1995, European Historical Romance (Turn of the Century France)
Jove, $5.99, Amazon ASIN 0515115878 Part of a series
The first time I read Bliss, I was absolutely intoxicated by it. It absorbed me and kept me completely in its power. For a whole two days all I did was eat, sleep, dream, breathe Bliss. I read it over and over, wondering each time that it should so affect me. Because by any measure this book should not have worked for me. The hero is a washed-up artistic genius who never met a drug he didn't like, and the heroine is a materialistic, ambitious upstart of a little thing who thumbs her nose at society's strictures. But somehow it worked. It really worked.
Hannah Van Evan is a woman with a sordid past. It is entirely necessary for her to leave Miami because, due to some rather scandalous behavior, she has become known as Miss Seven-Minutes-of-Heaven. She applies for a job as an assistant to Mrs. Amelia Besom, an American antiques and arts appraiser who is going to Europe to search for finds. They wind up at a ramshackle estate in rural France, and Hannah is intrigued by the owner's warning to stay away from a certain cottage.
Nardi de Saint Vallier comes from a blue-blooded family, has had every advantage given to him, and is possessed of a most spectacular talent. An acclaimed sculptor, he has been feted by all of Europe. And then a few years ago some of his pieces were not so well received. He did not take the criticism constructively and went on a bender that has included every intoxicating substance known to man. At the start of the story he has not been sober in a good long time, and his current escape of choice is drinking ether. His family has become concerned.
Due to some rather fancy Saint Vallier maneuvering, Nardi finds himself imprisoned in a cottage on the ancestral estate, engaged to the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, and denied any contact with artificial stimulants. He has been the subject of a proto-intervention, and he is none too happy about it. So when Hannah stumbles curiously into his lair, he tries to charm her into giving him what he wants: ether first, and then, s'il vous plait, Hannah herself.
I have to tell you that I was very, very prepared to dislike Nardi. He's such a mess and so terribly unrepentant about his own chaos. When we meet him first he's barfing into a grand piano at a party. He is a liar and a manipulator whose only enjoyment is telling his brother/jailor Sebastien where he can go. So how did Cuevas make him sympathetic? By making him sexy as hell, charming as the day is long, and entirely aware of all his own flaws. Nardi has no illusions about himself. He knows he's a screw-up and far too sensitive. He just doesn't know how to do anything about it. And he's so anesthetized that he doesn't care anymore about anything. Until Hannah shows up and reminds him about life and hope and beauty.
And Hannah is flawed and fully human too. She wants to be rich and successful, and so is highly ambitious. She is quite impressed with the Saint Vallier chateau, more impressed with it at times than she is with Nardi. I found this perversely refreshing. When was the last time you read about a heroine who wanted the money? Who was impressed with beautiful things? Hannah's inclinations may not be noble, but they are human, and by making her characters so flawed, Cuevas also makes them so real.
And there were so many other things that I liked about Bliss. The setting is highly original and very atmospheric. The crumbling chateau, filled with priceless treasures, both the source of great family pride and great family embarrassment, looms metaphorically in the background, half a character in and of itself. Its presence and condition affects all of the characters' decisions. The only one not obsessed with its vast potential, appropriately, is Nardi. I became half-obsessed with it myself. Where is it, Judy? Do they give regular tours in the summertime?
Two more highlights: the writing quality here is superior to just about anything I've read in romance. It's textured and tactile; you can feel every aspect of a summer evening in France, a woman's complicated clothing cage, a man's soft ether stupor. And finally, Sebastien, Nardi's brother is probably the most rounded villain I've ever come across. Every smug, controlling behavior he exhibits he truly does out of a perverse love and concern for his brother. He hurts Nardi and Hannah, but it's impossible to hate him because he's trying so hard to make everything better. You can read about him in his story, Dance.
The only quibble I have about this book is the ending. It seems rushed. Cuevas goes into great detail about the obstacles to Hannah's and Nardi's relationship, and then sort of sweeps them away at the end in one dramatic scene. I would have preferred a more resolved finish. I would have liked for Hannah and Nardi to honestly confront their problems together instead of separately with a grande finale.
But this is a minor quibble. For the many above reasons, Bliss is one of my all-time favorite reads, truly a Desert Isle Keeper. If you're looking for a fantastic story with fully-fleshed characters in a fascinating setting, search no further. Find a copy of this book.
-- Rachel Potter
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