At first when I received Anne Stuart’s Shameless for review from the publisher, I thought her name sounded vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t remember reading any of her work. Surprise! Not only had I read another of her books, I actually reviewed it last month. Oops. She was one of the three writers of Dogs and Goddesses, which was super cute and lots of fun, so I was really excited to read this historical romance billed as dark and suspenseful. The tone in Shameless was definitely a lot darker than that of Dogs and Goddesses, and I should state up front that there is some violence against women and children, although thankfully the author does not describe it in detail. Ms. Stuart takes the familiar trope of rake meets do-gooder and falls in lust and adds some sinister elements to the mystery which the two must solve. There was a lot to like about this book, but this particular installment of this series fell a bit flat for me, for reasons I’ll go into below. First, here’s a bit about the plot.
At the start of the novel, Viscount Benedick Rohan has just returned to London after a year of mandatory mourning after the death of his second wife. Lest you, like Oscar Wilde, find it careless of him to have lost two wives, allow me to inform you that both died in childbirth. Since he needs an heir, he has come to London to search for a new wife, a proper dull wife who will look the other way as he slakes his lust upon loose women. The heroine, Lady Melisande “Charity” Carstairs is a thirty-year-old widow who is using her late husband’s fortune to house and reform former prostitutes, hence her nickname “Charity”. She is both innocent and strait-laced, not at all the sort to interest the rakish Viscount Rohan. But when one of her prostitutes is brutally attacked by an aristocratic secret society and another disappears, Melisande seeks out the Viscount to ask for his assistance in finding the woman. It turns out that the men in Viscount Rohan’s family have a long-standing association with the society – they founded it. While there was always plenty of debauchery to be found at the society’s meetings in the past, it seems that a new master has appeared, and the sexual encounters are no longer consensual. As the two work together to find the missing women, they cannot deny their mutual attraction, and Melisande has to decide if she’s willing to risk everything for an affair with the dangerous Benedick.
The trope of the rake who falls for the good but fascinating lady is familiar and a favorite of mine. Georgette Heyer’s Venetia is one of my favorite romance novels of all time, and the sheer number of romances featuring a sexually experienced man reformed by the love of a good woman proves the popularity of the reformed rake. Ms. Stuart does an outstanding job of portraying the attraction between the two seemingly disparate lovers, and you can easily understand the temptation for Melisande, given her inexperience. Also, the villain of the novel is deliciously evil and the various twists of the plot behind the missing women made for tense reading.
While the novel is definitely not humorous overall, there are some moments that made me laugh. In a rather funny scene at the beginning of the book, Benedick sends for a prostitute who is known for her abilities with her mouth (ahem), not realizing that Violet has been taken in by Lady Melisande and is supposed to be reformed. Violet enjoys her former profession and makes her way to Viscount Rohan’s house, only to have Melisande burst in on the two of them just before anything really titillating happens. The Viscount assumes that the other woman is an abbess and makes lots of lewd comments, which shock, yes, SHOCK our innocent and well-meaning heroine. Later the poor woman is shocked again as the fallen women who live in Melisande’s house offer her lots of advice, most of which sails completely over her head. She has little of their experience, not having even seen a naked man despite being married and taking a lover. The scenes with the former prostitutes are lots of fun and provide some much needed comic relief from the tension throughout the novel.
There were only two things that prevent me from wholeheartedly suggesting this book. The first is the character of the hero, Benedick. He’s rather yummy in a sensual way, but I’m still not certain why he falls in love with Melisande. He doesn’t realize he’s done so until late in the book when someone informs him of the fact, but up until that point he really didn’t seem to be falling in love but rather in lust with Melisande. Other than his prowess in bed (which the prostitutes are more than happy to vouch for), I’m not sure why Melisande would want to be with him. He’s smug, conceited, and a bit of a jerk. He doesn’t show any signs of changing his character, other than his growing reluctance to seek out other women once he meets Melisande. Typically when the trope of the reformed rake is used, we gradually learn of his redeeming qualities (as happens with Sebastian in Lisa Kleypas’ Devil in Winter), but other than Benedick’s agreement to help Melisande find the missing woman, that is not the case here. Throughout the novel we’re reminded that he loved his first wife, Annis, who died in childbirth, but his actions don’t demonstrate that these events have changed him in any way. I was much more interested in Benedick’s younger brother, Brandon, who was seriously injured in the war in the Afghan and plays a role in the plot with the secret society. I hope that his story will be the next novel in the series, because there were several intriguing hints about a possible relationship with Mrs. Emma Cadbury, the former madam living in Melisande’s house.
The second complaint I have about the novel is fairly serious. At one point a young girl is stolen from Melisande’s house and everyone believes that she is going to be killed. Melisande’s behavior upon learning about the abduction borders on TSTL (too stupid to live). She decides to rescue the girl on her own and takes off to look for her. While her decision not to ask Benedick for help makes sense because he had been particularly cruel to her just prior to the incident, I have to wonder what she thought she could accomplish. Why she thought she’d be able to find the girl and free her on her own is beyond my comprehension. She just jumps in a carriage and goes, not considering that the men would be able to overpower her and had been assaulting women for months. Not surprisingly, the members of the society catch her and subject her to a sexual assault, although it seems clear they stopped short of rape. But what really blew my mind was that as soon as Benedick finds her and she tells him about the assault, she begs him to make love to her, to erase the memory of the others’ hands on her body. I don’t find it at all believable that a woman who’d been sexually assaulted would react in such a way immediately after the assault and with the men who had assaulted her nearby. Quite frankly, I found this scene offensive.
The scene after the assault pretty much spoiled the book for me. Until then, I had enjoyed the growing attraction between the hero and heroine, and the tension behind their attempts to prevent further abuse of women kept me turning the pages. Overall, Ms. Stuart’s writing is excellent – she’s descriptive in a way that makes the scenes come alive and the dialogue between the characters is witty and entertaining. For these reasons, I’m willing to give her next book (which I’m very much hoping is about Brandon Rohan) a try, despite my overwhelmingly negative reaction to the one scene late in the novel.