Monday, April 19, 2021

Bliss Bennet - A Sinner Without a Saint

Idealistic Benedict Pennington once abandoned family and country to pursue his dreams of becoming a renowned painter. Now that he's returned home, he has a new, but equally idealistic ambition: to help found the country's first national art museum, one open not only to England’s wealthy few, but to rich and poor alike. After a long campaign, he’s finally persuaded a patron to donate his collection of Old Master paintings to the project. He’s certainly not going to anyone to steal them away by courting the donor’s granddaughter—especially not dissolute Lord Dulcie, once the object of Benedict’s own illicit adolescent desire.
Sinclair Milne, Viscount Dulcie, evades every attempt of his family to marry him off, preferring to collect innovative art and dally with handsome men than to burden himself with a wife. But when rivals imply Dulcie is refusing to pursue wealthy Miss Adler and her dowry of paintings because of lingering feelings for Benedict Pennington, Dulcie vows to prove them wrong by wooing her away from Benedict—inadvertently disrupting Benedict’s museum plans in the process.
When Benedict is dragooned into painting his portrait, Dulcie finds himself once again inexplicably drawn to the sensitive, intense artist. Can the sinful viscount entice the wary painter into a casual liaison, one that will put neither their reputations, nor their feelings, at risk? Or will the not-so-saintly artist demand something far more vulnerable—his heart?

Comment: I got interested in this book three years ago and looking at the fact it was book #4 in a series, I checked the blurbs of the other books and decided to give them a go. Still, my focus was this book, it was this story that I was more eager to read and now that I did, I liked a good part of it, I liked it as a complete story but it's also true I wish it had been better.

In this final book, we have the story of the remaining Pennington sibling. Benedict is the artist of the family and he has all the traits of one, from his ability to focus on his work forgetting everything else to the need to do what he deems will be the perfect work. His life is pretty much about art and his desire to showcase art to everyone, regardless of social status or finances. He has become friends with Polly, the granddaughter of a wealthy man who might be persuaded to help him, by donating his classic collection to a new project they are working on together. However, there's viscount Dulcie to consider, a man of vices and wit who he used to like and worship back at the private school they both attended in their teenage years. He still hasn't forgotten how that friend left him without an explanation when their relationship was changing into something more and he has become ratter bitter about it. Can he deal with having the man so close again, and, even worse, also interested in the art collection for other purposes?

I was very curious to see how the author would develop the relationship between Dulcie and Benedict. This was obviously what attracted me the most to want to read this book and, subsequently, why I read the others too, so I could see if there were scenes in them with these two or if there were references about them. I wanted to have a broader picture of how they could achieve their HEA.

In part, this was an enjoyable read, especially when it comes to how the author set things up, how the time and the society of the time played a part in how this story would develop. Although it isn't a theme I know much about, the art talk and the parts of the plot regarding what was discussed seemed interesting enough and I liked how some characters (the protagonists, Polly and her grandfather) discussed it and thought about ways to allow everyone to have access to it and not just the elites. I liked the idea art is for everyone, even if one doesn't understand techniques or styles.

I think the idea of this book was well done and I also liked the secondary elements such as the romance moments and the family connections. Nothing is a picture perfect here, though. The characters have issues, their family dynamics aren't as steady as I'd like and they have to hide or disguise what they feel, considering homosexuality was a crime. I feel the author was true to several aspects of the time, and that makes this story feel a little too harsh, a bit too set on reality to be fully romantic. 

At least that was my impression, at the same time I was hoping for something to happen and for them to acknowledge their feelings, there was this sense of dread, because they couldn't be open about it. Sure, this is a thing historical m/m can't run from, but the author's style and tone can make things seem one way or another. In this regard, though, I must say the author was pretty consistent with the previous books - they were all somewhat too realistic, if I can say this, in the sense that I felt there was some "magic" missing, in how romantic or in how special the couples would be portrayed while with their intended love interest.

The romance was, therefore, a little too band for me. Even allowing for obvious caution, I still wanted their love story to be larger than life, and I felt they didn't get such a great deal after all. I am aware it would have been incredibly difficult for a gay couple to be together according to the patterns of behavior we see nowadays, in particular in how they wouldn't be able to be a couple in public. The author followed an interesting path with this and at some point, it felt as if the solution was right in front of them, not perfect but bearable somehow, and still adhering to the "rules".

Unfortunately, things didn't go that direction after all and what a pity! While I wasn't too fond of the idea, it was still unfair to me, it was a possibility. The author decided to make things in a way that the idea was out aside. Part of me didn't mind for Benedict and Dulcie could be together differently but to be honest I wasn't too fond of the solution. I think it was too vague, it wasn't established at all, only mentioned as potential. I found this to diminish my excitement about them, as if they would forever be left in a limbo that I could only imagine would lead nowhere because, again, circumstances.

The emotional journey the two face was also a little.... underwhelming. Their personalities might have been adjusted to a way of being, to a cultural and social state of mind in regards on how to behave, yes, but I kind of wanted them to be so much better together than alone. I can understand their personal experiences having made them, Dulcie in particular, jaded or wary of how to be safe from scandal but I still wanted to see them so happy together that a long term solution would be suitable for them while not compromising their relationship. In the end, I feel this didn't happen.

All things considered, this was a good enough story, many interesting elements, having read the other books helped when secondary characters mentioned a subject or another (but this can be read as standalone) and the romance had its moments. But I expected a lot more...

Grade: 7/10

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