Review of Appetites and Vices

Appetites and Vices by Felicia Grossman. Carina Press. 2019

Content Warnings for review: discussion of ableism, Anti-Semitism, and sex. 

Appetites and Vices by Felicia GrossmanI wanted to read this because it is a historical romance centering a Jewish MC, written by a Jewish author, and ownvoices romances with Jewish MCs are hard to come by, particularly historical romances. I was also looking forward to this as its not set in Regency England, but in the U.S. I need to be in a certain headspace to read historical romance, so it took me a few months to get to this, but I am really glad I waited to be in a space where I was up for historical romance, because I really enjoyed this book!

The pacing of the story was lovely, and the way the conflict unfolded really worked for me. I thought it used the fake engagement trope incredibly well, milked it for everything it has to offer, and then some. I really liked all the twists and turns of this as the story went on, and appreciated how central the heroine’s arc was to the story, and how incredibly compelling and strong she was as a character. I fell hard for Ursula, and would love to be her friend, if that were possible.

I really liked the complexities of the Jewish representation in the story, how so much of that was about community and politics and grappling with Anti-Semitism. The Jewish MC is not particularly observant, and it’s really not about her being Jewish in a religious way, but her cultural Jewishness was fairly central to the story and the plot, and it was nice to get to see that kind of Jewish rep in a historical context. There were some moments that felt especially resonant, the way Ursula reacts when she realizes someone she didn’t think was Anti-Semitic actually holds Anti-Semitism was an intense one for me. I loved the small moment when Ursula is talking about her curly hair with her maid; that was another resonant moment. I struggled a bit with how the gentile hero thought the heroine whined, given how loaded that is for Jewish women in particular, but it felt like something that was momentary, so it didn’t bug me too much. I liked the way it didn’t feel like the book tried to translate Jewish cultural experiences, community, or experiences of Anti-Semitism for gentile readers. Instead, Appetites and Vices felt like a Jewish story being told for Jewish readers, and I treasured that aspect of it.

I read the heroine as autistic, because of her difficulty in reading social cues and meeting social expectations, her circular thinking, her brilliant pattern recognition, her intense bluntness of communication, her communication difficulties, her intense investment in rightness and frustration with social niceties, her not making eye contact (which the hero directly asks her about, drawing our attention to it). There was at least one moment where it felt like she had a meltdown, and one where it seemed like she narrowly avoided one, as well. Her autism is not named on the page or in the promotion of the book, but the representation feels clear enough to me that I’d say with substantial confidence that this was an autistic character. (As opposed to an autistic-coded character, or a situation where the representation was unclear.)

This felt like a generally respectful representation of an autistic character, one that worked for me overall, and that I would recommend to autistic readers as one of the best examples of autism representation in historical romance that I’ve read. It has some limitations, in terms of depth, misses some of what it’s like internally to be autistic, particularly around sensory processing, but that kind of representation is rare outside of ownvoices autism rep, in my reading experience. It does really capture the feeling of alienation that comes from being autistic in an allistic society, and the frustration with missing social cues and being unable to mask and meet social expectations, and generally finding those things baffling. There is a moment early on where Ursula gets really frustrated about not being able to tell where she went wrong socially and refers to how much work it is to even try, how exhausting that is, that really resonated for me. The dual POV means that before the hero figures out that she’s autistic, there are a number of scenes where he is trying to figure out if she is being intentionally rude and insulting. Those moments were kind of fascinating for me as an autistic reader, but generally felt much more respectful and less ableist than I have often seen in allistic POV moments with regard to an autistic love interest.

The place I struggled the most was the way the hero tries to teach her how to mask her autism more in social situations, a common trope in autistic romances that I generally struggle with and wish we could get past, as a genre. That said, the way he approaches it feels fairly respectful and they only do it after she asks him for help. Though, the help he offers doesn’t feel like it would get her as far as it does in the story, realistically; that didn’t really bug me that much. What was hard to read was that both the hero and the heroine refer to it as “fixing” her. I didn’t read this as an actual attempt to cure her of autism, but instead as being caught in an ableist framework. Nonetheless, I do not think it was necessary to use that language and I really wish it had not been used. I do think overall, despite the use of these social lessons as a trope in the story, the hero generally likes her bluntness and disinterest in social niceties and doesn’t actually want to change her. That feels clear throughout and is lampshaded near the end, which made this trope sting less. I will also say, seeing her come into her power was incredibly satisfying and made me feel better about the autism rep, and this dynamic between them in particular.

You may notice that I haven’t talked much about the hero. He felt a bit more thinly drawn, which makes sense in a heroine-centered romance, but I did wish for a bit more meat to his characterization. I also was turned off some by his early POV chapters, but he grew on me over time. I appreciated the way his addiction and trauma felt real and resonant, and that it was not cured by love, and I really liked the ways that she saw his vulnerability and saw him as a person, and went to battle on his behalf, especially since those battles were high stakes difficult social situations that she braved for him. I also liked him more because of how he saw her, how much he adored her and honored her power and the fullness of her self, and also because the way she saw him made me warm to him. I also really appreciated the way he was so deeply invested in his own ethical system around relationships with women, and how much he cared about her pleasure and consent. It made for sex scenes that were hotter than I anticipated given that sexual tension wasn’t at the forefront of the story, much of the time. I liked that. The bondage scene was especially wonderful in it’s emotionality and negotiation. And I liked the way he used his social skills to shield her as much as he could, but also needed her sometimes, socially, too.

Overall, I found this romance both deeply engaging and quite satisfying, with a heroine I completely adored, and I am excited to read the next book in this series. A very impressive debut.

Representation

  • Jewish autistic woman MC.
  • Man with trauma and addiction MC
  • Jewish woman author.

Content Warnings for the book (in white, highlight to read)

References to parental death in the past from cancer. Anti-Semitism, which is textually challenged, if not directly challenged. Misogyny and ableism which are rarely directly challenged, and sometimes challenged textually. Misogynist, controlling family. Slut shaming. MC with addiction to opium, is not using but clearly struggling with addiction throughout the story. References to an MC’s traumatic grief. References to death of spouse and child from illness. Bullying targeting the MC occurred in the past as well as in the present of the story, particularly targeting her around being autistic, Jewish, her body shape, and family. Outing of a variety of things that are framed as shameful. Sex on the page. Consensual kink on the page, including light D/s and light bondage.

Disclosures

  • Source of the book: ARC from the publisher via Netgalley
  • I have had conversations with the author on Twitter.
  • All links to Amazon will be affiliate ones. If you buy through those links, I will make a small amount of money on that sale (which I plan to use to buy more books to review), but it will not add any to the cost of your product. It comes out of the company’s profits.

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