A Lesson in Thorns is an erotic romance about a group of childhood friends that return to an enchanting English mansion when its owner begins renovating it. While reconnecting, they discover each other’s sexual passions. This culminates during their enactment of a Celtic ritual set during Imbolc that’s connected to the mansion and their pasts.
Maybe I’m just a curmudgeon that hates romance. At least, romance as the primary genre does not seem to be for me. A Lesson in Thorns treats its romances as the primary plot while everything else is a distant second, given just enough attention to loosely excuse group orgies. Every sexual encounter is deliciousy saucy in its wanton desire, but the prose that makes Simone’s erotica sumptuous becomes overwrought when applied to anything resembling a plot. Additionally, while the majority of her writing is good, the blemishes are so repetitious that they became distracting features by the book’s halfway point.
Conjunctions are abused; they’re used ineffectually in descriptions and lists where a comma would suffice, such as in, “All the relics of a boy who wanted to create, who wanted to be different and interesting and chosen,” which is a structure that’s repeated regularly. Worse, there’s a tendency to repeat information in multiple ways or to offer different visualizations for a character or situation when one would be effectual and, more importantly, concise. For instance, in “but there’s no arguing the blizzard outside, no denying the snow falling so thick and fast that even the forest can’t be seen from the windows,” the sentence could have been shortened and made more visceral with precise detail rather than repeating what we know, that snow falls during a blizzard. The same could be said for this bit of dialogue, “It was Randolph’s nephew—his brother’s son—who inherited Thornchapel. My great-great-grandfather.” We know how family trees work, so that doesn’t need to be explicitly said twice.
Altogether, the effect is an exhausting hesitance, like the protagonists’ indecision about who to fuck was extended to the prose. All the beauty is rendered meaningless because those descriptions encompass too much and therefore, are too general to be effecting.
Perhaps an extension of overdone repetitions are the character perspectives that, while appreciated for breaking up the primary POVs, do not actually add anything and could have been mostly cut without significantly altering the experience. Aside from shifting the vocabulary sets to connect to a character’s occupation or interests, these passages read identically to one another. There is structurally no difference between Saint, Poe, Auden, Rebecca, or Daphne and to tell them apart, a character tag is absolutely needed — Becket is sort of the exception because his whole “zeal” thing is extra AF.
One of the criticisms I’ve heard about the second book, Feast of Sparks, was that the plot and character motivations were thin, like a bad porno built upon flimsy contrivances. That description is just as apt for the first book; the characters engage in all sorts of stupid shit that the strictly platonic would never consider. Spin the bottle is not something that friends do on a Saturday night?!
I ended up DNFing this book around 60%, though I did skim to the end because sunk-cost fallacy is a thing and I wasn’t leaving without all the scenes promised to me. They were fine. I could possibly be convinced to pick up a new series by Simone in the far future when her writing has improved.
And an assortment of comments that don’t quite fit:
- I hate all the characters except for Becket and I’m like 90% sure he’s going to heel-turn in the second book.
- Saint’s lip ring is an object of power.
- While I’m sympathetic to the group feeling a way about the house because of their feelings for one another and/or because of the gilded nature of childhood nostalgia, Poe shaming Auden for “not giving himself to it [the house]” failed to convince me that the house itself was special and therefore should be honored. Rather, it made Poe out to be a selfish asshole who misjudged the importance of things versus people.