Saturday, May 3, 2014

A Question of Class by Julia Tagan

Note:  I received an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review
My Experience:  B+
Synopsis:   United to exact revenge on a common enemy, they discover passion is the ultimate reward.
On the strength of her wit and intelligence, Catherine Delcour climbed from Connecticut poverty to opulent Paris society. But once in New York, her lowly past is a scandal her wine merchant husband won’t tolerate. After five years of marriage, Morris announces their union isn’t valid and reveals his plan to send her to the West Indies. So long as she behaves, he’ll continue to provide for her until the ship leaves. Fearing she’ll end up destitute, Catherine schemes to escape--and secure her future with his treasured bottle of wine.
Under the guise of supervising Delcour’s wayward wife, Benjamin Thomas seeks to avenge his sister’s death by ruining him. But Catherine isn’t the spoiled society wife Benjamin expects. His growing affection for Catherine threatens more than his carefully constructed plans. His vow to never touch another man’s wife has never been harder to keep than when he’s around the beguiling beauty.
When Catherine and Benjamin join forces, their sensual natures collide even as their individual desires for passion, vengeance, and escape threaten to tear them apart.  

This is a shiny debut novel that opens with a blessing and curse:  “Unfortunately, my dear, we were never married.”  I loved how that declaration made me gasp and Catherine reel.  Within the first paragraphs I despised her not-husband, Morris Delcour.  I held my breath when she made her first escape attempt and failed; was impressed that she managed to return without losing her dignity or dinner.  That Benjamin Thomas has the honor of being her salvation and the enforcer of her captivity before the end of chapter two set the pace for this riveting novel.  It did not falter throughout.

I was thrilled by the fact Ms. Tagan could introduce everyone, frame the situation and get it all rolling so quickly without leaving me feeling like I missed anything.  Her writing is crisp; dialog sharp without overdoing the antagonistic tension.  Characters are not modern voices draped in historic costumes, were well developed and the secondary characters interesting without taking over.  There is the perfect mixture of troubled past and determined future for me, no angst shoved down my throat but it isn't all bluebells and birdies either.  That wriggly line between the demand for and deserving of respect is the answer to the question she exposes with a subtle hand.

In this triangle, everyone has pulled themselves up from nothing, even the not-husband.  He is a mere mister not French nobility that made his fortune in French Haiti and returned to Paris triumphant. Each worked to better not only their circumstances but themselves.  True, the not-husband did so on the backs of slaves and plans to continue to do so by cheating the society he is courting but that just makes him more despicable.  I enjoy hating a well crafted villain!

Benjamin’s growth is a little harder to account for as he weaves a tale that sounds convincing, unless you look too closely.  Even when he reveals the truth, there are some pretty large holes so you’re left with his “unsettled dignity” as the measurement of how far he’s come.  At fifteen, Catherine turned a horrifying situation in to an opportunity to prove she was more than skin and bones assembled oh so nicely.  I loved that she didn’t roll over and become a victim; not at fifteen and not at twenty.  She made the very best of what she had to deal with in every moment and didn’t accept things at face value, but looked beyond the surface.

Discovering a sketch done by Benjamin, she had the predictable initial reaction, then looked again, and saw more than her naked body, more than a prurient interest.  She could see the art even as it unnerved and added to her confusion regarding her not-husband’s brother in law.  It was very well done of Ms. Tagan to allow that moment of development.  I can imagine how easily it might have been highlighted and gone, leaving us being told that “Catherine had learned to take a second and third look.”  Instead, we literally see and feel it with her.  The exception to this habit was understandable in the circumstances while advancing the story in a plausible way.  Later, when she hesitates and draws the wrong conclusion, I believed how she could second guess silence and jump to conclusions rather than looking again.  She is a sum of her experiences and as we travel back to her point of origin, we learn with Benjamin how a girl of fifteen possessed the sense to accomplish all she had.

By the time Benjamin and Catherine become partners in the plot for revenge, both of them have demonstrated the practicality required to not only survive but also thrive.  And yes, they are attracted to each other, startlingly so. But, more than that, they manage to have some restraint. Temptation and opportunity is mighty but they don’t fall on each other with the standard patter of “can’t help it, won’t really try.”  I laughed when the reality of a rainy roadside tryst was just … not on.  For me, it made the intimacy later more believable on relatively short acquaintance.   Though I felt they professed love a little quickly, it wasn’t too surprising given Benjamin and Catherine’s personalities.  The "explicit sex" was sensual and romantic, not graphic.

Catherine’s understanding of Benjamin’s cause, her insistence of following through even when he was ready to let it go, was an interesting twist.  Normally, the so-called hero would be angry and tormented over his vow of revenge competing with his heart.  The relief I felt when that did not happen was refreshing.  I didn’t realize how tired I was of that same ole plot maneuver.  That Benjamin saw his cause evolve to something in honor of his sister rather than in vengeance for her was proof his sister wasn’t merely a victim.  I suspect his mentor deserved more than a nod of respect as well.  Benjamin recognized the treasure love is should not be discarded for the relief of revenge, whether it was returned or not.  I was giddy over a hero I could not only admire but like and a heroine that suited him so completely.  They worked well together, even when at odds and cared more for the long term than the moment which is, as I said, a refreshing pleasure in a romance.

The only thing that kept this from being an A+ read for me was the French Connection.  The difficulties exporting wine, or much of anything, from France to America isn’t hinted at.  Not even a bit of grousing about American merchant vessels being boarded; men and cargo confiscated by the British in search of French sympathizers and suppliers which, among other things, led to the war of 1812.  That no one spoke of or reflected on France, aside from vineyards, acceptance and glittering parties, making war on three fronts and the collateral damage involved, not to mention every able bodied man being conscripted, was a bit of a letdown for the history freak in me.

I probably would have been able to hand wave the French Connection because I love happy endings but though I want to, I could not quite buy it.  HOWEVER, this twinge did not ruin the other 98.673125521% of the book.  A Question of Class was a solid B+ read for me.  I am eager for Ms. Tagan to write more, more, more!

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