by Elizabeth Thornton, historical (2007)
Bantam, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-553-58957-3
The Pleasure Trap is one of those stories where the romance is the weakest part of the package. The mystery is interesting, but unfortunately the author botches it eventually by piling on coincidences upon coincidences until I have a hard time taking the whole thing seriously.
What is interesting about this story is that the author set it in the backdrop of the rise of the popularity of female Gothic romance authors, of which our heroine Eve Dearing is one of them, in 1818. There are some deliberate parallels drawn by Ms Thornton between these authors and romance authors of today as both parties deal with the same prejudices about their intellect and the quality of their works even if two hundred years or so separate them.
Our story kicks into action when our heroine Eve Dearing, who writes popular Gothic romances as "Mrs Barrymore", and her aunt Millicent Claverly decide to attend a symposium organized by a publisher, Leigh Fleming. This symposium is held to introduce the current crop of popular authors to their fans. The two women decide accept the invitation of another fellow author, Lady Sayers, to stay on in London after the symposium in order to help the woman watch over Lady Sayers' niece Liza as the niece makes her debut.
Alas, at about the time Eve and her aunt settle down in London, someone called Angelo is coming up with stories in the papers that are getting on the nerves of some powerful people in London. To these people, Angelo's open-ended mysteries are based on some dark history of their family - usually a death that took place under dodgy and potentially embarrassing circumstances - that no one but them is supposed to know.
Our hero Ash Denison therefore comes into the picture when Colonel Shearer, whom he knows from "We shot French people all over Europe" days, asks him to investigate who this Angelo is and how that person knows about a dodgy death of a maid that was in the Shearers' employ. That is supposed be to very private matter, you see. Ash dismisses the fellow's suspicion as mere coincidence when Angelo publishes a story that hits too close to Ash's home for comfort - a story that is too similar in many details to the death of Ash's beloved rather simple-minded brother Harry during Ash's youth. Now Ash has reasons to find out what Angelo really knows about the real circumstances behind Harry's drowning.
As it happens, his grandmother and his sister are big fans of the ladies who are attending the symposium that Angelo publicizes at the end of his stories. As it happens, this symposium is the one Eve and her aunt are attending. At this point, I suppose I can still say that this is fate or something. But when the villain also happens to be involved with the tragedies in both Ash and Eve's lives as well as that of another secondary character who also happens to be an author attending the symposium, that's when the coincidences have piled up way too high for my liking. The use of a villain that are behind everybody's problems is, I suppose, a tidy way of ensuring that everyone gets over the blues for a happy ending once this villain is out of the way. But it's hard to believe that this villain can be so conveniently involved in the lives of so many people who happen to meet for the first time in a symposium.
Eve's issue is that the women in her life are usually psychic. Like her mother, she can read people's feelings, memories, and thoughts. She can also "pull" people into her dreams, it seems. When she was a child, her mother projected her final thoughts into her head, leading the poor dear to discover the woman in her final moments. It was an accident, or maybe not, but she will discover the actual circumstances behind her mother's death by the end of the story.
The problem with this story is that the characters are really flat and never really come to life. The romance, as a result, is utterly dull. Ms Thornton doesn't show me why or how the characters are falling in love, she just tells me instead. Oh, Eve knows that Ash is a kind man! But I am not shown why she would come to this conclusion. Oh, Eve realizes that she is seized by a compulsion to know more about Ash's life! But why she feels this way, I have no idea. And so on, really, with Ms Thornton just stating to me outright at various points in the story that the two characters are in love, they like each other, they have made progress, et cetera. Eve is a pretty dour creature who is so judgmental and rude towards Ash at first that I have no idea why he's attracted to her, and for the most part Eve is a rather unhappy person with issues. Ash is a far less morose person, but like Eve, he doesn't really get much character development here. These two people are pretty much standard Folks With Issues.
The setting of the symposium is interesting but the author soon moves her characters to Lady Sayers' country house, where some very obvious plot developments, including the predictable use of a runaway girl from Bedlam, turn the story into something far less interesting. The late third of the story intrigues me again when the author focuses more intently on the mystery behind Angelo, but she then ruins the fun when the villain turns out to be a ridiculous "catch-all" plot device to solve everyone's woes and blues in one go.
The Pleasure Trap is a very dry romance and the mystery for a while does provide some interesting moments to make up for the romance, but even that one doesn't last long. Oh well.
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