As a teenager, Julia Mitchell fell for her best friend's much older adopted brother. She'd only seen him in pictures, until one day, he came home from college. It was anything but a happy reunion. Julia walked into a scene of destruction that was caused by the man of her dreams who now sat on the back porch, a drunken mess. She was drawn to him in spite of what had clearly taken place, and he took her to the orchard behind his childhood home, where they spent a magical, but chaste, night together, during which he called her his perfect Beatrice. But when morning dawned, she believed that he'd abandoned her. Despite that, his likening her to Dante's great love inspired her to follow in his footsteps by studying the great classical poet. Julia tried to move on with her life, but after a disturbing experience with an abusive stalker boyfriend and with little money to her name, she turns down an opportunity at Harvard and goes to Toronto University to continue work on her Master's degree in literature, studying under the one man she's never been able to forget.
Professor Gabriel Emerson is a well-respected Dante specialist, but he has a reputation on campus for being an arrogant jerk. When Julia shows up in his class, there's something about her that seems familiar. But since he doesn't recall ever meeting her, he treats her with the same disdain he gives to nearly every student. Somehow they seem to keep finding themselves together, either alone or in the company of others, and as he gets to know her, he begins to feel something for her. When their brief past encounter eventually comes to light, Gabriel wonders how he ever could have forgotten his Beatrice, and he finds himself wanting to make up for lost time by giving her everything they've missed out on. But fraternization between professors and their students is strictly forbidden. Not to mention, Gabriel bears the burden of a dark past filled with debauchery that makes him feel unworthy of a woman as perfect and flawless as Julia, and he fears that she will leave him once she knows the truth. He also soon realizes that Julia is keeping some secrets of her own. Can these two broken people find comfort and solace in each other's arms, or are they as doomed as the classic lovers to whom they've devoted their lives to studying.
I've been looking forward to reading Gabriel's Inferno for quite some time now. I can't recall exactly how it came to my attention, but I was aware of it being compared to Fifty Shades of Grey and being included on lists of what to read after FSoG. That being the case, I was certainly expecting a super-sexy erotic romance, but that's not what I got at all. I cannot stress enough that despite some online book sites having this book categorized as such, it is not erotic romance, just a sensual contemporary. However, it does contain so many similarities with FSoG it's almost eerie, which I'll get to in a moment. In fact, there were so many similarities, I thought perhaps it was conceived as FSoG fan fiction. However, after doing a bit of research, I discovered that both series supposedly got their start as Twilight fan fiction, but IMHO, the two stories generally bear more similarities to each other than to the series that inspired them except for the fact that Gabriel's Inferno is on the sweeter side like Twilight. If anything, it almost seems that Gabriel's Inferno was conceived more as Dante's Inferno fan fiction, since that classic piece of literature plays a huge part in the story. In any case, however it got started, it seems to be better liked than FSoG, so as a huge fan of FSoG, I thought I was in for some great reading. Unfortunately, though, it just didn't quite live up to the hype for me.
Back to the similarities between Gabriel's Inferno and FSoG. I wanted to make note of these, because I've looked and thus far haven't found any comparisons between the two even though to my way of thinking, they're pretty glaring. So here's what I found: Julia is a virgin who is pretty meek and submissive. She's a graduate student in literature. She has little money and her possessions are rather shabby, prompting Gabriel to want to replace them. She has a habit of biting her lip. She has a nice, but bland guy interested in her, and like one of the two similar guys in FSoG who was into Anastasia, his name is Paul. Gabriel is wealthy, and although he isn't as stalkerish as Christian, he does insinuates himself - or rather his money - into Julia's life, giving her extravagant gifts that make her uncomfortable. The author uses the word mercurial to describe him, though not excessively. He has a fixation with making sure that Julia gets enough to eat. He has eclectic tastes in music and art. He uses, "Come" and other imperatives liberally. He had a crappy biological mother, didn't really know his father, and was adopted as a young boy by his family. His adoptive mother's name is Grace (just like Christian's), and she's the one who found him. He has one brother and one sister who is pretty outspoken. He has anger issues. He's very sexually experienced and has engaged in some unusual sexual pursuits. Both Gabriel and Julia have a tendency to use more formal words of address, ie. Miss Mitchell and Professor Emerson, even in private. There's also some emphasis on them sharing several "firsts" together.
There were a few other almost carbon copy similarities between the two stories, but this is more than enough to demonstrate what I was talking about, so I got tired of jotting them down. What accounts for this I can't say for sure. At first, I thought Sylvain Reynard liberally borrowed from E. L. James, but it isn't entirely clear to me which story came first. A little more history on the books: Both fan fiction versions appear to have been posted online around the same time. Both received their initial small-press publications within one month of each other, and both received their large press releases about a year later, also within one month of each other. Additionally, I discovered that the two authors are supposedly friends. So, whether one borrowed a little too liberally from the other or they both borrowed from each other, or something else accounts for this, I couldn't say. But for me, the near identical elements were enough to raise my eyebrows and make me start asking questions even though what I found didn't entirely appease my curiosity. All I know is that, at first, I felt like I'd just picked up a FSoG knock-off from a street vendor, although I'll admit that as the story progressed my opinion began to change somewhat.
So, now that I've satisfied my geeky fascination with comparative analysis of the two books, what did I think of Gabriel's Inferno independently? Well, for starters, Gabriel himself did not initially draw me into the story. During the first half of the book, he comes off as too cold and distant and rather stuck-up, especially for someone who purportedly had a very poor early childhood. Whereas, to me, Christian always seemed to want to give Ana nice things as a means of protecting and cherishing her, it felt like Gabriel wanted to replace Julia's things because they flat-out offended his sensibilities. At first, he only seemed to be nice when he was drunk, which IMHO, didn't speak well to his character. It takes until over a third of the way into the book before he even realizes what an ass he's been and starts groveling a little. Until then, I barely even liked the guy. Before that he showed a few glimmers of something deeper, but it just took way too long to get to any sort of meaningful reveal. However, that said, the Gabriel in the second half of the book got a personality transplant and practically became a dreamboat overnight. Once he remembers who Julia is, the transforming power of love takes over completely, changing him in an instant, which was maybe a little to much to be fully believable, but nevertheless very welcome. Second-half Gabriel thoroughly cherishes Julia and treats her like a precious jewel. He refuses to take her virginity for so long, it became a combination of sweetness and frustration for me. Then at the very end, when they finally do make love for the first time, he takes his time, focusing solely on her needs, which was very romantic. So overall, I'd say I had mixed feelings about our hero. First-half Gabriel I wanted to kick to the curb, while second-half Gabriel was worthy of inclusion on my favorite heroes list.
Like I mentioned before, Julia is very sweet, meek, and generally submissive, a little too much so at times. Gabriel was the older brother of her best friend and was away at college, so it was a long time before she met him and then only once. It seems that her attraction for him is based solely off that one meeting, during which she and Gabriel spent a magical, but chaste, night together in an apple orchard. Gabriel was kind to her but drunk the whole time, so when they meet up again, when she's a student in his literature class, he doesn't remember her at first. It was also that meeting that made Julia choose to study to become a Dante specialist, which is what Gabriel is, too. While that interaction was sweet, it just didn't impact me enough to make me buy into the idea that she's pined after him all this time. But she had, and when they meet up again, he treats her abominably. At this point, I was kind of questioning her judgment, because it seemed like Gabriel had a penchant for getting drunk and then having blackout episodes, as well as a monster temper and possible violent tendencies. I felt like she should have been more concerned by this, especially since she had an alcoholic mother and an abusive boyfriend. I've seen some readers comparing Julia and Anastasia, saying that Ana had no self-respect, letting Christian walk all over her, while Julia stands up for herself. However, I have to disagree on both counts. Ana did often stand up to Christian in what I felt was a generally healthy way, often loosening him up and/or changing his mind. However, the main instance where Julia stands up to Gabriel, she did so in a passive-aggressive way, which IMHO, showed immaturity on her part, something Gabriel rightly pointed out after a blow-up argument. Then one other feisty episode came off as more petulant than genuinely spirited. Much like with Gabriel, though, I grew to like Julia more as the story progressed, mainly because she's very accepting of his past transgressions, and we get to see more of her own past with her abusive jerk of an ex-boyfriend that drew my sympathy.
Not only do the characters change considerably from the first half of the book to the second half, it seemed like nothing really happened during the first half. I was getting so impatient for some meaty tidbit that I was about ready to chuck the book out the window in frustration. It felt like they did little more than attend classes, go out someplace in the evening, either alone together or in the company of others, shared some mostly banal conversation, and then Gabriel would have a temper tantrum that put distance between them again. Wash, rinse, repeat for about 300 pages. During that time, I desperately wanted to know more about why Gabriel felt unworthy as indicated in the cover blurb, even though his emotions surrounding that weren't brought out very well. And I wanted to know who Paulina was and why she kept calling him. I was also dying to know what happened between Julia and her mystery guy back home that had freaked her out so much. Of course, all that doesn't come out until the second half and even then it's still a painfully slow process to get to all the reveals. I have to say, as well, that this is what mainly constituted the plot of the story. It was mostly about all these secrets that both of them have and are reluctant to share and them working their way up to trusting each other enough to do that. I also found something of a disconnect between all these past secrets and the characters' present emotions and motivations that made it harder to connect with them. The only other thing of note story-wise is them working their way up to making love for the first time, because a lot was made of that. Overall, this is rather thin material for a plot, and IMHO, the first 300 pages or so probably could have been cut in half to speed things up.
The other thing that wasn't quite up to par for me was the author's writing style. For starters, I found the narrative during the first half of the book to be too pretentious for genre fiction. It felt more like literary fiction, but then magically, like everything else, that changes somewhat during the second half of the book, making the narrative more accessible. There was a lot of passive narration as well, with too much telling and not enough showing, which made it difficult to feel the deep connection that supposedly existed between the characters. The author also has a penchant for head-hopping, including secondary and even minor character POVs (I really didn't need to know what the waiter or the bouncer were thinking). This nearly always drives a wedge between me and the main characters, because I'm not getting that deep POV that I crave to really understand what's going on inside a character's mind. Then there was the author intruding with his/her (I use both pronouns here, because the author is notoriously reclusive and the original fan fiction was published under the name Sebastien Robichaud, so no one really knows if the author is male or female) omniscient narration which also puts the reader at a distance from the characters. Some of the narration, especially during the first half, drones on, with lots of words and not much of import actually being said. There were way too many parenthetical asides, which are generally frowned upon in fiction. Pretty much every one made me roll my eyes, because they were either trying to be too cute or they were pointing out the obvious that was already implied in the previous text and would have been better if left subtle. The word "for" as a conjunction was way over-used. It only added to the pretentious feel of the narrative, and in nearly every case, was completely unnecessary. It could have been eliminated altogether or the sentences simply rearranged. I found occasional repetition that I think was intended to emphasize, but IMHO, would have been more powerful if said only once. Also there was occasional unnatural dialogue and awkward body movements that were hard to picture as written. In general, there was a lot of overwriting here that needed a good editor to really tighten it up and make it shine.
So, why you may ask, did I give the book 3.5 stars? Well, in short, the first half may have frustrated me, and I admit that there were parts of this section that were dropping the story into the 2-star range, but once things picked up, after that 300-page mark, they moved along at a reasonably steady pace, holding my attention much better. Even though the character changes for Gabriel were a little drastic, I loved the man he became during that latter half of the book. What woman wouldn't want a man who takes his time and focuses all his passion and love on her alone? So despite the weaknesses in the writing, I could easily have rated this section at least 4 stars. That would average it out to 3 stars and having the book end on a high note made me bump it up the extra half-star. Will I read the rest of the series? Gabriel's Inferno wrapped everything up in such a way that it could be treated as a stand-alone, so at first, I wasn't too sure. But after realizing I already have the second book, Gabriel's Rapture, on my TBR pile, I think I may give it a chance. I just won't be in as much of a hurry to dive into book #2 as I was with Fifty Shades of Grey.
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