its former glory, but first, she has to contend with her guardian Max Hollinsworth, her dad's best friend, who wants her to marry his unpleasant useless son Tylor. She decides to flee by jumping into the river on her way back to Louisiana, and who gets to fish her out (naked) but Max's white-trash bastard son Chantz, who is exactly what your mother warned you all about when she talked about those bad boys on the wrong side of the street that will do very bad and unspeakably naughty things to you. Juliette, naturally, can't wait to do those naughty things with Chantz.
Fever is very upfront when it comes to the term whore. Maureen was a whore, and she slept around. But what's fascinating is that this is not misogyny working in Fever - every man in this novel wants Maureen and this want spills over to Juliette. Chantz remembers Maureen when he was a boy spying on her cuckolding her husband with his father - oh dear. Max is still obsessed with the woman he had an affair with. Every man who remembers Maureen acknowledges it - Maureen is the one they want, and Maureen is the one who holds them in thrall. The ghost of Maureen lingered throughout this novel, causing every other horny male in this novel to walk around with butterflies in their, uh, stomach.
But in her own right, Juliette is a likeable heroine. She is 19, and as a lass who has been cloistered in a convent all her life, her sometimes childish and even rash antics stay close to her personality. She is sometimes confused because she likes being bad like her mother, but she knows her mother is supposed to be evil one leading astray all those poor innocent men with erections... and she mustn't be like momma. Right?
Plot-wise, Fever is nothing to shout about. Of course Tylor will cause trouble, and there's even the obligatory secondary romance between Chantz's friend and Chantz's sister (a slave). But what's fun is the sheer, sometimes even cornball, sleaze of the Louisiana sexual musical chairs. Max is particularly fascinating as a patriarch who really loves Chantz, his eldest and most reliable son, in his own twisted way. The way the man behaves is a conundrum of ambiguity: his feelings for Juliette are both simultaneously sleazy and paternal. And he shares a poignant scene with Juliette that tells me that he really loves Maureen, you know. Poor guy. I shed a tear.
Chantz, oh Chantz, oh my. Bad-tempered, angry at the world, unabashedly oversexed like the sultry bayou fever, yet at the same time treating Juliette just right, he is S-E-X-Y. His relationship with Juliette just burns.
I do find everyone's constant harping on Juliette and Chantz to stay away from each other or how Juliette is like her mother tedious though. The author keeps pointing this out again and again in what seemed like every other page - oi, enough already, lady, I get it.
Like most of Katherine Sutcliffe's historical romances, Fever isn't sweet. But the sheer passion, anger, and all those tumultuous feelings just burn off the pages, and I am enthralled word after word. The plot is something right out of a dysfunction-o-drama soap opera, but considering the incestuously close-knit society of the Louisiana plantation families, this is probably to be expected. (And I do like the sleaziness of it all, I admit. More sex! More dysfunctional sex! More Angry Jealousy!) And as a plus, the author also takes time to recreate life in the bayou in rather vivid details that I can almost feel the heat of the whole bayou.
I love Fever. It's nice, it's sexy, and it has all these deep, dark, angry passions just swirling underneath the calm. It can be a bit "old-school" in prose style, but it is also very readable, so I'm not complaining there. I need to fan myself - this book burns in more ways than one.
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