The cover and title of Lessons of Desire might suggest that it's
a run-of-the mill historical romance more about sex than anything else. It is
instead a pleasant surprise in that there is a great deal more to it than a sexy romance.
The heroine of the story, Phaedra Blair, appears to be a confirmed eccentric and bluestocking. The illegitimate daughter of a proponent of free love, Phaedra doesn't bow to conventional society's requirements - she dresses oddly, wears her hair down, is 'close friends' with men and consequently is treated as a social pariah, even worse in some ways than a mistress. She has just become the proprietor of a publishing concern and plans to print her father's memoirs.
However, within those memoirs, she has found evidence that her mother took a lover before her death, a fraud
who tricked her with a gift of a 'priceless' cameo from Pompeii. Phaedra wants to find out whether her mother really
did take a lover, and whether she was deceived before publishing the book.
Unfortunately for Phaedra, there's more than just the mystery of her mother's love life. Her father
had also repeated a story about the late Marquess of Easterbrook which suggests that he may have had his wife's lover killed. The younger brother of the current Marquess, Elliot Rothwell, wants to stop publication of the book
- or at least that section - and goes to Naples to try to persuade or buy off Phaedra Blair. When he meets her,
though, he has to rescue her from some social trouble but soon finds himself in more trouble. Phaedra's unconcern for the requirements of society mean that she is often misunderstood, and she also comes across as a prickly woman obsessed with independence from men, even as she knows she might actually be missing out.
What's excellent about this book is the setting in Naples and in a small village on the way to Vesuvius. The descriptions of travel, life, the colors and smells of the Italian countryside are wonderful. We meet many different characters, all described well and believable, as Phaedra finds herself among a circle of people of which her mother was a part. The final quarter of the book moves back to London, but it's always a great read with Phaedra beginning to understand more about her mother's principles and also about how other people see relationships and marriage
- not as a cage or trap, but as security and safety. Elliot is a great hero, and although Phaedra sometimes seems rather annoying, she feels like a real person who is trying to learn from her mother's life
and also understand the way that others think.