Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor

Book Description:
A book to read and reread, an unforgettable romance and a timeless masterpiece. Abandoned, pregnant and penniless on the teeming streets of London, sixteen-year-old Amber St. Clare uses her wits, beauty and courage to climb to the highest position a woman could achieve in Restoration England - that of favorite mistress of the Merry Monarch himself, Charles II. From whores and highwaymen to courtiers and noblemen, from the Great Plague and the Fire of London to the intimate passions of ordinary - and extraordinary - men and women, Amber experiences it all. But throughout her trials and escapades, she remains, in her heart, true to the one man she really loves, the one man she can never have...

How is it I've never read this book before?

What a book! What a story! In the tradition of Gone With the Wind this is a sweeping and timeless romantic historical, still just as riveting today, 70 years after it's original publishing date of 1943. All I can say is, it must have been some sensation when it came out! Racy and full of sex, the book is a florid tale involving mistresses, adulterers and court intrigue. The reader experiences first hand Amber's ups and downs from poverty to riches, the Great Plague and Fire of London, her rise from a little known farm girl to a duchess in the court of Charles II. Set amidst the Restoration, this is the story of Amber St. Clare, the fiery, singleminded, beautiful and alluring heroine who keeps repeating the same stupid mistakes over and over again to win the love of her life, Lord Bruce Carlton. When will she ever learn? If I said it once, I must have said it a hundred times throughout this book - poor Amber!

I couldn't help but compare Forever Amber to Gone With the Wind, one of my all time favorite books. Amber and Scarlett are similar, both strong willed heroines who are survivors during a volatile period of history. Yet, I believe Amber's scruples left more to be desired than Scarlett's when it came to achieving her ends. Amber jumped from bed to bed without a thought, though she had her reasons and the times she lived in were much different than Scarlett's. She knew she was beautiful and used it to her advantage. Scarlett did it too, but in a more ladylike way, I believe. But, they both repeatedly married men they didn't love for money - and they both spent the greater part of their respective books pining for the man they can't have. Lord Bruce Carlton is Amber's Ashley Wilkes, although Bruce was not as milquetoasty as Ashley, he actually was Amber's lover on and off for ten years and the father of two of her children.

Amber is the kind of heroine that is hard to like - though I liked her! I can't say I admired her, she was self-absorbed, mercenary and at times - a complete idiot! At times I abhorred the way she behaved, particularly in regard to Bruce. Once she gets some money in her pocket and the clout at court to go with it, money goes to her head, and not in a good way. Conspicuous consumption. Get my drift? But, there was still something endearing about Amber. She had a good heart basically. I was always rooting for her and gnashing my teeth at her sheer recklessness regarding Bruce. Still, I don't blame her. She was young and naive at first and went through some really bad times, I often felt sorry for her. I liked her in the same way that I liked Scarlett O'Hara - do I want to be like them? No, but I still can't help sympathizing with them and wishing the best for them. I'm sure everyone could relate to Amber in some way or another - I know I sure did! I even saw a little bit of me *gasp* in her at times! Thank God I didn't read this when I was twelve years old, which is how old I was when I first read Gone With the Wind. As a result, there's a telltale Scarlett streak in my personality that shows up from time to time. I can't help it, she's in my blood.

But, I digress...

I was torn over Bruce as Amber's true love. I liked him and yet I didn't like him. He's no Rhett Butler and he's not an Ashley Wilkes either. In fact, at times he was a little of both, and yet he was neither. As I was getting closer to the end of the book, I was hoping that Amber would actually see the light and go for Almsbury, her sometime lover and Bruce's best friend. I really liked him! Though, at the same time, I kept wishing Bruce would realize he loved Amber and they'd go to America together - but he didn't! I felt for sure after they'd gotten through the plague together, he'd feel differently and come around and ask her to marry him - but no. Poor Amber! Yet, he always came back to her bed, even when they parted on bad terms and he'd tell her he couldn't marry her or *gasp* after he was already married to someone else - he still came back! He was kind of a jerk in that regard, but most likely a realistic portrayal of men of that period. Amber was fine enough as his mistress, but not as his wife. She never understood or accepted this. She loved him, he loved her. In her eyes what was stopping them from marrying?

The book is filled with irony, Bruce won't marry her because she isn't born from a noble and honorable background, but Amber actually is born of noble birth, yet she doesn't know it. Before Amber rises to become a countess and then ultimately a duchess, she is sweet and so in love with Bruce. In many ways she was still that ingenuous country girl he first met - but could not marry due to her humble background. Then, when she becomes a countess and then a duchess, she really changes and she's no longer sweet Amber, she's a Whitehall bitch. Maybe not as bad as Charles II's infamous other mistress, Barbara Palmer, but getting there.

Over and over I was glad I had read the Through A Glass Darkly books by Karleen Koen, for there were many similarities and it made me appreciate Forever Amber even more. It's almost as if Forever Amber was the prototype for them. I recognized historical events and names, it even seemed like I recognized conversations, for example, Charles II's talk with his sister, Minette, when she reveals all is not happy in her marriage to Louis XIV's brother - hadn't I read that same conversation in Dark Angels?

It was an exhausting book to read, though exhilarating as well, particularly during the plague sequence when both she and Bruce get it. I couldn't put it down during this part, though it was tiring to read about. Much detail and I really got a sense of what it was like in London during the epidemic. Much of Amber's life is like a soap opera - an historical Erica Kane! What next is going to happen to Amber? How is she going to get out of her latest predicament? Somehow, she always manages to land on her feet, she's like a cat with nine lives. She rises from the ashes and moves on and finds another man who's willing to take care of her or who has money she can use. Pragmatically, she goes from man to man, yet always remains in love with Bruce, her first and only love. By the end, the reader is left to wonder what will happen to her next - what a cliffhanger! Just like at the end of Gone With the Wind, we wonder, will Amber ever get her man back? I'm still reeling from it, but something tells me she'll land on her feet once again and manage quite nicely. I'm sure the success of Gone With The Wind had a lot to do with this ending.

If you like long, sprawling, romantic historicals that you can sink your teeth into, and don't mind a strong heroine that needs a slap upside the head once in a while, then you'll love Forever Amber. It's sensational fiction, evocative of the times and although Amber can drive you crazy, I really liked her - and the ending is a killer!

Poor Amber!!!



Misfit said...

Oh, Amber definitely needs slap on the head or two and as for that ending - priceless. I love the way Winsor can make you care about such unlikeable characters. If you're ever in the mood for Montana and Old New Yord take a look at her Wanderers Eastward Wanderers West. It's a door-stopper though.

Julie at Outlandish Dreaming said...

Misfit, thanks for the rec, I didn't even realize Winsor had written anything else! I sort of thought this was a one hit wonder. I'll look into her others, thanks again!

Joanne said...

Yes, yes, yes! LOL at "historical Erica Kane" -- so right! I think I'm on my fourth copy of Amber as I've read some copies to rags. We'll have to discuss Amber over a glass of wine in AZ!

Julie at Outlandish Dreaming said...

Oh yes, it's worth a re-read someday - can't wait until June in AZ!

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