Wickerley trilogy through InterMix, their electronic-only Romance imprint. These books are a beloved and memorable part of the genre, yet I had not read them before. I confess that I was mildly intrigued by To Have and To Hold, the second book in the series, but unlike the rest of Romanceland, I was not eager to read them. But enthusiasm is catching and after my friends started talking about reviews, discussions and book clubs, I ended up buying the book on re-release day. After reading the book, I feel compelled to join the conversation now that I clearly understand why the book is so popular, even though my ultimate reading experience wasn't as successful as I was expecting it to be.
To Have and To Hold tells the story of Sebastian, the most bored, jaded and debauched hero ever. And when I say jaded, I mean that he’s done and had everything and anything money can buy. So when fate lands Rachel, a widow who spent ten years in prison for murdering her husband, on his lap, he seizes the opportunity to have some unique enjoyment. That is, her complete hopelessness, inability to make even the simplest decision, and her absolute and utter vulnerability, make him want to torment and push her until the breaking point. It doesn't take long for him to realize that she’s way past her breaking point, which only makes him even more horny and rapey.
Rachel, on the other hand, has been released from a prison that broke her. She doesn't know what to do, can’t look people directly to the face, and can’t even express herself properly because there’s almost no herself left. The one thing she has clear, though, is that she won’t go back to jail, and if she does, she will take her own life. When Sebastian avoids her return to jail and offers her a position as a housekeeper of his derelict state, Rachel accepts because even if his not-so-good intentions are obvious, so what? Been there, done that, have the t-shirt to prove it.
I mentioned before that I wasn't eager to read the book, the reason being that I was expecting an angst-fest of memorable proportions, and it’s been a while since I've been up to such levels of drama. Surprisingly, the story does have all the necessary ingredients to make an epic melodrama, yet the end result is organic and even realistic --albeit over the top-- pain and suffering. This was due to the character dispensing the pain and suffering being completely unapologetic about it (and the narrative doesn't apologize for him either) and the character on the receiving end just taking it as if it were the most natural thing, perhaps because for one third of her life it was the natural thing. This doesn't make the story more palatable, but it dramatically changes the reading experience from one of emotional involvement, to that of a voyeuristic detachment. I couldn't look away, even if I really wanted to.
I’m glad I kept reading, because Rachel’s progressive but subtle journey to reclaim herself is quite impressive, even if not entirely satisfying. And I say this because she never truly gets a choice or the freedom to decide what to do with her life, which makes it hard not to feel like she got the less dirty end of a really shitty stick. But then again, I’m pretty sure she would end up choosing Sebastian, so I guess her end of the stick was cleaner than it looked. Much like the whole book, the HEA is uncomfortable, but I can get on board with the “happy” part of it.
Sebastian was an interesting character that made me question my idea of heroism, perhaps because it seems to question Romance’s collective idea of what makes a hero. When he first meets Rachel, he’s attracted to how broken and hopeless she is, not as a savior, but as a man amused and aroused by the challenge of breaking her even more. He enjoys teasing her and can’t wait to seduce her once he realizes there’s some fight left in her. He’s intrigued and eager to know what horrors she faced during her marriage and time in jail, but he doesn't force her to talk about it. It may look like he’s doing it out of some hidden kindness, but in truth, he just enjoys waiting, stalking and wearing her as the helpless prey she is.
The one thing Sebastian can’t wait to do is to seduce her; something he does repeatedly and by force. He is a rapist, even if he doesn't admit to it. But Rachel, the reader and more importantly, the text, clearly acknowledges and makes no apologies for him. That’s why when he thinks that pleasure equals seduction and says things like this (emphasis mine):
“Relax, Mrs. Wade,” he whispered. “Don’t make it a rape.” He opened one of her closed hands and pressed it against his chest, slid it across his nipple.
“If I . . .”
It came out the barest sigh, possibly not words at all. “If you . . . ?” he prompted, brushing her hair with his lips. How could he ever have disliked her hair?
“If I begged you . . .”
“If you begged me to what?”
“Stop,” she gasped, at the moment he slid her rigid palm down to his stomach.
He soothed her by holding still, not moving her hand lower, where he wanted it. “There are many things I look forward to hearing you beg me for,” he murmured against her forehead. “But do you know, stopping isn’t one of them.”
We know he’s been disingenuous.
The clear and unapologetic way in which his actions are presented as nothing but pure self-indulgence and cruelty is what keeps the book from becoming a disgusting, unreadable mess. There’s not even a secret pain or a terrible childhood to justify his actions. He is inexcusable.
But can he be redeemed? I’m not sure. Halfway through the book I was willing to wait and see. The problem for me was that Sebastian’s breaking point turned Rachel’s suffering into collateral damage effectively making it all about him instead of her. This guy was truly committed to his selfishness, which meant that the second half of the story felt anticlimactic and made his change and newfound love hard to believe. Not to mention that it concluded with a misunderstanding, because apparently the inner conflict wasn't enough.
I didn't enjoy the book, but I liked it. It takes some of the oldest tropes and themes (forced seduction, the rake, etc.) and strips them of their romanticism forcing us to look at them under a different, less forgiving light. I’m glad I read it, although I doubt I’ll ever revisit it.
Review by Brie
After spending ten years in prison for killing her husband, the newly released Rachel Wade is picked up for vagrancy and brought before the magistrate, Sebastian Verlaine, Viscount D'Aubrey. Bored, debauched, selfish and quite willing to admit it, Sebastian is intrigued by Rachel, who seems old beyond her years and beaten by the world. From the first, Sebastian admits that his attraction for Rachel has something a bit perverse about it an odd theme that runs the length of this romance set in 19th-century England. To save Rachel from another jail term, he hires her as his housekeeper, a position, everyone assumes, that includes more intimate duties. After it becomes obvious that Rachel suffered at the hands of her husband, Sebastian continues to force Rachel to submit to his own selfish desires. Gaffney tries to justify this by the fact that he wants only "to give her pleasure," while her dead husband had found "pleasure in giving her pain." The explanation is not enough to take the bad taste from one's mouth, nor does it help endear a hero who in one scene allows his jaded London friends to spend an amusing evening in tormenting Rachel about her past. Gaffney may have written a different kind of romance, but it is also unsavory.To Have and to Hold: (Intermix) (A WYCKERLEY NOVEL) by Patricia Gaffney
Intermix. June 18, 2003 (originally published in 1995 by Topaz)