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Scandalous Risks - Susan Howatch

"SCANDALOUS RISKS", the fourth novel in the Starbridge Series set in the English town of Starbridge, begins in 1988 with the reappearance there of Venetia Flaxton, a woman of aristocratic background, who had abruptly left town 25 years earlier. Venetia goes on to share with the reader her experiences of that pivotal and decisive year in her life: 1963. Then, aged 26, unsure of what she wanted to make of herself and increasingly restless living with her parents in their palatial residence, Venetia --- who had always been headstrong, often locking horns in spirited debates with her atheistic, Victorian father, a member of the House of Lords -- had left home after leaving a job he had secured for her. It - a job working at Liberal Party headquarters - was a job that she absolutely loathed! Indeed, as Venetia boldly asserted to her father: 'I'm off to Starbridge to meditate on God and contemplate Eternity --- which is exactly what you ought to be doing at your age!'

Once situated in Starbridge (sharing temporary residence with Marina Markhampton, a popular "society lady" whose beauty few men could resist), Venetia set about remaking herself. She reintroduced herself to an old childhood friend, Primrose Aysgarth, and Primrose's father Dean Aysgarth, a high-ranking figure in the Church of England in his early 60s. Aysgarth, a kindly, avuncular man with a taste for good whisky and modern art, was representative of the rising liberal wing of the Church of England at that time, which was challenging the traditional strictures and practices stoutly defended by the "old order" (represented by Bishop Charles Ashworth, a contemporary of Asygarth, who previously made an appearance about 20 years earlier in the third novel in the Starbridge Series: Ultimate Prizes).

Starbridge, while on the surface an old town famed for its great medieval cathedral, is seething with religious, political, and sexual intrigues. Venetia herself becomes caught up in one of these intrigues when she falls deeply in love with Aysgarth (whom she referred to affectionally as "Mr Dean"), who gladly reciprocates. For Aysgarth is in an unhappy marriage with Dido, a neurotic yet incredibly canny, perceptive woman. So both of them have to take considerable pains to keep their relationship discreet. For if even a hint of it became known in Starbridge, both of them would face utter ruin.

Aysgarth and Venetia found places a fair distance from the heart of Starbridge to meet once a week, where they shared their burning passion for each other. They also, when time and opportunity allowed, wrote love letters to each other, which I, as a person who grew up long before the advent of e-mail, enjoyed reading because they were so eloquent and heartfelt.

Yet the dream-like world in which both Aysgarth and Venetia sustained their love will find itself faced with challenges neither can ignore.

Any reader who loves a novel with vividly realized characters and a strong, compelling storyline, will savor "SCANDALOUS RISKS." So, sit back, relax with a juice or drink, and you'll soon be fully absorbed in this rich and dramatic tale of lives transformed amid crisis and controversy.