Winter Garden, by Adele Ashworth

>> Friday, April 01, 2005

Winter Garden (excerpt), by Adele Ashworth, is right at the top of my Top 100 list (# 4, as a matter of fact), but I haven't reread it in a while... at least, not in the 2 and a half or so years since I started this blog

Though a celebrated French beauty in 1849, Madeleine DuMais's is cleverness is her greatest asset--and one she puts to good use as a spy for the British. When her expertise is needed in the south of England to break up a smuggling ring, Madeleine willing puts her life on hold to help the crown...

Arriving in the quaint resort town of Winter Garden, Madeleine meets her partner in subterfuge. Thomas Blackwood is unlike any man she has ever met. His quiet confidence and mysterious intensity send shivers of pleasure coursing through her... shivers that slowly melt into a desperate passion. As duty gives way to desire, surrender holds its own reward. And Madeleine will never recover from the touch of Thomas's hands on her body--and the touch of his heart on her soul...
I had the same reaction to rereading Winter Garden as I did to rereading the book that got the # 1 spot in my list, Lord of Scoundrels. I had great memories of it, knew I'd adored it the last time I'd read it, and I was still surprised at how incredibly wonderful it was :-) A very solid A+.

This is a book that works just as well whether you are reading for the first time or rereading it. On first read, I remember wondering at Thomas' motivations, suspecting a few things and loving it when I found out. Now, on reread, I loved knowing exactly what was going on and seeing all Thomas' thoughts and actions through this filter, understanding everything perfectly.

As most of the books at the top of my list, this one has a very, very strong heroine, which is logical, since I'm one of the seemingly few rare birds who need the heroine, not the hero, to be outstanding in order to truly love the book. Well, that definitely describes Madeleine.

I first met Madelaine when reading Stolen Charms, a book I thought was utterly forgettable and one I only keep in my collection to reread those Maddie parts. When I heard she was going to be the heroine in her own book, a woman I'd last seen basically propositioning the hero of SC, I practically cheered... and worried that she was going to turn out to be a fake skank or something (I wouldn't call her a skank at all, but you get my point).

She didn't. Maddie is a strong, competent spy without even one TSTL bone in her body. She's strong and kind and intelligent and has built for herself a life she enjoys. She's sexually experienced and while not promiscuous, she has no problem taking a lover when she feels like it. What's best is that she genuinely likes herself and respects the woman she's become, all through her own effort.

Thomas is just amazing (There will probably be spoilers in the rest of this post, so stop reading now if you prefer not to know anything else).

First, his actions: I'm aware that there are readers (one of my friends included) who feel his behaviour was a bit too stalkerish for them. For me, he didn't cross that line into creepy. I thought his actions terribly romantic, the best way he could have introduced himself to the woman he loved. He didn't manipulate her or force her into a position that would have pressured her into starting a relationship with him. He simply wanted to meet her on even ground. If the attraction had proved to be one-sided, I believe he would have gracefully withdrawn, which is why I get no stalker vibe from him.

On the other hand, I totally understand Maddie's actions once she found out exactly who Thomas was. After all, one of the basic things she was proud of about herself was that she'd been able to create this life she loved and that she was making a contribution, that her work was valuable. Of course she was going to get upset at the possibility that it had all been a farce, that there had been someone pulling the strings, manipulating events. And, too, of course she was too intelligent not to realize, once she'd cooled down, that it hadn't been like that, that she had done damned good work and that everyone knew it, whatever the reasons they had first hired her.

Back to Thomas, the man himself was wonderful, too. I loved the way he wasn't afraid to show Maddie that he wasn't perfect, that he was vulnerable and that he wasn't totally confident. This is a guy who blushes, who shows his feelings, who isn't so experienced that he doesn't have some insecurities about whether he'll be able to measure up to the men who had preceeded him in Maddie's life. And all this, he does with grace and dignity.

Also, for once, I liked a "love at first sight" meet. I think I was able to like this because, well, first of all, what happened at first sight was a very strong attraction, and the love came later, when Thomas came to know Maddie, even if this knowledge came second-hand, not through personal interaction. He fell in love with the strength of this woman, not with the beauty but with the fighter inside her.

Also, the first attraction wasn't just appearance-based. He didn't fall for a beautiful woman who entered a room, he fell for a woman who made a point of sitting down next to a physically messed-up man and talk to him, because she knew how the world judged people based on appearance and could be cruel when someone didn't measure up.

I just adored the way Maddie and Thomas were together, the way their relationship progressed. There was a deep sensuality in practically every scene, even in the ones in which they were simply talking, and I could see how step by step, they built an intimacy between themselves and started to know one another.

Winter Garden isn't a page-turner or a fast read. There really isn't much happening outside of the deepening relationship between Maddie and Thomas. The whole smuggling thing isn't much more than an excuse, just as it is for Thomas, an excuse to be with Maddie for a while. I don't mind this at all, but I suppose it could bother someone who prefers a faster pace.

Winter Garden is the reason why I will probably keep buying Ashworth's books ad infinitum, even if they are disappointing, as her latest have been. If she's capable of writing something like Winter Garden, there's always a chance, however slim, that she'll write something I love even half as much, and that is a good enough reason.


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