The Edge of Impropriety is the second book I've read by Pam Rosenthal though it was the fourth romance Ms. Rosenthal wrote. (Has she written any others since The Edge of Impropriety, I wonder?) I knew it was going to be an interesting reading experience to compare her debut novel, Almost A Gentleman, with one she wrote several years and a couple of books later because that first book, though disappointing in many respects and so satisfyingly edgy in other ways, demonstrated these tantalizing glimmers of brilliance in her prose and an eagerness to take the romance genre to new and exciting places. I have to admit I loved almost everything about this one beginning with a much older than expected hero and heroine (forty-seven and thirty-six years old respectively), the stubborn resiliency of the heroine to live an unapologetic life, the hero's complexity, the way the underlying message here sparked thoughts afterward about issues not just on the 'happy ever after', secondary characters who appear all the more real for their flaws and unsympathetic characteristics, and sex scenes that blistered my fingertips and brought blushes to my cheeks. Or maybe flushes is the better word. Yep, there was that, too.
Marina Wyatt, Countess of Gorham, is known as 'The Beautiful Bluestocking of Brook Street', an author of Society novels like The Tale of Farringdon and her latest, Parrey: A Gentleman, which, despite sounding like the beginning of too many romance novel clichés, serves more as a jumping off point to getting to know Marina. In the beginning it's through her writer's persona and imagination that Marina's self-discipline, sense of humor, her innate sensuality as natural to her as breathing, her amazing strength of will, and resiliency begins to shine through - the drool that drops onto a page of proofs dealing with a character's lobster salad, a nod to aging eyes in the way she squints to the see the print, her determination to arise early to begin her work despite a late night spent with a 'handsome, shallow, grateful young man' making her feel all of her thirty-six years.
Count the pages instead of the years, she exhorted herself. Divide them into the number of minutes. . . (18)
Marina is a woman of lusty appetites - for food and sex, obviously, which she embraces fully, even as she constantly strives to maintain her independence. It had been, after all, hard-won freedom of sorts and very much worth fighting for and protecting. For all that she has these worthy, admirable and sympathetic characteristics, Marina is also an intriguing blend of cynical and secret romantic - a little like an M&M with a hard candy shell of cynicism wrapped around a soft chocolate center of romantic ideals. After all, a poor Irish girl doesn't get to the point of being a very popular, sought-after (not to mention successful author) Countess without a herculean struggle between there and here. Lady Gorham, the writer, entices her readers with a love story, but Marina 'avoids passion' and eschews all that 'yearning emotional stuff', and never, ever, confuses pleasure with passion.
. . .she took what sustenance she could before plunging into the love story that finished off her book - her readers' moral price of admission to the witty, wealthy, wicked, and highly exclusive world they trusted Lady Gorham to guide them through.
A pity, she thought, that she couldn't skip the next few pages of prosy sentimentality - or cut its sweetness by sipping a mug of porter as she worked. (18)
Pleasure sans passion is easily found with all those shallow young men who revel in her voluptuousness and celebrity but pleasure and passion intersect in very interesting ways between Marina and Jasper Hedges. (I love that name, Jasper, despite its unfortunate link to the Twilight series. For me, it sounds exotic and powerful.) I really, really loved that Jasper is much older than most heroes in romances, that he's so very brainy but also socially inept (sounds awfully nerdy, doesn't he?), that he wears spectacles, that he genuinely loves Sydney, his niece, and that he yearns to connect with, forge a real relationship, with Anthony, his son, though the two are like oil and water. Anthony is frivolous, handsome, fashionable, and not one bit interested in antiquities or museums as his "Uncle Jasper" is.
'The old gentleman’s a crab, a curmudgeon. A skinflint, a cranky, crotchety, reclusive eccentric whose only amusements are digging up rusty old Roman coins on the estate and penning tedious monographs. Only comes to town to set the British Museum straight on some fine point pertaining to antiquities.'
'He hates gossip, and he’s too high-minded to read anything penned during the last two millennia.'
Her mouth twisted. 'No novels, then.'
'Never. And as for women, I think he cares only for those carved out of marble.'
She had to laugh. 'You make me envision him in rusty breeches and a moldering periwig.'
He laughed too. 'Well, he’s not very elegant, with dirt on his shoes and ink stains all over his cuffs. But”—he lifted his chin, to great decorative effect—“ there’s nothing for it. I shall simply have to limit our meetings without severing our ties. And you have helped me, Marina, by sharing my confidences and making sport of him with me . . .' (23-24)
One thing I've learned is that the 'erotic' tag certainly fits Pam Rosenthal's style of 'historical romances.' Sex in the three books I've read thus far has not been dull, boring, or wallpaper-ish. Not even for a minute did I want to skim and skip. Instead physical relationships are boisterous, funny, energetic, messy, smelly, sweaty, angry, sometimes painful, and a bit kinky. Boots are hard to remove, stays get knotted and tangled, arms and legs get in the way, and sometimes it's just damned awkward. What's not to love there? Like the fisting in Almost A Gentleman, or the bit of BDSM and role playing in The Slightest Provocation (as well as one of the most interestingly detailed oral sex scenes I've ever read), or the anal sex in The Edge of Impropriety that very nearly scorched my eyebrows. Frankly, I had a powerful craving for postcoital nicotine or a short little nap. Maybe both. Jasper, thank goodness, has some surprising proclivities.
Jasper and Marina's relationship relies heavily on midnight trysts that really don't provide opportunity to learn about each other other than physically. In fact, it's not until the last third of the book that they really begin that process. Though I did enjoy their play time, a little more interaction outside Marina's bedroom would have made this a nearly perfect book. One of the few times they interact socially was such a great scene. Marina and Jasper dance at the Withers-Amory costume ball with Marina in black lace as a Spanish lady (and a bruise on her breast that only the two of them know about) and Jasper as a 'well-dressed Englishman' complete with a slate blue waistcoat.
He bowed to Marina, and she swept down before him in an all-too-quick flash of white skin and black lace. If you didn’t know the almost-faded little bruise was there, you wouldn’t. Good luck, then, that he did know exactly where to look for it.
What a lot of business went on before a dance could quite get started. And what a surprise for a reclusive type like himself to find himself enjoying the formalities, the claiming of place and partner within the assembled participants. One didn’t dance in secret, shamed, midnight solitude. One lined up with one’s partner in everyone’s full view, under the bright lights of the chandeliers. One smiled, nodded, gathered one’s energies at one’s center, and waited to be swept into action upon the beat of the music.
What a beautiful smile she had.
Was he ashamed of their secret midnights? (207)
Their lack of knowledge of each other is one thing that separates them when Gerry Rackham, a truly vile villain who knows of Marina's past and who has been, of course, blackmailing Marina for years, is found suffocated in his rooms from a stopped up chimney. Rackham's little black memorandum book has lots of well-known, well-placed personages in it including not only Marina's name but Jasper's as well. Rackham bought and sold information on everybody much like ravens collect and covet shiny objects, using that information to line his pockets. Or in Marina's case, using her past to bind her to him in the only way he had. Rackham's death is a multi-faceted catalyst - separating Marina and Jasper yet ironically granting her freedom to 'simply live' as she hasn't been able to before.
Perhaps this reeling, buzzing confusion was what freedom actually felt like.
Simply. Live. Pull a thread from a carefully woven pattern and the pattern threatened to fray into mystery. Sturdy, everyday words like simply and live began to buzz, shimmer, fragment into multiple meanings.
She wanted Jasper to tell her she was beautiful in her new print gown and beautiful without it. And then she wanted him to say . . .
But there she was, wanting the impossible again. And the truly awful thing about a little freedom was that suddenly it made you unable to distinguish between what was impossible and what might be possible after all. (259-260)
Rackham's death leads Bow Street to Jasper and Jasper to suspect Marina of betraying him regarding a rare Greek antiquity and an attempted burglary which placed his niece in harm's way. Marina, in turn, is wounded by Jasper's lack of trust and her acknowledgment of this signals clearly he has not fallen in love with her as she has him. The moment of confrontation between them is all the more poignant and heartbreaking for Marina at that point.
She motioned him to sit by her on the sofa. He sat as far away from her as possible, the space between their bodies an impassable gulf.
And all the wild little hopes she’d pretended not to be cherishing began to shrivel as though burned by a night of sudden frost.
She could read it in his face. Not everyone would, she thought. You had to have an eye for how his jaw trembled when he was angry, the way he tried to keep himself from gnawing at his lip. Not everybody would know how to interpret those signals.
“Well,” he said, “I haven’t gotten much help from the magistrates about my burglary. But I have found out a few things about a certain extortioner.”
Spoken contemptuously, coldly, and distantly. His eyes flickering, hands gripping his knees.
She could only be thankful that she hadn’t really allowed herself to hope.
She suddenly felt very weary, even cross with herself. How stupid, she thought, to have fallen in love with a man while watching him tie a little girl’s hair ribbon. Or had it been the spread of his shoulders when he’d put his hands in the pockets of his rumpled coat?
Thoughts, ideas, flashes of wit, and one need hardly mention the lovemaking. But, yes, it had been the way he’d looked at her, made her feel some very deep sense of herself. Her selves, perhaps—Maria, Marina—she was seized by a vision of a procession, as though on a marble frieze, of the girls and women she’d made of herself as she’d made her way through a complicated, cruel, dangerous, and (for all that) still beautiful world.
The frightening question was whether he could bear to know it as well.
The answer didn’t seem likely to be yes.
She felt something go hard within her. Felt it, heard it: the dull, hollow echo of a gate slamming shut.
Nonsense. She’d heard nothing and she’d say nothing. For what, really, could one say of the foolish fancies she’d been entertaining? See, the fancies were gone already.(260-262)
That he had to ask if she betrayed him sends her defenses back up in full force, shutting off her vulnerability to hurt and returns her to the cynical Marina, Lady Gorham he first met.
And anyway, she should be grateful to him for having taught her to use language more correctly. Always an important thing if you weren’t really a native speaker of the conqueror’s English. Fuck: Well, she’d certainly learned that, in all its varieties.
While as for love: Perhaps this experience might help her simulate the emotion more usefully in the future. (262)
But even in her darkest, most painful place, she finds mercy and forgiveness for Jasper's mistrust. Past betrayals - hers and his - play such an important function in this conversation. Her father's betrayal of her innocence by trying to sell her to a 'brutal English officer' was her 'bit of the middle of nowhere' that led to 'a thousand somewheres' - a little piece of celebrity as a novelist and a member of society. Jasper's betrayal by his sister-in-law and resultant inability to know and acknowledge Anthony as his son was his 'nowhere' that connected to his 'somewhere', his love for antiquities and his niece. He endured the loss of his son by showering all his pent-up love onto Sydney, his beloved niece, so it was natural that he would be viciously and ruthlessly protecting her innocence.
Jasper, too, shows an unstinting compassion toward Rackham when he learns Rackham's motives behind forcing Marina to show up in his stuffy offices every month. Jasper feels a deep sympathy with a man, no matter how vile he may have been, who loved Marina unflinchingly and did whatever he could to ensure she never quite disappeared from his life. Their reactions made me think about compassion, forgiveness, sympathy, pride in a different way. Marina's quest to be a better human being is reflected in the postscript of her letter to Jasper laying out her past brutally and honestly but has nothing to do with her hardships. Instead she challenges him to think of the injustices in the larger world and, in turn, made me wonder about a world where countries plunder other countries and subjugate the people.
In the letter she’d handed him, there’d been an oddly angry postscript. Not about herself, the hard life she’d lived as a girl, the insults to her dignity, the vain, vicious, traitorous father she still seemed to weep over. All that stuff had been bad enough, and made him feel stupid for not understanding who she was and who she’d always been beneath the grace, the wit, and the finery—had let him know how entirely inadequate he’d been to the formidable task of loving her, if it hadn’t been too late for that anyway.
The postscript, though, was more formal and abstract: couched as a little lecture to gentlemen like himself, a warning against the dangers of imagining themselves and their nation heir to the glories of long ago and far away. It might make an interesting experiment, she’d written, for such a worthy gentleman to take a closer look at the day-to-day business of keeping order in a troublesome little island just west of a choppy green sea—to forgo the glories of past and future empire and instead to look to today and what empire had cost the men (and particularly the women) who were its victims. (291)
Not many romances can accomplish what The Edge of Impropriety did or evoke all the emotions I felt while reading it. But, after an awful reading slump, I'm more hopeful that there are other writers like Pam Rosenthal who will surprise me with complex, character-driven stories, who deliver hours of reading pleasure in the way she pushes the boundaries of the genre in fascinatingly satisfying ways, who can make me see the world around me in a different way. In the meantime, I have one more unread Pam Rosenthal book in my TBR stack that I can't wait to read.