Forbidden Shores

Jane Lockwood
2007, Erotica (1800s Caribbean)
Signet, $14.00, 342 pages, Amazon ASIN 0451222172

Grade: C+
Sensuality: Burning

As a long time reviewer, I'm used to knowing exactly what I think about a book, and how to communicate my impressions to others. But I had to wait a few days after finishing Forbidden Shores to write the review, because I couldn't quite decide what I thought. There were parts I loved, parts that I disliked, and parts that made me uncomfortable, and I'm still trying to decide how to separate it all. Whatever else it may be, this book is certainly not boring.

Clarissa Onslowe is bound for a plantation on a tropical isle, where she will serve as a governess. Allen Pendale, the son of an earl, is traveling to the same island to visit his father and inform him of his mother's death. It's a relatively small vessel, with only two cabins besides the captain's. When the married couple with whom they are traveling both become seasick, Allen and Clarissa start bunking together, and soon they are exploring their sexuality. Allen is a bit of a rake, known for sleeping with married women. Clarissa's reputation is ruined, but her actual experience is very limited. Allen soon remedies that. They begin with a naughty interlude on the deck, and matters proceed from there.

When they finally reach their destination, though, matters become more complicated. Clarissa's employer is a commanding, enigmatic man named Lemarchand, or March for short. Within days of their arrival, March manages to enthrall Clarissa and make a pass at Allen, who leaves for his father's home in short order. Allen can't really stay away, and he proposes to Clarissa. She refuses him and agrees to become March's mistress, and Allen draws up the contract for the arrangement. Clarissa and March share some intensely erotic nights. Then Allen pops by with a lame horse one day, and Clarissa has an epiphany. Clarissa loves March. March loves Allen. Allen loves Clarissa. So she suggests (in a manner that calls to mind a similar moment in the movie Chasing Amy) that they all go to bed together.

A shocked Allen initially resists the idea, and then can't help but join in the fun when Clarissa and March start "frolicking" on the beach. They continue in this vein for awhile, until several revelations interfere with their sexual activities. Revealing these events would involve considerable spoilers, but suffice it to say that what happens is not really what you'd expect. Reading the back of the book, I would have thought that the emotional and sexual love triangle would result in jealousy and hurt feelings, but that's not really the main issue.

Lest anyone mistake this for a romance, let me make it clear that it isn't. While the cover doesn't say romance on the spine, it definitely has a romance look, so I could see why a potential reader might be confused. There's no definitive happy ending, and sex rather than love is the main focus. If you are wondering whether you should stray from straight romance and give this one a try, I'd say that's largely dependent on your tolerance for explicit and unusual sex.

My feelings about the sex scenes mirror my feelings about the book as a whole; in other words, they are mixed. When Clarissa was with just one man or the other, I found the sex scenes both steamy and fun. Surprisingly, it didn't particularly bother me that she enjoyed the attentions of two very different men. In fact, that was pretty diverting. When it came to threesome territory, I found myself a little grossed out, mostly because the male/male stuff didn't work for me. Obviously, tastes in this area are pretty personal, so I didn't base on my grade on my discomfort. The only other issue that I had with the sex as a whole was that it did require suspension of disbelief. Would two unmarried people really share a cabin in 1800? Probably not. I imagine that the more likely scenario would be Allen sharing a cabin with the captain of the ship. That said, I decided it was better to regard the sex as a fantasy element, not unlike a Regency vampire.

Forbidden Shores is actually dedicated to the English abolitionists, though (as Lockwood notes) they'd probably "roll in their graves." I was utterly shocked to find that in a book full of inventive sexual escapades, the insights and commentary about slavery were the best part of the book. In all my years of reading romance, I don't think I've ever seen it handled better. Oddly, it rarely comes up, even in Civil War romances probably because the hero always seems to be the one plantation owner who has paid field workers instead of slaves. Lockwood's not afraid to comment on the brutality of slavery or its effects on both slave and master, and her insights are well written and dead-on. Similarly, she sneaks in elegant asides about the English class system.

In the end, though, I found that my enjoyment of the book was significantly dampened by the behavior of one of the main characters, whose despicable actions cast a pall on everything that had come before. That's the reason for my C range grade; until that point the book was more of a B for me (threesome and all). Still, I think many readers will find this one worthwhile. Obviously, the adventurous sex is not for everyone. But in a time when so many romances - and apparently erotica and erotic romances, according to the new ATBF column - seem to fall into the "been there, done that" category, this book distinguishes itself as both different and interesting, and we can always use more of that.

-- Blythe Barnhill

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