|Renee Bernard's debut romance, A Lady's Pleasure, was praised for its freshness. The plotline of her second Madame's Deception promised similar originality: a bluestocking debutante who has inherited a brothel must fight off the attentions of a young aristocrat. Sadly, Bernard doesn't go very far with her deliciously titillating premise.
Educated in some of the most exclusive academies for young ladies, Jocelyn Tolliver is shocked to discover that her mother is in fact an infamous madame. She nevertheless promises her, at her death-bed, to take care of the Crimson Bell and the women who work there. Some ten years later, Jocelyn is still running the place, thanks in large part to her mother's trusted servant. Jocelyn has managed to keep her face and her identity from everyone who frequents the place. Everyone, that is, but Alex Randall, a young aristocrat known as "Lord Saint" to his friends because of his dislike of scandal. After one meeting, Alex is completely besotted with the unexpectedly charming madame and offers to buy her services for the season.
It's obvious why this could have been a great story. With Jocelyn trying to hold on to the last vestiges of her training and Alex trying to assert his control, with her disreputable profession and his obsession with social form, there is a great potential for conflict. Bernard ignores all of it and goes for sex rather than sexual tension. The virgin madame gives in to her desire almost immediately. This allows for a non-stop sequence of descriptive bedroom romps, but without any buildup or anticipation, these scenes lack luster and seem rather mechanical. (I would also note that, despite Jocelyn's rather extensive collection of rare books on the erotic arts, there is nothing exceptional about the lovers' numerous experiments.)
The characters' inner conflicts aren't any more engaging. Nothing in Alex's behavior convinces me that he deserves his reputation as a saint. It was therefore hard for me to sympathize with the alleged discomfort he felt when pursuing a more permanent relationship. Not that he agonizes too long about it: he decides fairly quickly that he is in love with Jocelyn and will marry her regardless of her past and of social opposition. I suppose this makes him an honorable hero, but it didn't do much to hold my attention.
As for Jocelyn, I just couldn't buy her goody-goody managerial skills. Not only does she ensure that her employees benefit from excellent working conditions, she also provides them with lessons in literature, history and Latin. She insists, of course, that this is to the benefit of the house: aristocratic clients, claims the madame, prefer more cultured company. Perhaps. But this is Victorian England we are talking about, puritanical on the surface and sordid underneath. However appealing and politically correct Jocelyn's generosity and scruples might seem, they are a little hard to swallow. Besides, a darker side, or at the very least some grayish conflicts would have gone some way in making her more multi-dimensional.
The novel also features several minor characters and a small subplot involving murderous attacks on prostitutes (Bernard's attempt to introduce the seedy underside of Victorian London?), but this too is resolved too quickly. With no one to care about and nothing to look forward to, I found myself turning the pages just to get to the end. Spare yourself the pain and the trouble, and head for something more engrossing.