Pros: A sweeping novel of human frailties and ambitions
Cons: Not for everyone
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Review copy courtesy of Penguin Group.
From the title you might think this is another erotic romance novel, but it isn’t. Much to my surprise, my usual shipment of books from Penguin included one from their “NAL Praise” line this time: Jaquelin Thomas’s Jezebel. Although it isn’t my normal reading material, it looked interesting, so I decided to give it a read. And I’m glad I did.
Jessie Bell is a small town Georgia girl determined to use her feminine wiles to land herself a rich husband. When an Atlanta pastor named Traynor Deveraux visits town, she decides she’s found her ticket out. Traynor, trusting soul that he is and blinded by Jessie Bell’s beauty, refuses to listen to the rumors and gossip he can’t help but overhear, and decides to marry her.
Jessie Bell soon finds that Traynor isn’t as well-to-do as she thought he was, but that’s only a minor speedbump. She has enough ambition for both of them, and believes he could be as big as Billy Graham with her encouragement and aid. If that aid just happens to involve a threat here, a bit of blackmail there, and maybe a bribe there, well, that’s just what it takes to get anywhere in our world.
Soon both Jessie Bell and Traynor are living the high life, but that only means that when things catch up to her, she’ll have farther to fall…
I don’t ordinarily go for moralistic, teaching stories. So what made this one different and worthwhile?
First of all, despite the fact that it’s easy to despise the main character and feel frustrated at her repeated inability to see where her actions will lead, the reader also gets little glimpses into why Jessie Bell is the way she is. She really does come to love her husband, and she was raised to believe that a woman’s ambition must only properly be for her husband’s success. With as much ambition as she has knocking around inside, it’s hardly surprising that this causes her to push him in ways that she shouldn’t. So even as it’s immensely difficult to find any sympathy for Jessie Bell, it’s still possible to understand where she’s coming from. She isn’t simply presented as a one-sided “evil” Jezebel.
She also isn’t presented as the sole villain of the story. She’s only able to blackmail her husband’s rivals because they indulge in sins that can be blackmailed. She’s able to bribe people precisely because they have their own bad habits to feed. And while it’s true that she uses her beauty to turn men’s heads when she wants something, it’s also made clear that those who want to sleep with a married woman are hardly innocent themselves. There’s (thankfully) no attempt to blame this Jezebel for everyone else’s sins—only her own.
Since this is hinted at on the back of the book, it isn’t spoiling anything to say that she does find one last chance at forgiveness and redemption (don’t worry, I won’t give away the details). I was particularly contented with how this was played out. I’ve always taken issue with the idea that one must always forgive and forget, but in this case it was made clear that forgiveness and redemption depend upon true repentance. And that is a middle ground that reads true to me.
The characters are rich and believable; the story complex and attention-grabbing; the ending bittersweet and teary. Even for this non-religious reader, this was a book well worth reading. My only complaint is the difficulty in relating to Jessie Bell, particularly early on. Also, while I enjoyed this as a novel on its own grounds, it does have enough religion in it that it won’t be for everyone.