Victoria Holt is the book equivalent of a bag of Bernie Bott's Every Flavor Beans. On the one hand, you could find yourself with the crisp tartness of green apple, the sweet but satisfying blueberry, or the odd but intriguing black pepper. On the other hand, you could just as easily find yourself with one of the earwax or vomit flavors. And this book, THE DEMON LOVER, is definitely vomit flavored.
Kate Collison comes from a long line of artists, all of whom go by the initials KC when they sign their paintings. Her father, Kendal Collison, is widely renowned, but slowly and tragically losing his sight due to cataracts that are forming in his eyes. Since he has no son to carry out his work, his desire is that Kate follow in his footsteps, and what better way to start than to help him with his latest commission - a set of wedding miniatures for a baron and a princess?
Kate and her father go to the baron's castle, and are greeted with some surprise because, good lord, a woman?! Their ruse is that Kate is helping her elderly father get around, because both of them know that a paining done by a woman carries the risk of stigma from sexist tradionalists. So the baron sits for Kate's father while Kate watches and takes careful notes of his face so that she can complete the finer details of the miniature in the privacy of her chambers. I liked the opening sequence of this book quite a bit - the relationship between Kate and her father, the description of the artist's process, and her banter with the baron were all very well done, & in line with what I expect from this author.
Of course, it turns out that the baron knew all along what Kate & her father were doing - and not only that, but he was sneaking into her rooms to study the miniature even though they asked him not to look until it was finished. The baron is so proud and self-centered and arrogant, that Kate takes an immediate dislike to him, although she feels conflicted about these feelings because he's totally cool with the fact that she's a female artist and a word from him ends up making her a success, too. Also, there's a silver lining in the form of his cousin, Bertrand, who is everything the baron is not - young, thoughtful, classically handsome, considerate, kind...Kate ends up falling for him on the spot, and the two plan to be married, even, except the baron doesn't go in for that. No, he wants Bertrand to marry his cast-off mistress, Nicole, who is of no use to him now that he is married. Bertrand expresses rage that the baron wants to give him his sloppy seconds, and says that he doesn't want to marry a woman he knows the baron has slept with, because he'll always think of his baron and wife together...ew.
They plan to elope in France, which is where the princess lives that is going to marry the baron. Kate ends up befriending the princess Marie-Claude, who has a stubborn streak a mile wide and is ambivalent about marrying the baron, not the least because she has a secret paramour on the side. As Kate is wandering around the streets of France, she is nearly kidnapped when coming out of a shop & escapes just in time. Then she is summoned by the baron (I forgot why - I think it's about the miniatures) - and goes back to his corner of the world, only to have the carriage wheel break. She stays with some of his help in their cabin, and has a lovely dinner, and a bottle of wine. Oh, and that wine? Drugged, by order of the baron. When Kate wakes up, she's locked up in a tower, naked, where the baron then proceeds to rape her for three days. Why? Because he wants to, and because he knows that his cousin, Bertrand, won't marry Kate if he knows that he got to her, first.
This is pretty stomach-turning, but isn't exactly a stand-out event from what happens in other bodice rippers. If anything, it's tamer than some of the romances I've read, which can go into graphic detail (I'm recalling a gang-rape scene I read in a Catherine CoultIer novel). And at first, Kate deals with what happened to her fairly realistically. She frets about who to tell, and how her engagement with Bertrand is ruined, and pretty much flinches every time she hears about the baron or his name. Which is a lot, because, thanks to him, her success has neatly linked her name to his - something he gleefully takes credit for, as though her talent were all due to him. He's a repulsive man, plain and simple, and when Kate discovers that she's pregnant, she's extremely loath to go to her sickly and depressed father and not only shock him with the awful news, but also ask him for help.
Luckily, help comes in the form of the baron's ex-mistress, Nicole, who lends her an apartment and studio in Paris for cheap and also helps her discreetly have the child. I liked Nicole a lot, and her friendship with Kate would have been quite wonderful...if she hadn't tried to persuade Kate to get back together with the baron at every given opportunity. I think if this had happened in a modern novel, I would have thrown the book across the room. I had to keep telling myself that this was a Victorian novel, and that conventions were different, and that even though the baron was her rapist, as a ruined woman with a child, Kate didn't really have a lot of options open to her. I told myself that, but it was still very hard to stomach.
Then the baron comes back into her life again, this time by insinuating himself into the life of her son, and Kate doesn't find out until it's too late and the baron has already won him over by giving her an extravagant gift. War breaks out between France and Germany, and the baron ends up spiriting them both back to his castle, where he launches an all-out assault on Kate's shaky will, telling her that she secretly liked the rape and would love it if he did it again, and telling her how much he hates his wife and wishes she was dead (he gives a lovely speech about how is sickly and depressed wife doesn't even enjoy being alive, and so she would be doing them and herself a favor by taking herself from it). He talks about how much he hates the princess's son, William (who is a bastard), and how much he likes Kendal instead. And oh, yes, Kate should definitely become his mistress!
When that doesn't work, he breaks the news to Kate's son, Kendal, that he's actually his father, and the boy, who is sad about the lack of a father figure in his life, is overjoyed. The baron throws presents, attention, and praise in the boy's way, so when Kate finally decides that she's had enough and that leaving would be best, her own son turns on her and refuses to leave. She's afraid to leave without her son, and the baron capitalizes on that. At one point, her son decides to run away because he doesn't want to leave the castle, and after she gets over her terror, she begins to wonder if maybe the baron encouraged him - or even helped him plan - to do this, due to certain uncanny conveniences in how the baron goes about rescuing him. While I'm reading this, I'm thinking, "Okay, there is no way this man can be a love interest. He doesn't regret the rape at all, or making Kate suffer. He's using her own child against her, while abusing the one he already has with neglect. This is NOT a romance, folks, in any sense of the term!" But no, Kate is falling hard and fast, even though she tells herself - repeatedly - that he is selfish and proud and absolutely no good for her.
In the last act of the book, the princess finally dies, thus freeing the baron to marry Kate if she wishes, and Kate's stepmother and ex-housekeeper, Clare, makes a rather startling confession. I found myself blinking at the last page. I could not believe what happened, or why Kate chose this as a sign that everything was okay, and that the baron could be forgiven. I'm sorry, but what? How does that mitigate any of the abuse and manipulation? It's apples and oranges, you poor, dumb broad!
I really enjoy Victoria Holt's work, but this was a crushing disappointment. Definitely vomit-flavored. I have an awful taste in the back of my throat that I feel the need to wash out with some Lisa Kleypas.
1 out of 5 stars.