Anthea Lawson
2008, Historical Romance (1840s [Victorian] Tunisia and England)
Zebra, $3.99, 320 pages, Amazon ASIN 142010456X

Grade: B-
Sensuality: Warm

Anthea Lawson is the moniker of a husband and wife writing team, and Passionate is their debut historical romance. I enjoyed it despite some clichéd plot points, followed by some clichéd characters, and what I suspect are some societal anachronismst.

Instead of the crazy dead codger bequeathing riches beyond imagination to an unwilling young beauty if she marries within the month, we have here a crazy dead codger bequeathing his prized estate of Somergate to whichever descendant finds his lost botanical discovery in the desert wilds of Tunisia.

James Huntington, orphaned son to a second son, is the impoverished hero descendant. Reggie, cousin to James, heir to the earldom and nasty piece of work, is the villain descendant. James wants the estate for the financial security it would bring to him and his sister. Reggie wants the estate because he’s greedy and is in full ‘My Daddy loved you best’ mode for the entire novel. This is the book's main character cliché: The irredeemable bad boy villain. There’s no humanity to Reggie and the lack of it makes him unrealistic and comical. Given the nature of romance where you know The Bad Guys Lose, it will always raise the level of a story when you’re not entirely certain if the Bad Guys are really bad guys. But there's no mystery to unravel here.

Lily Strathmore is the niece of the botanist who will be accompanying James on his Tunisian search. Lily herself paints flowers but for science, not art, and her skills are encouraged and appreciated by her uncle and his family. In contrast, her mother wants her to cease her mannishness and get married. Though loathe to do so, she prefers marriage to being cornered into taking care of her parents in their dotage as resident spinster and so she capitulates early on in the novel to meet with a potential husband.

Our heroine escapes cliché conformity by embracing many of them. She’s irrepressible, anti-Society, engaged in manly pursuits, and only-just-sexually-experienced. Like Britney Spears and many recent historical heroines with ho-hum sexual pasts, she’s not a girl but not yet a woman. Her reactions towards James are sometimes not as enlightened as they should be given her non-virgin status, and she doth protest too much about her attraction to him, but generally Lily is a likable heroine. My only problem with her was that she never seemed to wonder what might happen if her husband – whoever he may be – found out she was not a virgin. Generally these only-just-sexually-experienced heroines lose a lot of sleep over this so the lack of care here gave me pause.

In fact, the behavior of many of this books characters didn’t strike me as true to historical reality. For example, Lily and James, brazen as ever, have sexy-times in a tent in Tunisia, ostensibly near enough to the other camped tents. Also, Lily’s cousin Isabelle (TSTL but unfortunately still breathing) skips into evil Reggie’s carriage in broad daylight, unchaperoned, to threaten him with marriage (don’t ask). It seemed as if the writers wove in and out of modern sensibilities as suited them. An important disclaimer, however, is that what I know of English history, I learned from romance novels; I am far from a competent arbiter of historical facts or mores.

Possible historical anachronisms aside, the romance between James and Lily was sweet. James, like Lily, is a likable character, protective towards his sister and then towards Lily. In the beginning, his desire for Somergate isn’t that great and it takes prodding for him to agree to go to Tunisia. But after he meets Lily and falls in love with her, finding that flower and owning Somergate becomes all-important so that he can bring something to the marriage table. I like that mix of vulnerability, pride and devotion in my heroes. He even gets to save Lily’s life at one point, which I am unashamed to say, is always a plus for me. Gets the blood pumping and then makes me go awww.

Passionate spends a goodly portion as a road trip romance and the descriptions of Tunisia are vivid, particularly their trip to the Bey’s palace. The action portion of the proceedings, where bad boy Reggie stars, is as confusing and unrealistically comical as he is but still in the throes of James and Lily’s romance, I didn’t mind too much.

In the round, I enjoyed the novel - it makes for an encouraging debut.

-- Abi Bishop

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