Sunday, 29 April 2012

Sweet Revenge by Nora Roberts

Sweet Revenge (1988)
Nora Roberts
Grade: A+
Genre: romantic suspense
Sex scenes: mild
Source: eBay

Whenever I've finished reading a good book, I'll often feel (depending on the book, of course; amongst other things) happy at the ending, sad that it's over and excited to read it again. All of these are usually with a grin on my face, accompanied by some undignified squealing. Having just literally finished Sweet Revenge in the last five minutes (I read this in the middle of February - this is how long it takes me to get from writing the review to posting it) I'm feeling all these things but most of all, energised and exhilerated. Sweet Revenge is a book to have you smiling, laughing, crying (I teared up a few times; I've yet to find a book that makes me cry) and on-the-edge-of-your-seat deep in the action. Some people might find the concept rather hard to believe or just plain ridiculous, but I think that NR's magical storytelling makes you forget all that and just accept the plot for what it is: utterly brilliant.

I told myself I would wait till I wrote this review because 1) I knew when I was reading it that it would be pretty damn good and I should bask for a while before putting my thoughts on paper and; 2) I still have to finish reviews for two other titles that I've neglected and must write before I get into the bad habit of not writing reviews for the sole reason that I can't be bothered. Needless to say, these two reviews still haven't been written.

A note on spoilers: I personally hate to read spoilers and will not read a review/article etc if it has been flagged as being spoiler-y. I've had some annoying experiences with spoilers for books and TV shows, so I'll now steer clear until I've read/watched them before reading the review. My mother, on the other hand, has been known to flip to the last chapter of a book and read it to decide whether the book is worth reading before starting from the beginning. This goes against the grain so much that I shudder thinking about it - why on EARTH would you want to do that to yourself? Part of the enjoyment is the building up of suspense/excitement whilst reading the book; if you're going to read the denouement first, then it's redundant to then read the whole thing when you know what's all the suspense is leading up to. I know that a lot of my reviews (books and TV) have had a mix of both major and minor spoilers. I'm going to try to not give spoilesr as much as I can, except where I think that the spoiler is so obvious that it's not really going to affect your enjoyment of the book. You might feel differently; if you want a spoiler-free review, you're going to have to go elsewhere.

I first read Honest Illusions in June 2010, a little over a year after I first started reading NR. If my records (and counting) is correct, it was my forty-sixth NR novel, including the twenty-nine In Death books I'd read by this point. Lists are an obsession of mine, clearly. All the other NR books at this time had been contemporaries and what I call her 'strong women, powerful suspense' books. These latter books are not actually a series, but I consider them to have a loose theme and thus group them together in my head and on my Shelfari shelf. All UK editions feature the phrase on the back (e.g. Blue Smoke, Angels Fall, High Noon, The Villa etc) and the reference has just stuck in my brain. So I'd done romantic suspense, but none of what I would later call NR's 'oxymoron' novels: Hot Ice, Hidden Riches, Carnal Innocence, Private Scandals etc. There are ten books in what I call this 'series' and I now have only two more to get my hands on - not the easiest of tasks. These novels have been the source of some of my favourite NR books and when I finished reading Honest Illusions, it was my favourite of all NR books that I had read up to that point and I was convinced that it would be my favourite EVER. Certainly, it features in my top ten favourite books ever, but now I'm not quite so sure about its position amongst other NR books. Sweet Revenge has taken my breath away and I'll need to get ahold of a copy of Honest Illusions before I can judge whether Sweet Revenge really has managed to knock the former off its pedestal. When I do get round to it, it will be a very close call.

I knew, at least before I got to the end of part one, that Sweet Revenge would be a special book, and now I'm going to stop rambling, give a plot summary and then tell you why Sweet Revenge will blow your mind.

Princess Adrianne 'Addy' of Jaquir, an oil-rich country in the Middle East, has known from a young age that her father despises her. King Abdu and Phoebe Spring, a world-class Oscar nominee actress both fell headlong into love when they met in America. Enough in love for the pair to marry, defying custom in the process, and Phoebe to give up her life, culture and career for the protected, routine life of the harem in Jaquir. With her 'Bride Price' of The Sun and The Moon, the fusion of a two-hundred and eighty carat diamond and the two-hundred and fifty carat pearl from the Persain Gulf - a priceless piece with a turbulent history and the most valuable piece of jewellery in Jaquir - Phoebe knows that her love for Abdu will help her overcome the discomfort of her upheaval.

That is, until she bears a daughter and is told she can bear no more children. Abdu discards Phoebe like you would a sock with a hole in the toe, and takes on a second wife (he is permitted four) who gives him the son and heir that he desires.  Phoebe finds herself trapped, unable to escape Jaquir with Adrianne without being caught and punished. However much Abdu hates Phoebe for (in his eyes) enchanting him and bringing a foreigner into the House of Jaquir, he takes pleasure from knowing that Phoebe is under his control. Phoebe becomes dependent on pills to blur reality and get her though her life.

Adrianne is only five when the story begins but already has a fierce loyalty to her mother and a deep-rooted desire to please her father, even though she is aware of the fruitlessness of her task. She doesn't understand why he hates her and ignores her; it is only when she witnesses his violence against Phoebe that her own hatred starts to develop and she vows revenge.

On a press trip to Paris, Phoebe (with a clear head, for once) loses their guards in the Louvre, grabs Adrianne and runs for New York with the help of her best friend Celeste. Not only is she running from Abdu, but she is also trying to protect Addy from the education in Germany and planned marriage that Abdu has arranged for their daughter. Freedom, however, is not so sweet: Phoebe is unable to pick up her career after the ten years she's been away and she turns evermore to drugs and drink to numb the pain.

Philip Chamberlain, meanwhile - so British! I love that he's British; I'm pretty sure he's NR's only British hero - has been a thief from a young age. He started out with petty thievery but is good at what he does and is planning bigger and better things to help his young, hard-working mother get out of the cramped ticket booth where she works and into a life where she doesn't have to worry about money.

Fast-forward several times and Philip has retired as the most successful jewel thief in history. He wasn't ever caught, but he decided to get out while he could and now works for Interpol catching other thieves. He has been set on the heels of 'The Shadow,' an enigmatic thief who could possibly usurp Philip from his title. While in London, he meets Addy at a fundraiser. At twenty-five with her father's Bedouin looks and every inch the poised and regal Princess, Addy is a much sought after woman - not that she gives any man the time of day. The ugliness of her parents' relationship has put Addy of all men - until she meets Philip, that is. But Addy has no time for such distractions; she's been planning for nearly twenty years and she will avenge her mother and reclaim what is rightfully hers: The Sun and The Moon.

Intrigued enough? I'm going to now try not to spoiler too much.

NR knows how to write a whopper of a book. It's books like this - the older stuff, but not the oldest - that sit on a special shelf in my heart. I'm not certain why I loved it so much, but Sweet Revenge struck a chord with me. I'm going to see if I can explain why.

I really love it when NR starts a book as she does this one: with a prologue set in the present filled with enough mystery to suck you in, followed by a jump back into the heroine's childhood, with a fast-forward back into the present. The only other book I can think of off the top of my head that does this is Honest Illusions; considering what I've already said about it being my favourite, it's no wonder that I loved the use of the same technique here. I'll come back to comparisons between Honest Illusions and Sweet Revenge later.

Witnessing Jaquir and the harem through Addy's innocent eyes was fascinating. I'm definitely no expert in Middle Eastern cultures, but I think I've read enough of similar books to have an adequate understanding of what is expected from women. I have no idea what sort of research NR did for this book and thus no idea of how accurate she managed to capture the lifestyle, but she paints a very good picture. Her presentation of Phoebe's isolation and depression despite being constantly surrounded by people is a sad paradox. That Jaquir is a fictional country only makes it ironically (to me, at least) all the more alive.

The treatment of Phoebe and Addy both emotionally and sexually (in Jaquir and then in America) is graphically violent and abusive. Not quite on the scale of Eve's experiences in In Death, but any kind of sexual abuse resonates powerfully with the reader, however it is described. The rape, seen and heard through Addy's eyes - who doesn't even know how to describe what her father is doing - is brutal and not for the faint-hearted. While I can only imagine, NR captures the desperation that Phoebe feels as a woman subject to her husband's every whim both poignantly and beautifully - not literally - and in this, you can't help but commend NR for this portrayal while your heart bleeds for Phoebe.

I think Addy is - straight out - awesome. She's been brought up to believe that women are inferior and subject to the commands of their male family members; the 'job' of a wife is to give her husband pleasure and sons to uphold his good name. Her reaction to the liberalism of Paris and America is sweet to watch. She adapts herself to this lifestyle hesitantly at first, until it becomes something she needs. Having been born and grown up in England, I definitely take my freedom and rights for granted, but that awareness that others, right this second, don't get a choice in what they can freely do, is a powerful reminder (especially given the Arab Spring) that society and upbringing has a huge impact in shaping a person's identity and way of thinking. Addy and I had vastly different childhoods (and I'm talking here like she's a real person, so humour me) but that she's thrown off her shackles, so to speak, and taken the assertive role in her own life, is a hugely empowering feeling for women.

Addy is fiercely protective of Phoebe and it's heartbreaking to see the latter abandon herself while Addy and Celeste are powerless to stop Phoebe's slow, inevitable slide to destruction. It's one of these scenes where I almost cried, if you were wondering. As a result of Phoebe's depression, Addy is forced to grow up quickly and shoulder responsibilities for her mother that most children aren't reqired to take. Her strength and perseverance through the worst of times is painful to read and only increases the respect I have for Addy. Here is an exchange between Addy and Althea Gray, a rival actress. Addy is at a party with her mother and Phoebe and Althea have just had an uncomfortable (for Phoebe) conversation. Addy then overhears Althea discussing her mother with others.

Random man: "She had something once" ... "There's never been anyone quite like her."
Althea: "Cruises down memory lane are so frigging boring."
Addy: "Not as boring as hearing a second-rate actress whine."
Althea: "Oh, dear" ... "Little pitchers have big ears."
Addy: "Small talent have large egos."
Althea: "Run along, dear. This is an adult conversation."
Addy: "Really? It sounded remarkably immature to me. Dear."
Althea: "Rude little brat. Someone ought to teach you some manners."
Addy: "I don't need lessons in manners from a woman like you. I don't see anyone here who can teach me anything except hypocrisy."

Okay, so I hadn't intended to quote that much, and I've taken a few liberties with the dialogue, but I think you get the idea. Addy's unswerving loyalty to her mother is wonderful to read; I don't know if I would have the courage to confront a group like that.

Despite her later dependency on drugs and her daughter, I do respect Phoebe. She was deeply in love with Abdu and gave up everything for love. That she still loves him makes her pain all the sharper and more devastating to read as we witness her downward spiral.

Philip. I haven't said much about Philip. I feel he didn't get nearly enough attention in the first section of the book. True, the focus was on Addy's formative years and his role didn't really start until he met Addy, but I would have loved to see more than the glimpse we got of his boyhood. His relationship with his mother is sweet; like Addy, he takes on a similarly assertive role because of his father's absence. The difference is that he does it because he can; Addy is the caretaker because she has to.

My love affair with Philip began simply on learning that he's British. Or English, to be more precise. There's an abundance of Irish heroes across NR's work (Roarke, Rogan Sweeney, Murphy Muldoon, Adrian, to name a few) but as much as I now love Irish guys, they're not English. Despite this, one of my few qualms with Sweet Revenge is that Philip isn't British enough. Yes, he has a country house and a secret love of gardening, but these are too cliché and he doesn't feel British. I know this is being picky, but I think it's important. Having watched Addy as she's grown up, we can see the impact that her early life in Jaquir has had on her behaviour and beliefs. Reading Philip walk, talk, skip, dance, even breathe, I don't get the impression that he's anything but American.

NR has several books where the main characters are thieves, jewels/precious gems are involved, or even better, a combination of both. You have Honest Illusions, Hot Ice and the Stars of Mithra series (any others?) and I love them all. Semi-linked to this theme, Ally Carter's Heist Society features teenage thieves and is one of my favourite YA books. A movie is possibly in the works, but I heard somewhere (not sure how much it still applies now) that they would use older actors and adapt the film accordingly. I think that would be a terrible mistake: a huge part of the appeal of Heist Society when I was reading it was that these amazingly talented and accomplished thieves were the same age as I was. A film with older characters would mean that younger people are less likely to be able to relate and want to read the books, but also it would downgrade the appeal and originality of the books. Ally Carter manages to make the idea of teenage thieves plausible, and adult characters would just make it boring. Okay so enough of the ramble and back to what I was actually talking about.

There's just something inherently sexy about jewels. Yes, they're just shiny rocks, but I'm a girl and ergo, I like jewels. That the characters risk their lives to steal them just makes me really excited. Not in that way - *sigh* get your mind out of the gutter. NR, when she gives her characters an un-standard profession, is incredibly thorough. I was fascinated by all the little details involved in the equipment, procedure, techniques etc that are needed to carry out the job. When you want to go and try your hand at scaling down a fifty-storey building and cracking into a safe to steal millions of pounds worth of gems, just to feel the thrill that's described on the pages, you know you're in deep.

MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD. CONSIDER THIS YOUR 'RED HAND' (1) (tribute to Lord Denning; lawyers will know what I mean :D)

If you haven't already guessed, Addy is The Shadow. It is a little far-fetched that Addy dropped out of school, abandoned her dream of becoming an engineer and turned to thievery - and frigging JEWELS no less - to pay her mother's medical fees, but that's NR for you. It is fiction, after all. Of course, when you consider that this is all practice for the Grande Finale, then it makes a little more sense, but I can still see why some readers have criticised this book. Even so, when reading, I felt myself wanting to be in Addy's shoes and trying it all out for myself. After Phoebe's death with no more bills to pay, Addy continues to steal, keeping only a small commission for herself and does a Robin Hood, donating anonymously to charities that help abused women and children. I may be a law student, but I find it hard to condemn this - call me soft-hearted.

An issue that I did have was where and how Addy taught herself the tricks of the trade. This is the problem: that Addy taught herself. This is what the book implies, as there's no mention of Addy having a mentor or anyone to learn from. I can see how you might teach yourself to pick-pocket, but when you factor in Addy's knowledge of electronics and the elaborate equipment that she uses on her heists, I get just a bit dubious. Yes, she's a resourceful girl and desperation can make you do extraordinary things, but this much? Really? Her desire to become an engineer probably taught her some of the technical, electronic stuff, but I just have a hard time imagining how Addy taught herself the logistics like lock-picking and safe-opening. I'm pretty sure you can't just buy books on the subject. Her place amongst society's elite makes it all the easier to play the bored socialite with no need to work and thus hide her extra-curriculars. When actually in the flow of reading, I find myself pretty easily swept into the rhythm of the novel and overlooking many of these questions - that's the magic of NR for you: getting you to believe the highly improbable. I loved reading about the whole process, from the research and planning to carrying out the job itself and watching Addy transform into her alter-ego Rose to fence off the jewels. I'm clearly in the wrong circles.

Addy and Philip's HEA took a little while, but was inevitable. I found it hilarious to watch Addy trying to stop herself from being drawn in and losing her heart, with Philip trotting the globe in his determined pursuit. Addy might have sworn herself off men after witnessing her parents' relationship (added to this, she's one of NR's few virgin heroines) and so I love seeing how Philip teaches her that not all relationships are oppressive and dictatorial as she has witnessed. Philip cracked the wall Addy built around herself to keep men away; he taught her that "sometimes love has no threshold" and I think, in the future, I'll find myself turning to Sweet Revenge for the romance as opposed to the story. That's one of the things that I love about NR: most people (especially people who don't read the genre) will consider NR foremost a romance writer. I think of her as a storyteller. I primarily read her books because I know she'll give me a good story; the romance is secondary. Because of what we experience of Addy's history, Sweet Revenge will for me, be about the romance first, story second.

In part three, Addy and Philip depart for Jaquir - as a betrothed couple. Addy's horror at Philip's proposal was utterly brilliant and her reaction to the course of events when they are in Jaquir is the same - back to what I said in the previous paragraph about her trying to run away from love. As Philip explained, only if they were engaged would they be able to communicate and work together to take The Sun and The Moon. Addy is concerned about the consequences for Philip and his lack of knowledge about the culture, but since he has every intention of marrying her anyway (whether she realises or not) Addy's naivete is just adorable.

I think I'm going to stop here now. Part three is something you need to read for yourself, so you might as well read the whole book while you're at it. Addy gets what she wants and needs: her revenge with the added bonus of a HEA. An epilogue would have been nice just because I didn't want the book to end, but I can't think of a single novel in which NR has written an epilogue, so I guess it was a bit much to ask. I'm definitely going to treasure this book forever; the question is: will you?

(1) Full quote: "printed in red ink on the face of the document with a red hand pointing to it before the notice could be held to be sufficient" in J. Spurling Ltd v Bradshaw [1956] 1 WLR 461 at 466 per Lord Denning.

Image courtesy of bookdepository


I read this book months ago and decided earlier this morning that since it's Sunday and I plan to actually do some proper work later, I would, in the meantime, finish a review and post it. This was the one most complete and I've just seen how long it is (6 pages in Word and 3.6K) so thanks if you've reached the end. Now go and read the book if you haven't already.

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