Wednesday, July 20, 2022

#TBRChallenge 2022: Beyond Innocence

The Book: Beyond Innocence by Emma Holly

The Particulars: Historical romance, First book in duet, Berkley, 2001, Out of print, available in digital

Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?: A billion years ago when I was reviewing for The Romance Reader, I was randomly assigned the second book in this duet, Beyond Seduction - which totally blew up my skirt. Emma Holly became an autobuy after that.

The Review: History lesson time. What we now classify as "erotic romance" was launched in 1999 when legendary editor Kate Duffy ushered in the Kensington Brava line. That line's success and reader demand for steamier romance books lead to other publishers scrambling to find authors that wrote "hot" - and in the case of Berkley they knocked on Emma Holly's door.  

Holly started her career writing erotica for Black Lace, an imprint of Virgin Publishing. While marketed as erotica her stories tended to have a strong romance flavor. Still, this was a departure for her, being that it was (I'm fairly certain...) her first stab at a historical romance.

So why did I take so long to read this book if I enjoyed the second book?  Two words: Virgin. Heroine. Look, y'all gotta understand. Back in 2001 virgin heroines were still the default and not to put too fine a point on it - I don't read Emma Holly for virgin heroines. So this one languished in my TBR until Holly's untimely death last month and this month's Vintage prompt seemed as good as any to finally stop neglecting it.

Freddie Burbrooke has been caught in a compromising position with a footman. His older brother, Edward Burbrooke, the Earl, is determined to save him from ruin. He adores Freddie. He's been looking out for him and protecting him his whole life. This is a scandal of epic proportions. What he needs is to get Freddie settled. Freddie needs a wife. And luckily his father's former solicitor has a solution.

Miss Florence Fairleigh is the only child of a country vicar. Her father is now deceased and she's in dire straights. Daddy was loving and doting but terrible with money. So Florence decides to go to London and try to find a respectable man to marry. If that fails she'll end up having to hire herself out as a governess. She's not hoping for much - kindness, friendship, a chance to build a life. Really, that's it. And then providence smiles down on her and soon she's being woo'ed by Freddie Burbrooke, second son to an earl! Honestly, it's a better match than a country mouse like her could hope for.

The fly in the ointment? I mean other than Freddie being gay? Edward takes one look at Florence and is hopelessly smitten. Borderline obsessed. And yet he recognizes she's the perfect match for Freddie. With Florence on his arm Freddie would be protected.  And yet? Edward can't stay away from her and Florence is also drawn to him.  Then there's the small matter that everybody in the Burbrooke family (Freddie, Edward, their dear aged aunt who is sponsoring Florence's Season...) are all in the ruse.  Florence knows nothing about nothing. No clue Freddie is gay. No idea that she's the sacrificial lamb delivered from above to save him from scandal.  Yeah, let's just say it hits the fan when that Big Secret comes home to roost.

If I'm making this sound unsavory that's because it kind of is. In the hands of a lesser skilled writer I would have likely DNF'ed this in hot minute.  Edward is of the cold, stoic school of formidable romance heroes and is kind of an ass for a good portion of this story.  Florence is sheltered and rather na├»ve - honestly the sort of heroine that tends to set my teeth on edge even though I totally understood and "got" her as a character.  So, what makes this work?  Well, everything else.

Holly handles the Victorian time period amiably, although while I wouldn't say it's wallpaper it's also not terrible specific. She gets the tone and feel right though.  The story is also still downright revolutionary even 20+ years after it was first published. Let's count the ways:

Edward bangs his mistress, on page, in a very early chapter. SHOCKING!

When Edward and Florence start to succumb they do everything but Insert Tab A Into Slot B - because at this point he's still wanting to protect her virtue because dagnabit he's obsessed but Must. Protect. Freddie. Very spicy stuff for 2001 although some readers would likely label this merely "hot" now. 

But the most marvelous thing about this book? Freddie. How Freddie is portrayed and how the matter of him being gay is addressed. Edward doesn't shame Freddie. Freddie isn't berated or treated like an embarrassment. Edward's concern for Freddie is born out of his love for his brother, his desire to protect him - because Edward knows that Freddie being gay is going to make Freddie's life very difficult.  So yes, the desire to hush up a scandal and to protect him, but also this underlying acceptance that this IS Freddie.  For you younger folks - this portrayal of a gay character in 2001 was revolutionary! Freddie isn't written as a villain or a deviant. He's a fully realized, fully fleshed-out, lovely and sympathetic character who also gets a happy ending in the final chapters.  From personal experience, the idea of LGBTQ+ characters being protagonists in romance didn't enter my consciousness until around 2004 (that's when I started hearing chatter at writer's conferences) - so Holly writing this character in 2001 is just...wow. Like amazingly wow.

The pacing is a little slow in spots and honestly the whole thing has a Sword of Damocles feel to it with the Big Secret.  Florence is a bit of a mouse and almost written like a Disney princess (she's adored by cats and babies alike) and while she's not offensive per se, I just wasn't captivated by her like some of Holly's edgier female protagonists.  But, patience - because it does all pay off once Florence learns the truth and we get an epic descent into Hero Grovel Land for several chapters.  We also have to put up a bit with an Evil Other Woman (yes, the mistress...) but this aspect of the story didn't annoy me as much as other Evil Other Women that have come before her. 

It's not perfect. As mentioned it's a rather unsavory plot but Holly spins a good tale and it kept me invested. I'm glad I finally read it even if it doesn't land in my Emma Holly Top Five and it's definitely worth a read for those interested in the history of the romance genre. It's breath-taking in that respect.

Final Grade = B-

8 comments:

Jill said...

I think this is the only Emma Holly that I ever read, but I found it delightful and I agree how Freddie's life was handled was really refreshing. One of things that stuck out at the time I read it (many years ago) was that he got his own happy ending and it was fleshed out like any other important secondary character.

I read IN FOR A PENNY by Rose Lerner and I wish I hadn't waited so long. It was delightful. Nev has inherited a title and a mountain of debt. Penny is an heiress who wants to be practical and marry someone she can care for and respect if not love. They work out a solution and of course it's complicated by love. I think there were two things I really appreciated. The characters were young and they felt genuinely young. Not naive, but just still really trying to figure their way and they do it together. I also felt like this struck a nice compromise between very old-fashioned romances where class problems (and class privilege) were totally ignored/waved away and the current crop of historical romances where I feel like the intent is for the characters to completely upend/reverse the social order single-handedlly. I don't think there's anything wrong with that, but I do feel like it can be as much of a fantasy as "la la privilege doesn't matter" and sometimes it works for me and sometimes it doesn't. It takes a deft hand.

I feel like this (vintage!) book came just as things were changing in romance. Nev and Penny realize that a lot of things are wrong "with the way things are" but even with Nev's power, he can't necessarily change everything over night. There's a local magistrate and other people that have established roles and navigating changing that is tricky. Not terribly spoilery spoiler, some of these challenges do get resolved and Rose Lerner leaves us the feeling that Nev and Penny will commit to keep working on changing things together. It felt very emotionally satsifying.

azteclady said...

Yes, all of this, yes. I love this book, even with the ruthless plot to marry Freddie off to Florence without ever telling her anything about nothing.

I reviewed it back in 2008, and my regret is that I did not stress enough just how lovely the brotherly relationship between Freddie and Edward is--because, as you say, the fact that the latter never, ever berates the former for being who he is? Oh, so lovely, and so well done.

Jen Twimom said...

Oh, thanks for the history lesson, that was very interesting to me. I ended up skipping this month as I am behind on my review books. But I will find a way to work in the book I had selected later this year!

eurohackie said...

It's always fun to be in a revolutionary moment in the genre, and it sounds like this one has stood the test of time. Even better!

I couldn't miss this month after missing the last few, so I started early to make sure I finished my choice by the time discussion rolled around. I chose "The Scholar's Daughter" by April Kihlstrom, a Signet trad Regency from 1989. The characters were pleasant but the plot was sort of all over the place, and the book suffered from a terrible blurb that had nothing to do with the plot (sigh). But speaking of trends gone by, this one has quite a few: non-titled main characters, most of the action taking place in Bath, matchmaking (younger) brothers. A decent read, but not the best I've had with this author.

S. said...

I liked this book quite a lot!
Of all the books by the author I've tried, this is the one I graded higher...

gillette said...

Loved this, still have the paperback. I read and enjoyed a lot of her books. The supernatural ones, plus I lived Strange Attractions. I hadn't read her for a while though, and was saddened by her death. Had she been ill?
Gill

gillette said...

Loved. Bloomin' predictive text!

Wendy said...

Jill: That was what stuck with me too - that Freddie was a fully realized secondary character and got his own happy ending just like any other (straight) secondary character would. These days I think Freddie would have been mined for his own book - but even in 2001 what Holly did here was very interesting and really subversive (and it was published by BERKLEY!!!)

AL: THAT'S the word I was struggling to find - ruthless. I found this plot really ruthless and it was just a lot for me to "get over" I guess. But oh how I loved the Edward/Freddie relationship and their Aunt! Florence was a bit more "it's me not you" for me. I think Holly wrote her character so well, but she just didn't capture my interest the way some of Holly's "naughtier" heroines have.

Jen: I barely made my own deadline this month! I was typing this review up Tuesday night LOL.

Eurohackie: Ugh, I hate it when one gets a totally inaccurate blurb. Or worse a blurb written in a character's first person POV that doesn't tell you a damn thing about the book. I'm looking at you self-publishing...

S: My introduction to Emma Holly was the second book in this duet, Beyond Seduction, which I'm getting ready to re-read right now! I read it years ago when it first came out so I'm curious to see how it holds up for me.

Gillette: I still have Strange Attractions in my TBR. I unearthed it after she passed and hope to get to it soon. Not sure about an illness - I haven't been able to come across any information or more detail about her death - and she was only 61.