What an incredible book.
It's so good, I'm not even grading it against other Mills and Boon novels, or Presents. It is, quite simply, a dark, subversive, utterly insane (and I mean batshit crazy) romance. It is a category ON CRACK. And I loved it.
To begin with, a summary. Denzil Black is the Vampire Lover in question, darkly handsome and irresistible to women. Clare Summer, our heroine, is a cool blond ice queen, a successful estate agent with an armoured heart. From the beginning, she fears and distrusts Denzil, noting the effect he has on his lovers. First they are hopelessly infatuated and then, as his interest wanes, so they appear to physically weaken, become pale, listless and ghostlike (indeed, one hapless woman is diagnosed with anaemia). Clare wants nothing more than to stay out of his way, but when Denzil begins to show an interest in her young sister - beautiful, childlike and dangerously vulnerable to his charms - she knows she must act.
And boy, does she act.
I loved lots of things about this novel, but I'll mention a few. Firstly, all the allusions to vampires. It's quite cheeky and not at all subtle, but Lamb goes to town with her hero, Denzil Black, who comes into Clare's town in a swirling black coat and buys the large Victorian gothic house called Dark Tam. ...she saw the man's long black coat blowing around his legs, as if he had wings and might take off at any moment and flap away into the night. At one point, Denzil enquires, "Do you like bats, Miss Summer?" Denzil himself is a big shot director and his last project is a darkly erotic 'vampire film.' Then there is the time Clare can't find his reflection in a glass window (ha) and the dreams she has, in which Denzil 'floats' towards her and bites her: she was fainting, sighing with something between horror and intense excitement, her eyes closing again, the darkness overwhelming her.
And let's not forget, Lucy, Clare's younger sister, shares the name of Dracula's beautiful victim in Bram Stoker's novel.
I also love the physical malaise of Denzil's 'victims' (as Clare thinks of them). No less than two of his ex-lovers are hospitalised and Clare watches with horror as her sister becomes 'pale and edgy, living on her nerves; that was how he made women look.' I love the idea of this, the physical manifestation of heartbreak, the consequence of Denzil' emotional vampirism.
Clare is the antithesis of his victims, who are characterised by their emotional fragility and neediness. She is smart, cool and intelligent. Her reaction to Denzil's other women is a combination of horror and contempt, thinking at one point that a woman who lets a man treat her badly 'deserves a good slap.' (Denzil remarks, 'One day I must find out whether or not you have any blood in your veins.") Of course, Clare has a reason for her coldness; a past betrayal that has taught her to protect herself at all costs. This is threatened by Denzil, whose very presence seems to terrify her, and around whom she constructs the fantasy of a deadly, life-leaching monster, a demon lover.
Clare knows she is beautiful, that her legs are long and slender, her hair sleek and that men like the way she looks. Unlike the other categories I've read recently (mostly Presents), it is Clare who jumps to all the wrong conclusions about Denzil, who judges him harshly for his sexual past. Moreover, Clare is definitely the active agent in this novel, acting decisively when she finds her sister threatened, and taking outrageous steps to stop Denzil from ruining her life.
Which leads me to That Scene. The scene where, unbelievably, Clare decides to take matters into her own hands by drugging the hero, tying him up and, effectively, raping him.
Even warned, I could not believe what I was reading. Let's face it, if a guy tried any of this, he would be roundly and rightly condemned. So what makes this any better? At one point, dying to kiss her trussed victim, Clare considers taking advantage of his unconscious state -
She stared fixedly at him, trembling. He was out of it. He'd never know. She could do what she liked and he wouldn't know anything about it.
Yikes. It is a truly creepy moment and at this point, my outrage and sympathy were all for poor, drugged Denzil. But the very next page, I'm rooting for Clare. Yes, she's made him powerless, yes, she's touching him against his will, but hasn't he done the same to her (hasn't every hero of every Presents done the same?):
"A game was it? You touched me against my will, remember? Like this..." She ran her long index finger over his chest... "'helpless' was the word you used - you said we were at war, and I was a helpless prisoner. Well, look who's the prisoner now. How does it feel?"
He looked stupified.
As did I, reading the passage. Seriously, in one scene, it felt as though Lamb threw away the rule book and let it rip. There is something extraordinarily compelling about Clare's (forced?) seduction of Denzil, and how it frees her of her inhibitions and ultimately forces her to confront her true feelings. "I think I want you," she said, conversationally.
And she takes him.
Of course, things have to go back to 'normal.' In the end, after Clare has dealt with her sister and saved the day, she returns to her shackled lover, frees him, and consequently loses some of her power when Denzil cuffs her to his wrist. He takes the lead in their lovemaking this time, and Clare recognises that she is losing her power and her control over him, that she is as vulnerable to him as he is to her.
There is plenty wrong with the story. I found the depiction of the other women - needy and helpless - deeply unsympathetic. And there's no denying Clare is a little brutal in her manipulation of her little sister (when Denzil points this out, I cheered). Moreover, the description of Clare's outfit - the one with which she practically rapes her lover, no less - made me laugh and cringe at once:
She was wearing a pale blue angora sweater, a string of pearls around her throat, a pale grey pleated skirt and over that a short grey jacket...
But anyway, an enthralling read. Refreshing and shocking and highly readable. An A. Why not.
For another take on this tale, try Sandra Schwab's review.