It has been nearly six years since Ms. Schone's last novel 'Gabriel's Woman' and in that time the erotic romance genre has grown from a few paltry titles into one of today's hottest markets in women's fiction. E-books have popularized erotic romance, making them widely available as well as giving newer romance writers their first taste of publication. Even Harlequin, seeing the way of the wind, has gleefully jumped into this market with its Blaze and Spice lines.
With the popularity of this genre, it is to be expected that some books which purport to be erotic romances concentrate heavily upon the erotic and leave the romance somewhere out of the final edit. Far from being a prude or a purist (because I do enjoy plain old erotica as well), I've found that these books attempt to out-kink their competition by throwing in as many sex scenes as they can encompassing practically every form of loveplay imaginable. However it is not just the sex that makes an erotic romance erotic. It is a skillful blending of plot and characters who come to life and become more than words on a page as well as the sexuality that makes an erotic romance not only worth reading, but keeping.
I own every book Ms. Schone has written as well as the two anthologies, Fascinated and Captivated and it is her two novellas in each--A Lady's Pleasure and A Man and A Woman--that I find myself re-reading simply because they're so passionate and true.
Ms. Schone's books are easily some of the most character-driven in any genre. One thing is that she has never written the standard and boring romance trope of perfect people with perfect bodies who get together and have perfect sex. In Scandalous Lovers she continues that tradition with two of the most `realistic" people to date. Frances Hart and James Whitcox are so much like everyday people that it's almost impossible to believe that they never lived. By the time I finished the book, not only did I believe, but hoped they found happiness together.
Frances Hart is truly every woman some time in her life who yearns and seeks out something more than just what society says should fulfill her. Frances is 49 (certainly not the typical nubile twenty-something heroine), a mother, a grandmother and a widow who needs to know that there is more to her life than that. She comes to London three months after her husband's death to find that something.
What she finds is The Men's and Women's Club (which was the original title of the novel), a group of people from all walks of life who get together to discuss equality between the sexes. One member of this unusual gathering, a barrister named James Whitcox whose life outside of the club has also been regulated by what society deems acceptable for a man, seeks more than the dry, analytical discourses that to him completely skirt around what he truly wants to know. When Frances accidentally stumbles upon their meeting, James is quick to ask her what a woman desires.
From that moment on, James and Frances become what society has never allowed them to be--a man and a woman who feel deeply and passionately. Together they discover what they've never known possible both sexually and emotionally as the rest of the members of the club struggle to make sense of their own growing desires and fears. The sex scenes between James and Frances are powerful, pulling the reader into these tender, intimate moments and making the reader feel every quiver and whisper against their skin. It's almost like reading about two people who are virgins, and in a way, they are. Some readers may find James' discovery of passion unbelievable considering his past liaisons, but sex is no substitute for finding one's soul mate and learning to live.
It is Frances' eldest son David, seeing the changes London has wrought in his mother, is quick to castigate her for not accepting her lot as both a widow and a mother and decides that in order to "help" her, signs a lunacy order to have Frances put away in a sanitarium until she comes to her senses. Frances, hurt and betrayed refuses to submit meekly and decides to sue her own son for her emancipation. Sad to say this was an accepted practice in Victorian society for those women who didn't have the means to live their own lives.
One of the most memorable lines in Scandalous Lovers comes from Mrs. Jenkins, Frances' sixty-six year old housekeeper whom she catches in an intimate moment with the butler, Mr. Denton--"A woman's got one life: she's got to reach out and grab it with both hands or it'll pass her by and leave nothing but a smelly old fart in her face."
My only complaint with this book was that Frances' trial ended too soon and seemed to have been rushed. Though each of the members testified, it would have been fascinating to find out how their testimony changed them afterwards.
That being said, Robin Schone is the standard by which every novel that considers itself to be an erotic romance should be held to. Her books have always been of the highest caliber; beautiful, poetic and unashamedly sexual with characters anyone of us can relate to on some level. Her stories are complex and make the reader consider their own beliefs towards sexuality, especially sexuality that isn't about the young and beautiful. Ms. Schone writes as she lives--a champion of female sexuality and her characters, though from a bygone age, still have much to show us in that we may have come a long way from the repressive Victorian era, but it doesn't take much to slide us back. And in the end, we all have the right to love.