Pull on your asbestos mittens and panties before reading Sweet Agony and don’t, whatever you do, wear or drink anything flammable. Because when your lady parts spontaneously combust you don’t want any accelerants nearby or you could lose the whole bedroom to fire damage.
The particular cocktail mix that’s going to act as such excellent accelerant and leave scorch marks on your bed covers is the following:
· One diabolically hot but damaged hero who is so desperate to push others away it’s delicious
· One sassy, hilarious heroine experiencing freedom for the first time
· Forced proximity inside a ‘gothic’ house
· Dark secrets
· So much push-pull sexual tension the reader risks friction burns.
The thing I adored most about this book was the hero. He puts the ‘mudgeon’ in curmudgeon and says the sorts of things that a robot or alien might:
‘If you recall, I observed you walking up to my front door. It was not exactly difficult to extrapolate based on the variables at hand. You only managed to step over my gate by standing on tiptoe, which tells me that you are no more than five foot three, and once you had traversed it I could clearly see the distance in inches between each of your hips and the edges of said gate. As I know the exact width it was fairly easy from there to surmise your lower measurements, and only a little more difficult to ascertain what sort of bodice you might require. As you quite clearly wear a bra two sizes too small for you, it took me a little longer to absolutely be sure, but, judging by your relative self-consciousness, the way you hold your arms when you walk and the other parameters of your body, I believe I have the right of it’
I always feel that reading one of Charlotte Stein’s books is like taking a dip in her mind—and her mind is a fun place to paddle around in. It’s full of whimsy and slightly wicked humour, just like her heroine (Molly) who is entranced by the hero’s use of words like ‘reprobate’ and ‘disillusion’ and his voice so lusty with syllables that the she feels that “his sentence should smoke a cigarette, directly after the full stop.”
What I loved about this story is that it’s the most unusual of courtships because one half of the couple can’t bear to be looked at, let alone touched. Hero and heroine initially progress their banter through correspondence (despite the fact they share a house because she’s hired as a live-in housekeeper) which moves from criticism of her sweeping technique to playful letters about hair thievery. And, in a reverse of the usual order of intimacy, the first encounter between hero and heroine is a rather kinky (yet distant) encounter, and from there they gradually work up to more ‘normal’ but risky (for the hero) things like kissing.
I’ve never read a writer more brilliant at emotive description than Charlotte Stein, and her descriptive brilliance really shines in Sweet Agony where she manages to put a fresh slant on the gothic mansion at the same time as revealing much about her protagonist:
“The whole front of it is the kind of grey you only get after natural disasters. Some apocalypse happened to this place and this place alone, and now it sits like a bad tooth in a mouth of pristine white ones. It even seems vaguely crooked, in a way that should be impossible. The other houses are ramrod straight. There is no space for it to slant to the side—it just looks as though it does.
Malevolence is probably making it happen. I think malevolence might be making a lot of things happen. All the windows are blank, black eyes, and each one of them seems to follow me wherever I go. I glance away for a second and can almost feel them, pressing into my body. Then I turn back and they pretend to be all innocent again.”
While the heroine initially finds the hero’s house spooky, she’s anything but spooked when she sees her attic bedroom and it’s there that we get an insight into what her former life was like when she reveals that she used to sleep on folded-over towels and two sleeping bags. She’s also delighted by his library and the two bond over their love of books despite the unpromising start to their relationship.
It becomes clear as the story unfolds that Molly’s employer’s house is her escape from her family, and that her employer—despite his hilarious gruffness and odd ways—is the first person to show her real kindness and to appreciate her whimsical and bookish bent. Likewise, Molly is the first prospective employee the hero is unable to frighten away and in an odd way the two are perfect for one another because they see through the other’s pretences and value what is unique about the other.
This story is filled with all the usual fresh, wickedly funny dialogue, exciting interior monologue and keen observation that I’ve come to expect of Charlotte Stein, but this one has an extra something to it (perhaps Molly’s instinctive kindness and the way she manages the hero’s deep wound) and I admit that this may be my favourite book of hers so far.