My first romance was a historical that I read about a decade ago and I blame Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Jane Eyre for piquing my interest. Whatever the reason, I got into historical romance well before I picked up a contemporary, and one of my early favourites was Stephanie Laurens. Her Cynsters were strong, confident, even arrogant in a hot way, but when they fell in love, they fell hard and it takes a strong woman to handle their passion and overbearing protectiveness. Now that she’s exhausted an entire generation of Cynster men, she’s moved onto the younger male relatives of the Cynster wives, who have been moulded into the Cynster image through years of exposure to their powerful in-laws.
The Taste of Innocence is Charlie Morwellan’s story (his half-sister Alathea married her childhood friend Gabriel Cynster in the fifth book, A Secret Love). After watching love ensnare his closest friends Gerrard Debbington and Dillon Caxton, Charlie decides to take the bull by the horns and choose a comfortable wife whom he can admire but not love. Like the Cynsters, the Morwellans have a history of marrying for love, and Charlie’s father allowed the emotion to control him to the point where the family estate and fortune was almost lost, and Charlie has learned from this mistake. The first woman to spring to mind as a potential bride and countess is his neighbour, “sweet innocent” Sarah Conningham, who has secretly loved him from afar and refuses to marry without love.
He proposes but isn’t accepted immediately because Sarah wants to ensure that they would be compatible. She talks about excitement and fulfillment—Charlie chooses to interpret this as her requirement for sexual compatibility and sets out to show they are a good match, while Sarah falls in love and believes he is in love with her as well. Only when they marry, Charlie’s polite mask falls back into place without explanation and Sarah is left hurt and confused, but Charlie is resolved not to let love into his life.
Characteristic of this series, there is also a crime woven into the story that furthers the relationship. In this case, Sarah’s orphanage has been targeted by crooks wanting to buy her land for a pittance and sell it at an extortion rate to the railways. Unfortunately, Charlie’s behaviour toward Sarah keeps her from telling him her troubles and giving him the clue he needs to catch the crooks.
Deliberate Construction and Speed Humps
Stephanie Laurens is a very good writer. Her stories are well-constructed, the characters are strong, and the romance is believable. She goes into such detail that I can easily picture each scene as though I was watching a BBC adaptation of a classic novel. In a group discussion, I can see where each character is in the room and what they are doing. When plans are made, reasons are often given as to why they chose this course of action and discarded other options and things don’t always conveniently fall into place to suit the hero and heroine. Decisions about whom to confide in and whom to keep in the dark also play an important role in the story. She pulls together all these different elements convincingly and organically. She also leaves hints so that certain aspects of the story can be predicted, but not in such a way that it detracts from the story.
This is absolutely intentional. Laurens explained during her keynote speech at ARRC that she believes in the importance of exercising readers’ imaginations, which requires an active participation on the readers’ parts. I also confirmed this with her while getting my book signed after her speech. She does all this to pull her readers into the story. The descriptions, characters and plots are all very deliberately thought out.
But the element that makes the books such high quality is also the element that, to be completely honest, frustrates me. I have a love-hate relationship with the style of her later books although I think both the writing and my taste have changed since the original Cynsters. The writing is definitely high quality, but the level of concentration it takes from me actually has the opposite effect to what she intends. Instead of being able to get into the story, I find myself getting bogged down in minutiae and semantics when I want to progress further into the story. And if God forbid I get interrupted, I have to reread the last few paragraphs to pick up my place in the story again, which ordinarily, I rarely need to do.
On a regular basis, the love scenes wander into the airy fairy and become kind of abstract and flowery in sections. Their connection is all well and good, but I started getting lost in this:
There were levels of fire, degrees of sensual flame. Under his practiced caresses, growing harder, more urgent, increasingly driven, at the center of his unwavering attention she heated, slowly but surely under his guidance progressing from one level to the next, from one degree of heated yearning into ever deepening flames.
He went with her, but he was more accustomed to passion’s heat, to its beat, to withstanding the compulsion that lay within it.
Until the sensual conflagration captured them, him as well as her. Until their embrace grew so hot it cindered all thought and left no other awareness but of him and her, and the need to come together.
Clearly she is BFFs with a thesaurus and it’s great that the hero and heroine have this connection, but can someone tell me what the hell actually happened just then?
For me, it’s the reiteration and elaboration that make the writing so difficult to get into at times. Do we really need “levels of fire” AND “degrees of sensual flame”? Having both makes me feel like she’s thrown a speed hump into the road of her story. Sometimes she uses a sentence and then the next sentence goes back and starts from the same place as the previous one (see the final paragraph in the excerpt as an example). It gets harder to follow when she does this with whole paragraphs. Dare I suggest bullet points?
I know this is incredibly nitpicky and completely anal of me, but I’m sure we all have words that just rub us the wrong way. In a recent book, the hero “pandered to her senses” and as a purely personal quirk, I didn’t love the expression the first time she used it, but now it seems to crop up in all the later books. It’s in The Taste of Innocence, too. Twice. *shudder* I thought she got it out of the way in the first hundred pages, then just when I thought it was safe to go back in the water, there it was again within the next hundred. I almost dread reading her love scenes because I keep expecting it to rear its ugly head again.
Yay or Nay?
Depends on how much you want to invest in your reading. If you’re willing to make the effort, her writing is well crafted with enough detail of her characters’ clothing, surroundings and motivations to make you feel like you’re there with them. Stephanie Laurens delivers a damn good story, but she’ll make you work for it.
Where you can buy this book
AUSTRALIA: Booktopia | Dymocks | Ever After | Fishpond | Galaxy | Intrigue | Rendezvous | Romance Direct | Romantic Reflections | Siren | More (no online catalogue)
EBOOKS: Books On Board | Dymocks | ebooks.com | Fictionwise | Kindle
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