I first read this book about three years ago and I would be the last person to say that it isn't interesting. In fact, Judith Ivory is a very gifted writer, no doubt about it. But, of course, when it comes do the bottom line, many of us who review books in this genre base our reviews on our likes and dislikes of the characters and how the storyline unfolds.
In this book, we have a young man, James Stoker, who has recently returned from what was considered a highly successful African expedition. He's become Society's darling and gained a Knighthood and is up for an Earldom. I loved James in so many ways - he was honorable, honest, hardworking, optimistic - just bouncing along enjoying his life and so glad to have made it out of Africa alive. In fact he was the only member of the expedition who made it back alive which contributed to some problems later on in the story, but I'm not going to deal with that in this review.
Into this world, a lovely bombshell drops - Coco Wild. She's a few years older than James but he falls hard and fast and this is where my difficulties with the story actually began. James soon learns Coco is a well known courtesan and has slept with several men even among the exalted educational circle of which he is a part. But to James' credit, he sees beyond Coco's past and wants the woman inside. Of course it doesn't hurt that she's a raving beauty.
Okay, so here's where I have to work through some stuff. In this genre, we're accustomed to reformed rakes and nearly every hero most popular writers include in their stories have slept around. In my personal life, I strongly believe in marriage and fidelity. However, I also believe what's good for the goose is good for the gander, so to speak. In other words, I totally saw where James was coming from when his thoughts are revealed to the reader about how nice it would be if Society in his day and age would give the same freedom to women as it did men when it came to sleeping partners. Not, that I'm saying free love or sleeping around for either males or females is my standard or even what I personally believe in. But... neither do I believe in a double standard and the old "men will be men" philosophy.
I've tried to come to terms with the double standard relative to men and woman throughout history and I just don't get it. Okay, actually I do - I think it's because most of the time, men have ruled the world and still do for the most part and I don't for one second mean to imply I'm a man hater or basher. Still, I don't buy the theory that it was all about "protecting the man's issue and blood and therefore, the womb must be kept protected." Balderdash! I think men wanted to have their fun and they had the power in Society to make sure pressure was put upon the wife/virgin they would eventually choose to help keep her "virtuous" - at least physically. Therefore women had to be covered most of the time in loads of clothing, nothing basically seen except her face and hands, with the exception of her bosom which could be on display for men to ogle and, then there was the ever present chaperone. Of course, none of this mattered if the girl wasn't from the right social class. "Lower orders" were fair game. Ok, enough preaching.
So, I'm asking myself why in the world I had such a problem with Coco's past and the fact that she was a person I considered less than what James deserved in so many ways - yet knowing they were eventually going to make a match of it. I suppose it was what I considered to be the cold-hearted approach that I eventually came to see in how Coco managed her life. In fact, she had a history of mistressing two men at the same time, even friends, but never sharing any of their secrets with one another which was a type of her own code of honor I suppose.
Although this seemed to suit the men in question - obviously, they even played games by confessing their plans and doings with her, knowing she would hear the same from their professional rivals, yet counting upon her honor to keep her mouth shut. Then, there was the well-known man whose bastard son she birthed and whose wife was very ill and who Coco believed would leave his wife and marry her - apparently for years, until she finally got wise to his game. So, even though Coco came across as very sweet, having standards of a sort in the secrets she kept, I coudn't like a woman who waited in the shadows for a man to leave his sick wife and marry her. Said man also had some young daughters.
Also, I had difficulties with James continually having to be placed in situations where the men in his circle were discussing Coco's charms. No, they didn't know he and Coco had something going, but still... not my cup of tea. So, even though the author wrote Coco as a charming woman who seemed to be sweet and kind, this wasn't all there was to her. Yes, she was young when she set out upon her lifestyle and she made certain choices early on - that she would rather have an easier life than slaving away in a kitchen or factory. In fact, if a woman didn't have wealth or a good man to provide for them, their choices were very limited. She made her choices, but my point is, that although she comes across as having high standards in some ways, her thoughts about taking a man from his sick wife and daughters reveal a much different Coco, which is downplayed when considering the rest of her character - even by James.
I can't give this book five stars primarily due to Coco's character and the indiscriminate manner in which she had lived her life. Again, not so much the fact she was a courtesan, but her choices within that role.