Libertine’s Kiss is a passionate story full of the real stuff of romance – the difficult decisions and sacrifices one makes for love, and the power two people can claim for themselves when they have the support of the right person.
One thing I’ve learned in my time as a reviewer is that I’m stingy with my praise. To get a 9 out of me, an author has to give me characters I can relate to – people who have problems that they face with bravery, honor and humor. The characters need a setting so vivid I feel like I’m there. The plot must avoid easy romance clichés, and the author has to use English in ways that make each sentence a pleasure to read.
Judith James’ latest novel is most definitely a 9.
William and Lizzie were childhood friends, even though their families were on opposite sides of a political divide that would lead to the English Civil War. Lizzie’s family are Puritans and support the Parliamentarian revolt, while William’s family are Royalists. When war breaks out, William leaves to fight for the monarchy, and he follows the executed king’s son into exile.
It’s years before they meet again, this time in a semi-anonymous encounter when Lizzie saves William’s life. She recognizes him, but he doesn’t know who she is; he only knows the comfort he feels around her.
The war years have not been kind to Lizzie. She was married off to an abusive husband, and after she’s widowed all her land is seized by Oliver Cromwell because he discovers she helped an enemy – William. At times, it’s only the fantastical stories William told her as a child that keep her going. She doesn’t see William again until the monarchy is restored and she goes to the royal court to plead for her lands back.
When he realizes who she is, he uses his influence with Charles II to have her land restored. Unfortunately, the king is a true libertine, and William knows he’s unlikely to lift a finger for a woman unless there’s something in it for him.
In William and Lizzie, Judith James has created characters with such depth that they could be real. Every significant character is funny, but William regularly had me clutching my ribs with laughter with his inappropriately timed observations. He is a poet with passionately held ideals. He’s a libertine, yes, but not because he seeks pleasure for pleasure’s sake; he had a traumatic childhood and drowns his demons in alcohol and sex.
Any romance novel heroine in less well-written novels would change him with little effort. Elizabeth instead faces his demons head-on and helps him realize that taking the more difficult paths can be more rewarding. She makes one firm rule – that he will have no other women – and helps him find ways to curb his drinking. Even when he doubts his own ability to change his self-destructive ways, Elizabeth is practical and strong enough to make me think he will be able to conquer his addictions. But only with her unflagging support.
What I enjoyed most about William and Lizzie was the maturity and honesty with which they talk to each other. They are people who clearly respect each other and show it, even when they’re furious with each other. The depth of friendship and love between them makes their love scenes scorching hot, not just because of the explicit descriptions and language (although people who like their sex to be alluded to may find themselves skipping quite a few pages).
After all they’ve been through together, William’s declaration of love for Lizzie is one of the most romantic scenes I’ve ever read. It’s the kind of statement that I wish I’d read before I got married because I would’ve gladly ripped it off and said those words to my husband on our wedding day.
Libertine’s Kiss is such an engrossing novel that I resented the time I had to waste doing other things – like sleeping, eating and working. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for any more from Judith James.
Heat: 5 (Scorching)
(First posted on The Season)