The Mistress of Trevelyan

 
His Dark Desires
by Jennifer St. Giles
(Pocket, $6.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-7434-8626-9
**
With vague characters, vague plotting and a vague suggestion of a ghost, I found this book vaguely dissatisfying.

Following the Civil War, Juliet Boucheron is in danger of losing her home to rising taxes and maintenance costs. In spite of her financial difficulties, her neighbors are convinced that the gold bullion her husband is rumored to have stolen from the Confederate cause is hidden somewhere on the property. Juliet believes her husband is dead, but only because she can’t believe he would steal the money and desert his family. To make matters more confusing, the private investigator that Juliet has secretly hired to investigate, um, something, we’re not sure what, sends her a cryptic message telling her that she’s in danger and that she must trust no one, and then disappears.

Until she can learn more, Juliet decides to ‘protect’ her son and two younger sisters by keeping any intimation of danger from them, and continues to take in the boarders that are their only source of income. When handsome Stephen Trevelyan, of the wealthy Trevelyan shipping family, shows up on her doorstep, Juliet wonders why he does not wish to stay in more luxurious accommodations in nearby New Orleans, but she’s soon distracted by the dark desire that smolders in his eyes.

This book is written in the first person (Juliet’s), but I never knew quite why. One of the advantages of the first person point of view is to filter everything through the unique perspective of the storyteller – what they see, what they miss, what they misunderstand. But Juliet doesn’t seem to have a perspective and her narration is extremely detached. As a result, the reader gets little insight into either her character or anyone else’s.

This is particularly problematic in a book with such a large population. The townspeople, relatives, servants and boarders are presumably intended to offer lots of choices about who the villain or villains might be. But because there’s so little differentiation between them, they tend to blur together to create a confusing muddle rather than breeding a sense of menace.

This is particularly disappointing in the case of the hero, who remains an indistinct presence throughout the book. I think he’s supposed to be an ambiguous character, typical of the gothic hero, and Juliet’s immediate physical infatuation with him should have contributed to this, but she never manages to convey this to the reader. Juliet occasionally says he worries her, but she never acts worried. As a result, instead of making him seem menacing, this behavior just makes her seem dim.

This is a real trap in writing first person narration, and it’s one that the author falls into constantly: it’s far easier to have the narrator tell us what the author wants us to know rather than showing us. We’re told that Juliet and Stephen are falling for each other, but I never believed it because I didn’t see it happen. What I saw was some groping and a physical attraction that I did not believe was love.

The lack of actual darkness in the book, in spite of the title, was further eroded by the tendency towards flowery language and an annoying habit of dropping French words in, here and there, to remind us that Juliet’s family is francophone. Since they spoke English constantly, oui and Mon Dieu, and monsieur fell into the conversation with an awkward clunk. And “trés wonderful” is ridiculous in either language.

The lack of urgency slows the pace to a stagger, as does the fact that Juliet is more interested in the contours of Stephen’s physique than in the fact that someone seems to be trying to burn her house down. And one word of advice to authors: please don’t give your story a ghost unless the ghost actually plays some role. A few vague mentions of the possibility of a specter really don’t add anything positive to a story that already lacks direction.

This author set herself up with what should have been a compelling romantic mystery. Unfortunately, her characters just wander around until someone else shows up to solve it.

-- Judi McKee


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