The Lover by Robin Schone brings us a very unusual romantic hero, Michel des Anges, a male prostitute. Michel is tragically scarred both externally and internally. The heroine, Anne Aimes, is a 36-year-old spinster who hires Michel to take her virginity and give her a lifetime of memories. Together they are plunged into a maelstrom of pleasure and danger, in a complex gothic mix of erotic sex, suspense, horror and poignancy.
Linda: This month Blythe Barnhill (AAR's managing editor) is joining me as a guest columnist. Blythe, what a month you picked to join me! The Lover has to be one of the most discussed and controversial books on-line these days. Everyone seems to have an opinion.
Blythe: I agree with you there! Love it or hate it, The Lover is a book that definitely lends itself to discussion.
Linda: Well, much to my shock I loved it. The words people are using to describe Michel on-line are: "angsty," "scarred," "tortured," etc. These are not words I use to describe my favorite heroes. But, it is a credit to Schone that she could take a male prostitute and make him a true romantic hero. I was hooked from page one, and even though a few scenes pushed my "yuck" or "squirm" buttons, I couldn't put it down.
Blythe: I found The Lover a smooth read, and I was pretty engaged, especially towards the end when there is more action - and less sex. But overall I can't say I enjoyed it much. Part of the reason is definitely that "yuck" factor!
Linda: This one is definitely not for the squeamish. I'm very sensitive in this area and even though some scenes made me squirm, I loved the book - it's going firmly on my keeper shelf. I fell in love with Michel des Anges; his expertise with women came from his own genuine need, even though he was a prostitute. I also admired the heroine, Anne Aimes. To see a 36-year-old spinster have the courage to reach out for something she longed to experience was just marvelous. Particularly considering the strictures on women in her time. The needs that these two very different people had were remarkably similar in the end.
Blythe: I don't think I had anything against Anne and Michel separately. I found Michel the more interesting of the two; I've never seen a male prostitute as a hero. But somehow I had trouble seeing them as a real life couple that would live happily ever after. It seemed like they might just have a couple of weeks of hot sex and then go their separate ways.
Linda: I disagree - I thought they would stay together. I didn't see them having children because of their ages, but I think that they were two halves of a whole. Each filled the aching loneliness in the other. When they rode off together I believed they would be together forever. I would also love to see a book about Michel's long time friend Gabriel, truly an enigmatic and interesting character - it would be fun to see what type of woman could ease his pain.
Blythe: I guess I never really got the sense that they shared anything besides sex, maybe because they didn't do much else in the book. It was hard for me to picture them dealing with daily living, or engaging in any hobbies. Maybe sex was their hobby? <g> But I do agree that Gabriel was an interesting character. I would like to have heard a little more about him.
Linda: It's hard to discuss much of the plot of this one without giving away real spoilers. It's a real genre bender - kind of an erotic, gothic thriller. I am going to recommend it to my friend who only reads horror and sci-fi and doesn't read romance. She will love it! Some of the sex made me squirm but it did not bother me like some authors' work has.
The villain here is so over the top, though, that gothic is the only word that fits him. Similar to Laurence Olivier's character in the movie Marathon Man, this villain is pure evil. What did you think of this mysterious villain, Blythe?
Blythe: He was certainly evil enough - totally vile. I don't think I quite understood the dynamic between the villain and Michel, however. Michel seems so powerless until the end, and I didn't really see why he wasn't more proactive. Why does he sit around just waiting for something to happen? And why doesn't he warn Anne that her life might be in danger?
Linda: I think that he was so scarred by both his childhood and his inability to save a previous lover (Diana) that he was just frozen. His guilt over Diana's suffering and death was palpable. Perhaps he felt he deserved to die, because he couldn't save her. The difference in Michel's actions to protect Anne at the beginning of the story is so different from his actions at the end. He seemed to feel through much of the book that their deaths were inevitable, and perhaps even a release from both of their miserable lives. The only explanation for his change is that he came to care for Anne and begin to believe that they both had a right to live. To watch this man - whose physical scars were nothing compared to the emotional ones - begin to feel and care about Anne was both poignant and believable to me.
Blythe: Okay, I can see why he might be willing to sacrifice himself, because he definitely had a lot of guilt. But even if he hadn't become intimate with Anne, she was still an innocent bystander. I think he should have been more concerned for her welfare. She had a right to know what was going on. Towards the end, Anne leaves Michel's home. It's an act that puts her life in danger, and it's almost a cliché in historicals with a suspense sub-plot. In any other book I would have thought of her as too stupid to live, but here she has no idea what could happen to her.
Linda: Well, he should have warned her, but I think his inaction was part of his overall despair. I think one could describe Michel as clinically depressed and inaction is a characteristic of that condition. He ultimately took action to protect Anne, but I agree, he should have given her some sense of the danger she was in. Anne was a sensible and intelligent woman and wouldn't have endangered herself knowingly. But Michel has kept completely to himself; he never fully trusted anyone, not even Gabriel. So, it made sense that he wouldn't tell Anne. This plot, of course, stretches credulity, as do most gothic or horror stories. One always has to enter into the author's world and go along for the ride. The ride this time was fascinating and I was on the edge of my chair reading as fast as I could through parts of it. Schone is very good at building suspense and keeping the reader engaged.
Blythe: You're right - most gothic/horror stories have a lot of melodrama to them, and you've got to really abandon yourself to the spirit of the book if you are really going to enjoy it. And it is interesting that Michel redeems himself, at least in part, through sex. But through it all I just couldn't decide what I was reading. Was it romance? Erotica? A little of both?
Linda: I think Schone definitely pushes the envelope, but to me this book is undoubtedly a romance. It has all of the requisites: great hero, love story, and a happy ending. Also, I think the sex was very carefully integrated into the story. There is a real story here, not just padding between sex scenes, which differs from most of what passes for erotica.
Blythe: I don't typically read books with "burning" sensuality, but I didn't really find the sex here offensive. However, it wasn't exactly sexy to me either. It definitely pushes the envelope, but a lot of it just struck me funny when I tried to picture actual people saying the things these two said to each other.
Also, while the heroine is a mature woman, she is also a virgin. It was a little hard for me to believe that she went from virgin to "bananas" in something like three days. What did you think?
Linda: I felt that she was very open to the experiences with Michel. It was well set up with her interior dialogue about reading medical texts and her fantasies. She was a virgin from lack of opportunity and society's strictures and was ready to finally experience what she had been dreaming about. Michel was certainly creative. I don't think I will ever look at bananas or chocolate quite the same way <g>, but because his need was also great, it was very sensual and not debasing. This wasn't a quick or forced lustful coupling. This was a mature woman who set out to experience, in the arms of the man she had admired at age 18, what life had denied her.
Blythe: Schone did a write byte for AAR about pushing the envelope in this way, and there was a lot of disagreement about it. Many people love her blatant sexuality; others thought she was doing it for the hype. I found myself agreeing more with the latter viewpoint.
Linda: What is interesting is that with all of the hot, kinky and creative sex scenes in this book, it is Michel, not the sex, who is being discussed on-line. His need, pain and personality just grab you from the first page and you just want to stick with it to see if he can find some happiness. I would never have guessed that I could come to love a man with Michel's past, but I did. Schone has written a tour de force here with this wonderful man. I also loved Anne's willingness to flout her society in a bid to experience a part of life denied her.
Blythe: There's a real story somewhere in The Lover, but I think the love scenes and sexy talk get top billing. Because I found them more amusing than anything else, it seemed like they detracted from the romance. However, I would like to know more about Gabriel's background. I am sure his life was more hellish than Michel's (even with the worms). But I'm not sure I want to read about him if I have to wade through X-rated talk and creative sex with food.
Linda: Oh heck, I kind of liked the creative use of food and other items. As far as the sexy chatter, I loved it. It was fun to meet two mature people who openly discussed their wants and needs. Also, Michel made me laugh.
I'd like to encourage Schone to write about Gabriel. We never found out what drove him into the streets at 13, just tantalizing glimpses. I even have a title - Gabriel's Angel. He is so fascinating, and it would be fun to see Anne and Michel down the road and see if I was right that they were made for each other.
Perhaps Schone could take a page from Jo Beverley's book and we can all acquire "waiting for Gabriel" buttons?
Blythe: Have you read Schone's other books? If not, do you want to read them now?
Linda: I haven't read the others, The Lady's Tutor is in the To Be Read pile and I will move it up. Someone just found the very hard-to-find Awaken, My Love for me and I am looking forward to reading it. To sum up, Michel des Anges is a hero who I will remember and the book definitely goes on my keeper shelf.
Blythe how would you sum up your view of The Lover?
Blythe: I liked parts of it, like the tormented hero Michel and his mysterious friend Gabriel. Lovers of very steamy romance may really enjoy it. But it's not for the faint of heart, and I think perhaps I am too faint.
Also, I'm not sure if it's a spoiler, but I think people should know that this book has worms. Serious worms. And this bothered me more than the sometimes-silly sex. If your reaction was similar to mine, I think I can guess which scene you might want to pass over on your next read.
Linda: I might not be too faint, but you're right that is one scene I'll skim for sure. I finished this book about 2 am and I dreamed of those danged worms. I guess it is a bit of a spoiler, but I don't think even being warned about them would diminish their impact. I was just totally jolted and I really squirmed. I guess we should mention though, that the worms were one of the few things not used for sex <g>. Even though I did experience some uncomfortable moments while reading The Lover, its hero more than compensated for them.
Next month in what will be a real change of pace, Blythe and I are reading Mary Jo Putney's first contemporary book, The Burning Point. This is a new direction for Putney, whose historicals are extremely popular. I am looking forward to discussing it with you, Blythe.
Blythe: I'm definitely a fan. I loved her Fallen Angel books, and Shattered Rainbows is probably my all time favorite romance. I am definitely curious to see her take on the contemporary romance.
Linda: I have always found Putney's story-telling abilities and characters wonderful, so I'm also looking forward to next month. Glad you will be able to join me, Blythe.
Blythe: Me too, I'm looking forward to it.
--Blythe Barnhill and Linda Hurst, with assistance from Sandi Morris, for
-- Pandora's Box
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