The golden do-gooder son of the debauched, aristocratic Godwin family has a series of uncanny encounters that draw him in deeper and deeper to an intense sexual relationship with a moody, wealthy widow who’s obsessed with fine art. As the strange symbols and incidents pile up, the two begin to suspect his lecherous great-grandfather’s ghost may be pulling the strings.
Verdict: old-fashioned world of titled British aristocracy, with over-the-top symbolism, lots of art references, and a high degree of supernatural intervention
As with other titles I review pre-publication, I went into this without any real idea what it was about. Apparently Reisz has other books about the same fictional Godwin family – based on the references dropped in the book, I would assume our leading man Arthur’s love story was preceded by his parents’ and his older sister’s – but without knowing those, I still followed the story just fine.
There were 3 main elements of this book that I didn’t expect, none of which are my cup of tea. However, I want to clarify upfront that if the following three things appeal to you, you may find this a very worthwhile read. It’s simply that my own personal preferences normally point elsewhere.
The first is the supernatural elements. These become increasingly apparent later in the story, with an especially surreal scene where our heroine Regan enters a supposedly ghost-induced hallucination, in which she is confronted with the embodiment of her unacknowledged fears and desires. Personally, I think the unsubtle insertion of meddling ghosts is a cop-out – the kind of deus ex machina that could be resolved instead with more realism and difficulty. But if you like a good family ghost that blatantly blurs the line between reality and fantasy, this may be for you.
The second was Arthur and Regan’s sexual dynamic. This book has a lot of explicit scenes, and Arthur is a younger man who likes to be dominated by an older woman. (Regan is thirty, and Arthur supposedly twenty-one, although Regan seems at one point to think he’s twenty.)
Given the number of romance novels out there about younger women who submit to older, wealthier men, this book might be doing a service by catering to the reverse desire. Not everyone is into the more common male-dominant tropes (we all know the ones I’m talking about: hotshot billionaire takes young lady in hand, controlling Adonis with eight-pack imposes his will on pretty young thing, yadda yadda yadda).
But to be honest, even if you have a different itch, this book may or may not scratch it. I was surprised to find that Arthur clearly calling the shots for a good portion of their encounters as the book progressed further, even though they kept nominally saying Regan was the dominant one and that he belonged to her. Arthur actually takes charge, forces her to make changes, and plays her protector quite often. It left me with a vague impression that this book wants to have its cake and eat it, too. If you’re interested in both these dynamics – both man who submits and man who takes control – then perhaps this relationship will speak to you.
The third surprising element was the storytelling style. There was something old-fashioned, almost a tad removed, about the overall narrative voice. I found a certain charm in that. For the first several pages, I couldn’t tell if it was period piece. Turns out it’s not a Regency novel, although it’s an understandable mistake, given that Arthur is a very gentlemanly lord with the nickname “King Arthur.”
Although I appreciate its quaintness, the writing style is also incredibly on the nose, especially with all the art. I actually love a book that incorporates art history, and Reisz structures each chapter around a painting, which is a storytelling device I really like. But this book really knows how to take a painting and smash the reader over the head with it like a mallet. No subtlety or room for the reader to draw their own implicit parallels at all. Just explicit representations. Extremely overt symbolism and foreshadowing. For chrissakes, Regan feeds bloody bits of flesh to a pet raven named Gloom – Gloom – who speaks in Poe quotes. Oh, and Gloom became her pet after she’d tended it as a broken bird, and the theme of chapter nine is the painting “The Wounded Dove,” which depicts a girl nursing an injured bird. We get it, jeez.
TLDR: Read if you like a man who submits to a woman in the bedroom, a charmingly old-fashioned storytelling voice despite the graphic sex, and rather unsubtle usage of ghosts, visions, and art.
(Credits: Advance review copy provided by 8th Circle Press. Image c/o author’s Facebook. Hits shelves Dec 1 2020.)