Occasionally, I pick up a book to re-read. More often than not, it's because it's a book I loved, but sometimes it's a book that I felt failed for me. These are usually ones I read several years ago when I first began reading historical romances. After all my tastes have changed, my reading expectations have changed, and my ability to appreciate certain elements have changed. There have been a few books that I barely had the patience to finish but ended up really liking it after trying again. It's happened often enough that I continue choosing a reread every now and then. That's why I chose to re-read Wicked Angel. I have enjoyed many of Julia London's books since Wicked Angel so I felt it was time to give this one a second chance.
I'm not going to do a plot summary because the blurb really does an excellent summarization of what to expect. In a nutshell this is a book about "forbidden love". The hero, Alexander Christian, Duke of Sutherland, is engaged to marry Lady Marlaine to cement a family alliance but falls in love with Lauren Hill, a widowed countess of Bavaria.
I first read this in June 2008, and in looking at my journal notes it seems that my main problem then matches up with my main problem this time around although I am rating this a little higher this time simply because I truly enjoyed the first few chapters when the protagonists were just Lauren Hill and Alexander Christian. Lauren, in these chapters, seemed like an honest, kind, fun-loving heroine, and Alexander appeared to like the simple country life, to enjoy the antics Lauren, her wards, and Lucy the hog found themselves entangled in. He wasn't so careworn, tense, and filled with blind determination to blaze a selfish path of not just his own self destruction but the ruination of both Marlaine's and Lauren's lives as he is later. Instead he was carefree and just a simple country gentleman who meets and begins to fall in love with a lady who sees him and not his title. I liked both Lauren and Alexander a lot, and I was mentally smacking myself for rating this book so low.
But then ducal duty calls, he leaves Rosewood to return to London, and Lauren's nasty uncle forces her to go to London to find yet another rich husband. Nasty Uncle had married her off to a senile Bavarian count a few years ago and after the count died, she signed everything over to her husband's nephew, Magnus, and returned to Rosewood. Nasty Uncle emotionally blackmails her into submitting to marrying for wealth again and not love by threatening to remove the orphans she has cared for and loved. Nor will she be allowed to give the fortune back when dear old hubby sticks his spoon in the wall this time. So this sets up the expected meeting of the Duke of Sutherland and Countess Bergen in a setting far removed from the peaceful, idyllic, slightly rundown estate of Rosewood.
And it is here that Wicked Angel begins to lose steam for me. What the heck happened to these two very likable characters? In London, I was sure they had taken a dose of Dr. Jekyll's potion that changed both of them into a darker version of themselves. Here, they are selfish, strident, argumentative, uncaring, and stupid - the complete opposite of who they were initially. I know I didn't like either one very much. The way Alexander pursues Lauren, despite his genuine affection for his fiancée, was problematic as was the way Lauren suddenly decides that she "would do anything to know what it was to be loved by Alexander Christian." He constantly shifts from feelings of guilt and remorse because all he can think of is Lauren to what felt almost like sexual obsession for Lauren. He says he cares for Marlaine, yet he compares her to a faithful dog ( yes, a dog!) and feels alternately bored and restless around her. Quite the gentleman is Alexander. And Lauren puts up a very weak, ineffectual fight to Alexander's dogged pursuit of her. So many times I wished she would just turn off the water works when he said hurtful things and just clobber him over the head. Even after they agree to stay away from each other, he acts as if their agreement didn't happen, and she easily succumbs to his amorous advances.
"Dear God, she would be twenty-five years old in two months, and had never experienced that which her body ached to know. (...) She might never have this chance again, never in her life! Never would she love like this, and her one opportunity was slipping away with every clip-clop of the horses' hooves on the cobblestone. She would go to her grave desperate for the touch of the man she loved if she did not do something. Now." (229)
Is she really 24? Because to me that sounded suspiciously like an over dramatic teenager whose hormones have convinced her that it's now or never and she'll never feel this way for any other person. Worse even was how she later rationalizes her decision to ask him to make love to her.
"What she was thinking was decadent. Her thoughts could not be so very sinful, could they? She was a widow! Who would ever know? He was engaged! But he wasn't yet married. Was it really so terrible? Could the one experience, just one night, sentence her to eternal damnation? Did she bloody well care at the moment? She would never have a chance like this again - and she was willing to suffer the consequences."(229)
I've thought about why their actions bother me. I think it all boils down to this: I never believed for one moment that the feelings they both felt was love. Lust? Yes. Passion? Definitely. Attraction? Yep. But not love. They didn't even know each other very well and spent very little time together to get to know each other, either at Rosewood or later in London. I'm not saying that true love would excuse what either one of them did, but it would be a more believable motive for all the pain and hurt they caused not only to themselves but to others.
Alexander finally reaches a point of no return as regards Lady Marlaine and his engagement and breaks it off with her. But because he dithered back and forth so long and delayed facing reality, he hurt Marlaine more than was necessary and ruined Lauren's reputation. He just seemed so self-absorbed and selfish in all his interactions with both of them. (Honestly, he didn't have a monopoly on selfishness as Lauren was just as bad.) By this time, Lauren has returned to Rosewood and affianced herself to Magnus, her deceased husband's nephew. Alexander follows her, tells her he has broken the engagement, and wants her to marry him, but she refuses to break her engagement to Magnus and sends him back to London a very angry man. I was puzzled by her adamant resolve to marry Magnus. Was it truly a matter of honor for her? I'm not sure. She surely didn't see it that way when she expected Alexander to dump Marlaine as if it were as easy as changing waistcoats. Was there a bit of "see how it feels" on her part? Maybe. Or was it just a way to show the devastating effects Lauren and Alexander's bad behavior had on both their lives? Perhaps. Because I never got a bead on either Lauren or Alexander and their characters especially in London, I wasn't sure what the motivations were for either one of them.
One last thing that was troubling and problematic was the depth of Alexander's anger and vitriol toward Lauren when she refuses to break her engagement. It felt unjustified and out of proportion to me. Wasn't that the same thing that he refused to do for some 300 odd pages?
"Determined, he angrily grabbed her flailing arms and pinned her to the ground beneath him. 'Perhaps I was not persuasive enough,' he muttered bitterly, and crushed his lips to hers, kissing her fiercely. It caught him as much by surprise as it did her, and it unnerved him badly. He recoiled; even now the wicked little angel was capable of evoking a response, and that heightened his rage.
His loathing was suddenly like a river, running deep. Loathing of himself. For loving her. For being a damned slave to it. It frightened him; he would not have thought it possible to be brought to his knees, begging violently for the return of his affections." (333)
Still, she refuses, and just before he leaves, he consigns her to "rot in her little Bavarian hell for all he cared." Now, that is true love, is it not? When she chases after him to London after breaking with Magnus, what gave him the right to cut her in front of all those people who already thought she was a wanton who caused the wedding of the century to be cancelled? Was that a sign of his love and affection for her? Why would he refuse to listen to her? And Lauren makes a pitiful spectacle of herself, walking in front of his house every day at three, trying to work up the nerve to knock on his door. Blech! Just blech!
I'm glad I re-read Wicked Angel because the first part was quite good, and I was able to appreciate it more this time around. But 82 pages of really good just doesn't balance out the almost 300 dreadful pages thereafter. Still, I feel my 2008 rating/review was a little too harsh and unappreciative of the parts I liked so I'm raising it a bit.