Professor Viola Bennett has written a scathing review of Stephen Silkwood’s latest novel, finding his detective hero Max quite a brute–and now she gets to share a stage with him on a panel. Oh, but there’s more: eleven years ago, when she was a tender 17-year-old, he was her first love, and her first kiss!
I’ll start off with a note from the Fair Warnings Department: this book just almost landed itself a Trigger Warning rating, for discussion of spousal abuse, and depiction of aggressive sexual behavior. More about that, and my reasons, just ahead.
That said, this is a delightfully meta situation I find myself in–a reviewer of romance novels reviewing a romance about a reviewer of mystery novels, whose author is her love interest, and whose main protagonist is an obnoxious lout. The story’s setting and heroine are thoroughly believable, and our hero…well, he’s almost an anti-hero, in a few ways. Peculiar fellow, though it’s easy to see why Viola falls for him. The Second Chance at Love series features stories with grown ups getting a second go-around, and both of our protagonists are divorced adults who know their own minds and know more-or-less what they want out of life. Their back-and-forth of a relationship is engaging, and kept me reading straight through.
I’d feel remiss if I didn’t talk about my misgivings about this tale, though. In a number of scenes, Stephen does some role-play which channels his creation, Max, from his own novels (confused yet?). Viola wonders a number of times if there really is any difference between Max and Stephen, and his role-plays do not help her doubts, nor does her past history. Max’s behavior–I’ll call it like I see it–is that of a callous, misogynistic rapist. That might have been acceptable writing in 1984, but it’s a little edgy for today, I think, and it threatens the viability of the tale at a number of instances. I say that, but I could be wrong–look at the final chapter of Fifty Shades of Grey for similar sorts of things. In the early going, when Stephen didn’t clearly delineate when he was role-playing, it did make me quite uncomfortable.
Viola is an interesting woman. Without giving you too many spoilers, she has had an interesting life, one that would make some women turn into old spinsters, very much the stereotypical 30-year-old schoolmarm (even at college level) who won’t ever get involved. And, indeed, at the beginning of the story, she’s been living that way for a while. A brief side story with another professor, however, gives a hint that her schoolmarm act wasn’t running the menfolk off that effectively. It’s clear to us, very early on, that she thinks that Stephen is trifling with her–he’s not said Those Magic Words That Every Woman Wants To Hear, of course, and that keeps her off-balance and wondering. The denouement, natch, clears this problem up, and she gets to become the confident person she was at the outset of the story again, only with her new-found love close at hand.
Formulaic? Sure. Predictable? Oh, quite. But Beguiled gives us a solid page-turner that won’t disappoint.