One Forbidden Evening, by Jo Goodman

>> Thursday, August 31, 2006

I've been meaning to try Jo Goodman for a while, because I've heard such good things about her books. I actually started reading one of them, the first in the Compass Club quartet, but for some reason, I put it aside and never picked it up again. Her latest, One Forbidden Evening, sounded so good that I decided to pick that one up instead of persisting with the other one.

As a masked ball reaches its fever pitch, Cybelline Caldwell surrenders to the embrace of a midnight lover, a stranger who seals her fate. By morning the wanton seductress has been replaced by a determinedly sensible woman preparing to leave London...and its memories. Yet temptation follows. For Christopher Hollings, Earl of Ferrin, the notorious rake she so brazenly challenged, vows to show her that one night was not enough.

It took some clever detective work, but Ferrin uncovered the identity of his mystery lover, surprised and intrigued to come face to face with Cybelline. Soon he discovers she is a woman of mystery-and a woman in danger, stalked by a ruthless enemy. Unable to erase the searing memory of Cybelline in his arms, Ferrin knows he must discover the secrets that shadow her days...for only than can he claim all of her nights.
I truly don't like having to write this review. I wanted to love this book, not just because I wanted to agree with all those people who are big fans of Goodman and recommended I try her, but because in abstract, it has so many things I usually enjoy, things I would list as favourites of mine and really should have enjoyed. There's the complex characters who actually talk to each other, there's the nerdy hero who has great respect for the heroine, there's the tortured heroine, there's the rich, flavour-full writing. But in spite of all this, the OFE failed to engage me at all. A C+.

Christopher Hollings, the Earl of Ferrin is known to be a rake, but he's still very surprised when during a masquerade ball given by his mother, a young woman dressed as Boudicca approaches him and propositions him. Half-convinced that this must be someone's idea of a prank, he's even more surprised when she actually follows through, and they end up having sex in one of the servant's stairwells.

After this, Boudicca disappears, and Ferrin is left intrigued. He uses the antique spear his Boudicca left behind, as well as some things she said, to deduce that she must somehow be related to Cybelline Caldwell, the Viscount Sheridan widowed sister. Finding out that Mrs.Caldwell has recently set up her household at one of Lady Riverdale's estates, Ferrin follows her there, where he finds it's Mrs. Caldwell herself who was his Boudicca.

Cybelline isn't particularly happy to see Ferrin again, not least because she already has enough troubles. For months she's been receiving letters from her late husband's mistress, accusing her of having murdered him, and those letters are getting more and more menacing. But Ferrin is much more than he seems at first sight, and she finds herself increasingly drawn to him.

I think my main problem was with Goodman's writing style. I had two problems with this, one small, one bigger. The small one is that the rich writing is at times too rich and ends up bordering on purple. That's not bad in itself, but I had trouble getting used to it, and in fact, never fully did. Also, at times it felt to me as if Goodman had a mild case of Cheryl Holt-itis.

No, Goodman's writing isn't as bad as the writing in the one Holt book I read, but the main thing that drove me crazy about the writing in Total Surrender was how Holt seemed to have written her book in "regular" language, and then gone through it with a thesaurus, substituting words at random with whatever synonym sounded most archaic or old fashioned. While in Holt's case sometimes the word used was inappropriate, and this didn't happen with Goodman's, what did happen in the latter was that the writing gave me an impression of artificial old-fashionedness, and instead of feeling lush and beautiful, it felt a bit stilted and overwritten. Of course, writing style is just as personal as sense of humour, so I don't expect everyone to have been bothered by it, just as I don't expect everyone to find funny the same things that I do.

Anyway, if this had been the only thing about her writing that bothered me, it wouldn't have been that bad. The bigger problem was one that I'm not completely sure I should categorize as one of writing style. I'm talking about the way Goodman often kept quite a lot of a character's motivations and feelings hidden from the reader, even we were seeing a scene from that particular character's POV. We'd see him (or her) doing something, but we weren't sure why he was doing it, or how he felt about it.

I'd compare this to the way I felt when I read a certain mystery in which we actually saw some post-murder scenes from the POV of the person who ended up being the murderer. Of course, the person wouldn't have been constantly thinking "I killed so-and-so, I killed so-and-so", but it felt wrong not to have been given that information when we'd been in that person's mind. Same thing here, it didn't feel natural that we were seeing such a partial view of what was happening in the character's mind, as if the author was deliberately hiding information.

In OFE, the result of Goodman doing this was that I felt very distant from her main characters. I never got to completely understand who they were or where they were coming from. Which means that I was never able to care all that much about them. Which, in turn, meant that I found it hard to stay involved in the book, and that the temptation to skim was strong.

I had other problems, but they were more minor than what I just described. Things like how in the problem with Nicholas' mistress and the letters, it was much too easy to figure out who was to blame, or how the whole to-do about having Ferrin being disguised as Mr. Wellesley added nothing. I haven't read the previous book in the series, so I was bored by the numerous scenes devoted to Cybelline's brother and sister-in-law and the kids who live with them. And the final scenes, when the suspense element comes to its climax, were uninteresting. By then, I didn't much care about what would happen to these people.

Oh, well, seems that Goodman isn't for me, right?


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