Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Winter Garden by Adele Ashworth ***

I read this book for my AAR Top 100 Quest - it's #83. After I got about half-way through, I decided to stop and read some reviews, because I was... Not exactly getting it.

The premise is that a Frenchwoman, Madeleine, illegitimate daughter of an English earl and a French opium-addicted actress, is now a 29-year-old spy in Marseille for the British government. She has been called to do an assignment in England with another operative, in which they are to uncover an opium-smuggling operation.

Now, opium trade is not illegal at the time the story takes place. What is illegal is that the opium is being stolen and distributed without paying the proper taxes. The operative currently in Winter Garden, Thomas, has specifically asked for her assistance, allegedly because she has become quite a favorite of the Home Office as being cunning, beautiful and successful in uncovering smuggling operations.

Thomas has leg injuries from The Opium War that cause him to limp, but in all other ways, we are told, he is quite well-built - muscular, tall, broad. Madeleine first sees him, without a shirt on despite the chill in the air, chopping woody weeds in the backyard, so we get quite an eyeful.

Madeleine's cover is that she is a widow, although in fact she's never been married. However, she is French, after all, raised by an actress, and supported herself as a dancer - all of which tells us she is no innocent virgin. She has had various lovers over the years, but is too dedicated to her work for the British government to bother with thoughts of true love and marriage. Thomas is in fact a widower, with a teen son off at boarding school. His cover is that he is a scholar writing his memoirs and Madeleine is translating them into French.

The story itself revolves around their attraction and Thomas' attempts to court Madeleine and win her love. It's not really that simple, however, and Ashworth uses quite a lot of sexual tension starting on page 6 to lead Madeleine into Thomas' heart as well as his bed. Actually, Madeleine's quite willing to have a brief affair before returning to France - it's Thomas who wants her heart or nothing. The smuggling operation takes backseat to their growing attraction and affection. So in fact it's more a character study, and not at all an action-packed spy thriller.

To be honest, I found it a little over-dramatic from the beginning. There was her immediate reaction to him (ok, shirtless, muscled, ok) and his reception of her (inhaled deeply, smelled her before he saw her), and then their tense, terse discourse, while we are given so much description that I actually had to go back a page to find the previous line of dialogue to match it to the response - more than once. Once I had gone back and read some reviews (which pointed out the character-driven nature of the story) I tried to read the rest of it with that in mind.

The sexual tension was so thick you needed Thomas' axe to get through it, but somehow I wasn't as satisfied as Madeleine when it was finally consummated. There were secrets to be revealed, and there was the smuggling operation which Thomas had already figured out anyway.

I had a very hard time believing Madeleine - raised in France by a French mother - hated France so much. Ok, so her mother wasn't exactly Donna Reed, but it isn't like she saw her father very often, or spent a lot of time in England. In fact, we are told she doesn't even learn to speak English until she is 15, so I kept wondering how she spoke English so well - when did she get to practice? Yes, she has an accent, we are told, but her dialogue is in almost perfect English. Basically, I wasn't convinced by Madeleine's actions or words that there was any reason for her to have the hatred for France that she harbored. I did want to believe that she was so dedicated to her work that she wasn't interested in love and marriage, really I did, but I just couldn't make the leap.

Ah - you see, therein lies the rub: the above paragraph is my inner dialogue while reading the book. If I can spend that much time wondering about her English proficiency while there's lust abounding in between lines of dialogue, obviously the prose has not led me in the direction the author [probably] intended.

If you like character-driven stories with quite a lot of angst and tension, this will be your cup of tea. Perhaps in another mood, I might have enjoyed it more myself. It's a sequel to Stolen Charms in which Madeleine is introduced, so perhaps reading that one first is a good idea, if you can find it - apparently it's almost as hard to find as Winter Garden.

3 stars.

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