by Cheryl Holt, historical (2003)
St Martin's Press, $6.50, ISBN 0-312-98460-X
The main characters in Complete Abandon are interesting people, but the book is tough to swallow - pardon the awful pun - because the author proceeds to swamp her story with Erotic Romance clichés. There are evil sluts galore whose demonization sit awkwardly beside the author's romanticization of the slutty heroes and there's even everybody's favorite Evil Pedophile villain. Frankly, there are other authors out there that make these clichés their own in far more recognizable ways. Robin Schone, for example, comes disturbingly close to making gay bashing an acceptable element in her "erotic" romance. Thea Devine excels in family secrets and incestuous bedhoppings. Emma Holly always uses the Evil Ho Woman to disguise her heroine's flat characterization. Is there anything in this book that Cheryl Holt can call uniquely hers, I wonder?
The tedious cycle of clichés begin when Emma Fitzgerald, a vicar's daughter, storms the home of the new Viscount Wakefield only to - yup, you guess it - stumble upon him in a state of dishabille and just completed some afternoon pumpies with his latest girlie. That girlie, like every other girlie in this book, is naturally vile, possessive, bitchy, and skanky. Meanwhile, our hero John, who is vile, possessive, bitchy, and skanky, is a catch. Really. Don't believe me? Take a look at that silly Evil Debutante creature who is determined to marry John because John is a catch. Meanwhile, the Evil Ho decides to make a move on John's brother Ian. But while we are supposed to condemn such pathetically nasty women even as we secretly giggle at the tantalizingly skanky scenes, we are also supposed to gasp in outraged pleasure when Emma and John discusses a bargain: she will do him one sexual favor for every tenant he chooses not to evict. (The tenants being the reason why Emma is here.) I recalled someone called Annabelle Chong...
Anyway, of course Emma and John will have sex and fall in love. But I do like how Emma comes off as a woman with real passions and emotions. She may be aware of the constraints and restrictions placed on her, but she does feel lust and she can get tempted. She's no naive dingbat, and I really like that. John is the skanky and oversexed slut type, but I also like how the author manages to make him grow into a more rounded human being. John is a man that is changed by love, maybe a little too unrealistically perhaps, but he's no mere cliché. Again, I like that. Emma and John make a great couple with palpable sexual chemistry.
But with the ridiculous other elements of the plot that only serves to drive home the hypocritical misogyny that arises from the author's lazy reliance on skanky female villains and psychotic pedophile nutcases, all that is good and original about Cheryl Holt's Complete Abandon is swept away in a tidal wave of painful silliness.
I noted in my review of Cheryl Holt's first book with St Martin's Press, Love Lessons, that Ms Holt seems to be channeling Robin Schone. Three books later, Ms Holt seems more content in trying to write like other established authors in the Erotic Romance subgenre instead of trying to find her own voice and style. It's a pity, because judging from some of Emma and John's better moments, she can write some fine sexual tension and characters. As for now, Complete Abandon remains a clumsy, sometimes good but more often than not an awkwardly plotted story that doesn't quite seem to bring out the best the author can offer to her readers.
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