by Robin Schone, historical (2007)
Brava, $15.00, ISBN 978-1-57566-699-5
How long has it been since Robin Schone's last historical romance? It's been almost six years. The erotic romance landscape has changed a lot since then so I'm curious to see whether one of the authors who started the whole erotic romance trend still has what it takes to show those upstarts a thing or do. Scandalous Lovers, a more market-friendly but less interesting retitling of The Men And Women's Club that was supposed to come out years ago, is an interesting read, more interesting than the author's previous few books, but at the same time, I find the appeal of this book more intellectual than emotional.
The Men and Women's Club was real, by the way. This Club is formed to discuss sex and other related matters in an academic manner in the 1880s. Scandalous Lovers is about two Club members who end up doing some extra-curricular discussion, so to speak.
James Whitcox, a 47-year old barrister who makes a name for himself by winning cases that are considered lost causes, is a widower who is hoping to find some answers. His marriage to his late wife was not a fulfilling one when it comes to the bedroom. He feels that she never really enjoyed their sexual intimacies and he is troubled with this feeling that the inadequacy is on his part. What did he do wrong? Since his wife departed this life without experiencing much jollies in the bedroom, he is hoping to find some answers that will soothe his feelings of disquiet and inadequacies when it comes to sex.
Francis Hart, 49, spent 34 years as a wife, mother, and grandmother, but like James, she has never really understood what sexual fulfillment means. Also, she has never had any opportunity to live her life as Francis Hart, herself, instead of always being someone's wife, mother, and grandmother. Today, she had just recently buried her husband and is starting to take baby steps at discovering who she really is. She more or less stumbles upon one of the Club's meetings and ends up becoming the newest member of the Club.
James plays a role in catalyzing the shift in the tone of the meetings of the Club from dry and academic discussions of the Club into a more intimate discussion of pornography, sexual fulfillment, and more. His attraction to Francis causes them to do some extra discussion and more on their own. But external factors, specifically Francis' children and her conflicted sense of responsibility towards them versus her personal needs and desires, will come into play in the late third of the story for some drama.
I actually enjoy Scandalous Lovers best when these characters are talking about sex rather than having sex. Robin Schone gets plenty of credit for being the first to make a name for herself in a time when the erotic romance genre was still very new but her sex scenes aren't very fun to read about since the characters, no matter how much fun they may be having in a particular sex scene, are bogged down by all kinds of Catholic guilt that I often find myself dreading the inevitable morning-after recriminations and self-flagellation that are bound to follow. It's no different in Scandalous Lovers. Francis may be on her way to discovering what her clitoris is for but at the same time she becomes increasingly bogged down with all kinds of Catholic guilt. Understandable? Yes, since we are talking about a lifetime of repression of identity and sexuality that Francis has led. But as understandable as this is, that doesn't mean this story is fun.
However, I like how Francis and James talk. There's a touching kind of honesty and a sense of joyful discovery as they discuss all those new and exciting feelings they experience the more they embark on their sexual odyssey. The characters come alive the most during these moments. However, as enjoyable as I find these discussions, I don't get the sense that these characters love each other. They come off more like friends who happen to have a great time sleeping with each other and I can't help feeling that these two will realize soon enough that they are probably better off being friends and sleeping with each other instead of being husband and wife. Am I making sense here? These two don't show much convincing chemistry together. But that could also be due to the author's style. I always feel that Ms Schone, for all her claims to be an erotic romance author, writes explicit but clinical sex scenes as opposed to sensual love scenes so I find the interactions of Francis and James, even when they are doing all kinds of sexual things to each other, actually quite cold. The subject matter of their discussions appeal to me on an intellectual level, but I don't find the so-called romance of James and Francis even a little romantic. They often come off like two repressed schoolteachers conducting hands-on experiments with each other and discussing the results as if they are trying to come up with a Nobel prize-winning thesis.
What really bogs this book down is the external subplot. While I'm glad there is no The Great Evil Homosexual Conspiracy plots here, Scandalous Lovers has some amped-up and ridiculously melodramatic drama involving James and Francis, plenty of self-recriminations, and a rather bewildering plot hole of a lawsuit subplot that frankly doesn't make much sense and is cartoonish to boot. The resolution is too convenient after all that joyless drama - insultingly so, come to think of it.
I really want to say I enjoy Scandalous Lovers but ultimately some fascinating discussions between the main characters can only go so far to make up for the melodramatic and overwrought external conflicts. Ms Schone's writing style has improved in that there is less one-word paragraphs, although there are still many one-sentenced paragraphs (short sentences, mind you). But I guess everyone has to start somewhere and hopefully, with Ms Schone's health apparently on the rebound, her future books will have a less rushed feel in the execution, and, more importantly, better planned and executed external plots. Oh, and a little bit of levity here and there to lighten up the angst will also be nice. It's just sex, after all, not the end of the world or anything.
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