Pandora's Box

To Please A Lady

Susan Johnson
1999, European Historical Romance (Early 1700s Scotland)
Bantam, $7.50, 352 pages, Amazon ASIN 0553578669
Part of a series

Grade: N/A
Sensuality: N/A

There is a staff review of this book as well

To Please a Lady, by Susan Johnson, the sequel to Outlaw, is set in Scotland in 1705, a time when considerable political gamesmanship went on between England and Scotland. Caught in the middle is the Scottish Earl, Robbie Carre, the 18-year-old brother of the hero in Outlaw, and Roxanne, the widowed Countess of Kilmarnock. Roxanne, who remains quite beautiful even after the birth of five children, is pursued by many powerful men in Scotland and England. How can Robbie win Roxanne in light of her other, and more powerful suitors? How can he, with his youth and quicksilver temperment, be a good husband to her and father for her children, the oldest of which is only five years younger than himself? How can he be taken seriously when her children view him as a delightful playmate? How can he convince her of his long-lasting love when sexually adventuresome, widowed, and married women throw themselves at the impetuous, impulsive Robbie?

Carol:  Linda, have you read Susan Johnson before?

Linda:  Yes, but I didn't finish either of the two books I tried.

Carol:  I've read most of her novels and some I've liked a great deal, like Outlaw and Wicked. Then I read A Touch of Sin, which I reviewed here at AAR. I gave it an F.

Linda:  All the books I've tried by her in the past have been wallbangers.

Carol:  Well, I'd make her last novel, A Touch of Sin, a wallbanger, and TPAL is definitely better than that one.

Linda:  Lukewarm? A "C"?

Carol:  I am going to have difficulty grading it because what I consider a problem some readers may consider an improvement. The problem for me is that by toning herself down so much, she has lost what was unique about her writing. Johnson is known for sexually explicit books just a smidgen removed from outright erotica. Her characters behave in ways that some readers may find offensive yet others will find realistic. I found these early novels and their characters very realistic. If she gave you a rake of a hero, you saw him "in action," so to speak. You would also find him talking in a way one wouldn't speak in a drawing room. He uses the offensive language that you wouldn't usually see in a romance book but that one might expect a dissolute, often drunk, laird to use. I liked this about Johnson's novels because when she reformed a hero, I could see him really moving from a dissipated life to a loving, monogamous life. In TPAL she tells he was like that instead of showing it in detail as she did in earlier works. This was a big loss for me.

Linda:  "Unique" is one word for her writing, I can think of others, less complimentary. "Rake of a hero" isn't the description I would use for her heroes. The guy in the Russian one I read was a total jerk from day one to the end of the book, I think that was Seized by Love. "Hero" is a big stretch for that lowlife - protagonist would be a better description.

Carol:  Is it the actual scenes of sexual dissipation with women other than the heroine which turned you off Johnson's Seized by Love?

Linda:  No, it was his behavior. He seduced an innocent woman, who he knew was married to a brute, on a dare. Then he abandoned her and left her to meet her husband's wrath. After the hubby almost beat her to death, he "rescued" her and she became his "love slave/mistress." A real jerk! At least TPAL has a nicer hero.

Carol:  But that is the crux of the problem I have with TPAL. Robbie Carre is a likable guy starting on page one, when Johnson's heroes are usually in big need of reform. The worst thing you can say about Robbie is that he is impetuous and young. In fact, I liked him better than the heroine from the beginning and that has never happened to me in a Johnson book before.

Linda:  The beginning of this book is a mess. Johnson shows a bit of arrogance here in assuming the reader has read Outlaw. If you read the first book, you knew what was going on. If you hadn't read her previous book, you wouldn't have a clue. There is no introduction of the characters, no explanation of the "lawsuit" and why Robbie is an outlaw, etc. This book cries out for a prologue. Perhaps we can blame the lack of one on Johnson's editor, but I spent the first third of the book trying to figure out what the heck was going on. Her introduction of the characters is totally lacking. They just show up and start talking. I couldn't figure out how they were related to each other until later in the story. I don't like having to work so hard to keep up with a plot line. I want to kick back and be carried away.

Carol:  Well, it is a good thing for our readers then that one of us read Outlaw and one didn't. Outlaw is my absolute favorite book of Johnson's so I could pick up the new one without any problem. I think you are telling readers that they better read Outlaw first. Let me say that in comparing the two, my earlier points are perfectly illustrated. In Outlaw, the hero, Johnnie, is dissipation personified from page one. Falling in love with the heroine is something he fights against from the beginning because he doesn't want to give up living his life on the seamy side.

Linda:  Yes, definitely, read Outlaw first. The impression the beginning of TPAL creates is that you are starting in the middle of the book. TPAL is more of a continuation than a sequel. TPAL also seriously stretched the "believability" quotient for me.

Carol:  How so?

Linda:  The hero is eighteen and acts it. The heroine is older, has five kids - one of whom is just five years younger than the hero. Yet, Johnson expects us to believe Roxanne is still so ravishing and thin that all the men are salivating just by looking at her. After five kids! I think it must be Johnson's fantasy. Also, I just couldn't get past the hero's age. I have boys 17 and 23 and I know their friends - nobody over the age of 20 would want an affair with any of them! I just couldn't relate to this couple at all.

Carol:  We are on the same wavelength here; I did wonder about Roxie's ravishing good looks at that stage in life after having had five children at a time when most women would be lucky to survive childbirth that many times.

Linda:  Exactly. And, I found her to be unlikable and irresponsible.

Carol:  I never believed that he was less than 25 even with the impetuous, impulsive side of him constantly on display.

Linda:  If Johnson had made him 25, I might have liked it more.

Carol:  Our readers are going to ask though, if a man might have matured earlier in 1705. What do you think about that?

Linda:  If you can put aside your present day knowledge of eighteen-year-olds, probably. I have had this problem before. In one of Jo Beverley's short stories, there is a sixteen-year-old heroine and a hero in his early 30's - I just could never root for them. I think buying into an older/younger story is very much determined by the youngest person's age. Teens are much different from someone in their mid-twenties.

Carol:  I don't have children, so imagining this may be easier for me, but, even then, it is hard for me to believe all the extreme, dissolute living he had done by age 18.

Linda:  Robbie is so impulsive and boyish that I felt like she was adopting him rather than marrying him.

But, that is a minor quibble here. To me, this book is just a muddled mess. The plot jumps all around and people just come and go with no introduction at all. In addition she uses all of my least favorite plot devices - including the dreaded Big Misunderstanding, followed by the equally noxious Separation. Their infidelity to each other took much of the romance out of their story for me too. Not much of a love story really - more of a lust story!

Carol:  I like the younger man-older woman concept but I thought it worked infinitely better in Judith Ivory's Sleeping Beauty with a 37-year-old former courtesan and a 30-year-old college professor-African explorer. I had no problem in believing that story and that twosome at all.

Linda:  Absolutely - I loved that book. He had enough maturity to make it believable and romantic. If Robbie had been 25, I think I would have had fewer problems buying them as a couple. But, part of why I didn't buy them is Johnson's presentation of them. They just appear with no explanation of who they are on the second or third pages of the book and jump into bed when he seduces her with a beautiful necklace. This made her seem more like a mistress or courtesan that would get dumped for the "sweet young miss." It is up to the author to "sell" this couple to us and she didn't make the sale with me.

Carol:  When you mention the plot, the plot is their romance. First it is Robbie saving Roxie from these other, unwanted political suitors and then it is Big Misunderstanding Time till the end. The plotting needed work. Outlaw didn't have this problem. They had very real problems to confront there. Her father was a major villain in Outlaw and the couple is driven out of Scotland by all of the people who are after them. There is even a time when she might die while they are on the run when he actually prays for her life. You see a major transformation in him. Yet TPAL is all about a Big Misunderstanding and I agree with you: I hate the Big Misunderstanding as a plot device.

Linda:  In my opinion this is the major problem with TPAL, she assumes you know the entire plot in Outlaw.

I want a love story to be a love story. Big Misunderstandings and long Separations take the couple away from each other and reveal unattractive traits in both of them. I had many of problems with the heroine. She has five children and is supposed to be consumed with worry about them. Yet, she carries on recklessly with Robbie. When the couple are at the hunting lodge and one of their English enemies takes her children away, it was entirely predictable. I thought it showed total irresponsibility on her part. Heck, she is carrying on with Robbie at the beginning of the book, with the enemy downstairs, her mother-in-law on the warpath and her kids down the hall. Not a responsible woman at all. Also, the end seems pasted on - just too pat for me. Kind of like the author thinking, "Oh, I finished the required number of pages, let's wrap it up."

Carol:  Linda, you reminded me of one item that may be of huge importance to our readers: the characters being with other people during a separation, although in this book it is off-screen, so to speak. In her other books you see it onscreen, in detail. I think you're saying you don't like them being unfaithful either off-screen or onscreen yet this has been a major device in Johnson's earlier works which leads to the hero's reformation. This is what I liked about her earlier works. You are saying that you hate this facet of her books and that this author is a bad choice for you based on that alone. For me, if she can make it work within the context of the story, I like it.

Linda:  It is one of the reasons I don't care for her - I want them to be in love and faithful, even if separated. I can deal with the hero, as part of a reformation being a rake - but after he meets the heroine I prefer monogamy. I have an even harder time with the heroine, in a time with no birth control, being promiscuous. Roxanne seemed more of a courtesan than a heroine to me.

Carol:  You've brought up two points here, both of which interest me:

  1. We differ on the hero and monogamy; I find it very realistic that a rake would try out another woman or two before he really faces the fact that love was missing from his other assignations, making his "rakish" behavior not worth it any longer.
  2. Birth control; here you and I are in total agreement. Johnson shows withdrawal as a 100% effective means of birth control when we know it is not. She also depicts widowed and married women as safe from pregnancy as an automatic kind of thing because the book needs them to remain unpregnant. It is ludicrous and I cannot suspend disbelief to that extent.

Linda:  It is more realistic that he goes back to his mistress or other women - but it is not romantic! I read these books for Romance and fantasy. I much prefer a scene where the hero goes to his mistress and is unable to do the deed. I like to watch his dismay and frustration. Maybe that isn't as realistic, but it certainly is romantic, and can often be funny as well.

While lack of fidelity is not a favorite plot point, I can tolerate it if the couple is not married. I just cannot tolerate adultery, which wasn't an issue with this book.

I did like Robbie though - he was brash and romantic and fun. I just didn't like him with this heroine. Roxanne was much too old and jaded for him. Put him with a sweet young miss and I might have loved the couple.

Carol:  I have to disagree with you, Linda. I hate reading a scene where a hero in his 20's or 30's is rendered impotent because he's in love with someone other than the woman he's with at the moment. When a man is as young as this, he needs very little stimulation to arouse him. I'll take the reality of the rake and his easy decline into dissipation any day over this romantic conceit of the author's.

Linda:  LOL, I love it because the man's reaction to his sudden impotence can be so funny. He is frustrated, to say the least. Especially because he isn't ready to admit that he was in love with the heroine. I also think that if the hero knows what his feelings are, there might be an element of guilt that could easily make him unable to perform.

Carol:  I've heard other readers complain about Johnson's footnoting her novels. Do the footnotes bother you, Linda?

Linda:  I think her footnotes are obnoxious. They pull me out of the story. I don't want to stop and go read something at the end of the book, it totally disrupts the flow. Of course, in this one, footnotes on the front page telling me what the heck was going on would have been appreciated.

Carol:  In some of her novels, I've found the footnotes interesting. In others, I find they cover such obscure points that I wonder what they're doing in a romance novel. In this one, I found the political situation confusing in the novel and thus used the footnotes to make up that deficit. However, I would prefer an author's somehow getting those details into the story line instead so I don't have to flip back and forth. I think Johnson wrote hotter sex scenes in her earlier novels and she didn't want all that historical detail to interfere. Hence, the use of footnotes. Now that she's so much tamer in sexual style, separating the history from the narrative no longer seems necessary.

Linda:  Have you ever found any material in those footnotes that made them fascinating, "must read" material?

Carol:  In earlier novels, she did relate details about birth control. I remember reading in several of them footnotes about the women's using sponges as contraceptives. In another, I read about a very early version of a condom. Yes, this material can be very interesting. In this novel, however, she provides no details about withdrawal as a contraceptive although it is used throughout the story. I think this may be because the facts wouldn't fit with what's in the novel.

Linda:  Boy, isn't that the truth. It has to be the least reliable method of birth control and relies completely on a man's ability to control himself. I also found it silly that the heroine and other older women were somehow immune from pregnancy because they were widows or mistresses. Perhaps it would have been more believable if she had mentioned those "methods" you cited from her previous footnotes. Especially since these women were presented as sexual jades with plenty of experience.

Carol:  Not to get too yucky here, Linda, but what I've read about withdrawal is that a man can think he's been a total success and a model of self control and still fail with this "contraceptive" method.

Linda:  The world is populated with people who are the result of birth control failures. I am a "rhythm system" baby myself.

Carol: I think I like realism more than you do in romance books but our readers are divided over this issue. Some want the realism and some don't. However, both of us are having problems with characterization and plot despite our coming at this from different directions.

Linda:  You touched on her use of language earlier. I don't care much for the language, but I also discovered something else about myself as I read this book.

Carol:  What was this?

Linda:  I like euphemisms - I like the author saying "he parted the petal-like folds and touched the pearl nestled there." I don't like "he stuck in a third finger and touched her mons." Sounds painful to me and not romantic. But, you are right - I like my historicals cleaned up and less realistic. The more realistically women are treated in a historical, the less I like it.

Carol:  I am ROTFLMAO because we are so different on this! I came to romance reading from mainstream and mainstream is very dirty and gritty. Thus, I find Johnson too "cleaned up," especially in this book. So we are divided on this realism-romance issue but we are both unsatisfied with this novel despite those differing preferences.

Linda:  Exactly. I came to Romance from reading English Country House mysteries. Peter Wimsey would never stick in a finger and touch her mons! I did like the lower heat factor in this book, the other Johnson books I read were too much for me. Nevertheless, that is a matter of personal taste, not right or wrong. Johnson falls into the same category as Dara Joy as far as the heat factor goes. Yet Joy makes me like the hero so much, that I just love it. They are very hot, but also very romantic. They leave you in a warm puddle, as one of my friends puts it.

Carol:  The heat in TPAL is less than Johnson's other books, no question. I liked Outlaw better because it wasn't toned down and because it had me crying my eyes out toward the end. That is the ultimate test for me: does the author totally, emotionally, grab me? If yes, then I'm in Desert Isle Keeper territory.

Linda:  How about Dara Joy?

Carol:  I like Joy and have enjoyed the two books of hers I've read but emotionally she doesn't reduce me to tears. Outlaw did that for me but TPAL didn't.

Linda:  I think Johnson flunks the emotional question too. Did you even care if they got back together, Carol? By the end of this muddle, I just wanted it to end. I want a Happily Ever After ending. However, it has to be believable, not tacked on. This one flunks on that count too.

Carol:  So I think we are both saying "thumbs down," in effect. You do realize that another AAR reviewer has given this book an A- with DIK status, right?

Linda:  No, I didn't know that, but reviews are subjective. I also think she must have read Outlaw first - I didn't. The first third of this book makes little sense if you haven't. I would give it a thumbs down, but it doesn't reach Wallbanger depths. Your first comment about having a lukewarm rating is about right. It just falls into that vast netherworld of books that I forget a week after reading them.

Ok, Carol, you can summarize first since you liked more about it than I did.

Carol:  I'm not sure about that. The only reason I'm considering keeping it is that it is the sequel to a book I love. But here goes:

I find TPAL to be written by a vastly toned down version of the Susan Johnson I used to love. It is lacking in the realism and sexual explicitness that my favorite books by her include. It does, however, feature infidelity, as do many of her earlier books. If you hated her earlier realism and level of sexual explicitness, you might like this book more than I did. This is basically a book of two people who start off the book in love and end up in love with only some Big Misunderstandings serving as the rest of the book. I never got involved - I never cared. I was glad when it was over. It doesn't even have one of those great Pino covers with the chest of a man! The cover is even toned down; the visual tells you the truth about the book inside. I can't recommend it.

Linda:  TPAL is going to ruin my reputation of liking everything I read! I agree with Carol about it not involving me emotionally. I honestly didn't care at all whether they got back together or not. But, I didn't actively dislike this book - while I hated the others I tried, so maybe that's progress? I would love to see a character similar to Robbie in another story with a different heroine - he was engaging, sweet and sexually divine. The heat was about right for me, but I like sweet books. Nevertheless, I cannot recommend this muddled mess either.

Next month we are going to discuss Veiled Web by Catherine Asaro. This will be interesting as Asaro is moving more deeply into Romance writing, after being primarily a SF writer. She even came to the Celebrate Romance 99 Convention in Philadelphia and asked questions of readers about what we like to see in romances. It is encouraging to see someone actively opening up their work to the Romance community, at a time when so many long time favorites are moving out of the genre and into Suspense/Romantic Suspense. Refreshing.

Carol:  I'm really excited about the Asaro too. This one has an intricate plot, which I'm really in the mood for, and it is clearly a love story. This is also the best cover Asaro has ever been given and it has made our Paranormal Cover slate of nominees as a finalist.

--Linda Hurst and Carol Irvin, for

-- Pandora's Box

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