Jane Haddam: Sweet, Savage Death

Sweet, Savage Death

This isn’t even a romance novel. But it’s set at a conference of romance novelists (all members of the “American Writers of Romance”), and the most interesting things about it are what it has to say about romance novels and the romance industry.

As a murder mystery it’s not all that great; the writing is good, but the characters were hard to keep straight (I kept having to double check which one was Janine and which one was Julia, and who Lydia and Mary were) and it felt like too much book crammed into too few pages. Also, the convenient kleptomaniac cat was too convenient for my taste.

But it was a fun read, all the same. The disparity between the public personas the authors were expected to keep up and the realities behind the pseudonyms was hilarious. The idea of romance novelists as ruthless backstabbers veered a little too far into “all women are catty” territory to make me really happy, but I suppose hugely successful novelists are somewhat ego-driven, and since all the authors in this were women, well…

And it raised some interesting questions. The book was published in 1984, and the characters are worried about the glut of romance novels on the market, and the eventual shakedown-and-collapse of the industry. As far as I can tell, there were huge numbers of publishing companies with category romance lines in the eighties: what did happen to them all? Is Loveswept still around? What about Candlelight Ecstasy?

Also, the characters are variously concerned about the status of romance novels, the discrepancy between the amount of money they bring in and the lack of respect they get even within their own publishing houses, the publishers’ ownership of the authors’ pseudonyms (really? this was a thing?) and the necessity of maintaining a certain image in order to keep their readers happy. Those bits were fascinating, more so than the mystery itself.

Stockhome Syndrome? What’s that?

Title: Devil in Disguise
Author: Jessica Steele
Harlequin Romance
Published: August 1981

Reasons I might actually remember this one: I don’t know if I’m just having a streak of fantastically bad luck, or if vintage romance novels really do use rape in their plots so frequently that it’s not unusual to grab two at random and get back-to-back nightmares of sexual coersion. But whatever the reason, this one was as disturbing and anxiety-inducing a read as the last one.
I want to be fair here. There were parts of this book I really liked. The heroine, still living at home at nineteen (and neither employed nor in school), had a sort of idyllic family life, with doting parents and two older brothers. Granted they were the teensiest bit smothery, on account of her Traumatic Background Event, but honestly I would rather have been at home myself at nineteen so I felt pangs of envy.

The hero, if you can overlook his one enormous flaw, was broody and inscrutable but also tender, considerate, and given to muttering Endearments in a Foreign language. Those are all things I like.

But then, getting to that enormous flaw, there’s the bit where he kidnaps her. See, he thinks one of her adoring brothers has seduced his sister. So in revenge, he’s kidnapped the heroine (he lied to her, making her think her brother had been injured, and whisked her off to Greece) and intends that she “suffer the same fate” (his words, not mine) that his sister suffered. If the heroine doesn’t come “voluntarily” to his bed, he’ll have her brother killed or maimed (he’s holding the brother captive on an island).

So…yeah. “Voluntarily.” He actually explicitly states that this isn’t rape, and that he won’t rape her, and I have a sickening feeling that possibly the law would have been on his side on that one. But the thing that pushes this book over into nightmare territory, and had me reading it with a clenched stomach, is that the heroine’s Traumatic Background Event was a stranger beating her up and trying to rape her when she was fourteen. So she’s not, you know, indignant and angry: she’s terrified, shaking, and sick at the thought of any sex. She has night terrors in which she relieves the attack. She suffered trauma-induced mutism for a year after the attack. Even non-kidnap-y consensual sex has been completely off the table for her, and now this.

I’m sorry. I know it was written in a different era, and the past is another country and all that, but it was impossible for me to get past my own horror and relax into this story. At all.

Now, I remember once reading somewhere that one possible function of rape in romance narratives is that they, in a sense, reassure the reader, or at least give the reader a non-brain-exploding way of thinking about rape, because of course in the romance novel the rape victim emerges triumphant: the rapist loves her, so she has power over him, and instead of being shunned or blamed or discarded she achieves social status and what-have-you. It’s one of those theories that I find intriguing, but have never been entirely convinced by. But I have to say, in fairness to this book and this author: this book, more than any romance novel I can remember reading, does lend a certain credence to that idea.

The heroine at the outset is still deeply traumatized by her attack, and sees herself as weak and cowardly and “nothing.” By the end of the book, the hero has been brought to the point of confessing his love for her, asking her to marry him, apologizing to her and to her brother, and admitting his sister was lying all along; the heroine, in pointed contrast, is buying new clothes, trying a couple of casual dates with her brother’s friend, no longer having nightmares or sleeping with the door open, and is newly aware that she has sexual desires (not that she ever uses the word sexual even in internal monologues) and has not had that ruined for her forever.

So in a sense, the book shows you a young woman falling in love and that being a healing experience for her, and that’s great. I would just have been a hell of a lot more comfortable if it had all come about throug their being snowed in at a cabin or something, rather than his being a kidnapper and revenge-seducer.

Active Ingredients:
Virgin Heroine
Greek Billionaire
Traumatic Background Event
Kindly Servants
Endearments in a Foreign Language
Kidnapping
Seduction as Revenge
Hero Insults Heroine by Refusing to Believe she is a Virgin
Christmas

review: Gone Before Morning

gone before morning

Title: Gone Before Morning
Author: Lilian Peake
Harlequin Romance
Published: July 1973
Reasons I might actually remember this one: Yeah, that’s not really going to work for this one. Memorable? I suspect I’ll need intensive therapy to forget it.

Let me try to summarize: Kim Paton has just graduated from university with a degree in literature, and she can’t find a job because anything she’s qualified for is getting snatched up by people with shinier degrees, so she has to accept under-employment (at least temporarily) and applies for a job as a housekeeper. So far that sounds like it could be set now, but no, the seventies force their way to the forefront very very quickly–and I’m not talking about clothes, although let me pause for a minute and share this conversation about clothes:

“Ah, now that’s a long, long story. You make fibres by starting with substances that are plainly not fibres but, lo and behold,” he moved his hand as if waving a wand, “they cease to be somewhat nasty solids and liquids and become desirable and useful threads. The fibre scientist mixes ‘magic’ ingredients–in this case, chemicals–and produces something that will in the end become a man-made fibre, like nylon and so on, but which has to be squeezed, pulled, twisted and generally battered about until it takes up a useful form. So the next time you’re putting on your beautiful dresses and underwear and what-have-yous, with their delightful feel and their excellent wearing and washing qualities, remember that they all originated in a laboratory and remember to thank the clever scientists who made it possible. Now, having explained about my work and my position, financial and otherwise,” he smiled again, “have I made myself attractive enough to make you want to chase after me?”

Golly gosh gee, chemicals? In my what-have yous?

Is it just me, or is that the most condescending and least informative “explanation” possible? It made me want to bash him in the teeth, personally, though the heroine doesn’t seem particularly taken aback. That’s probably because she’s so used to hearing not only the hero but also her brother and both parents (all of whom are scientists) sneer at her for only having an arts degree (all of which reminded me of my husband, and not in a good way, alas. I mean, I love him to bits, but some of the opinions he’s shared about the arts versus the sciences have made me contemplate hemlock, and not for myself.)

Anyway. So most of the book consists of him being rude to her, because he’s convinced himself that every housekeeper he hires is secretly plotting to marry him, and her being rude right back at him, because she thinks he’s an arrogant arse. She’s entirely right, as far as I can make out. For instance, in the beginning she’s wearing shapeless dresses and tying her hair back and hiding behind fake glasses so he’ll think she’s dowdy and older than she is (since she’s been told he won’t hire anyone attractive or too young), and we get remarks from him like this:

“Now how could someone like you,” his gaze travelled disparagingly over her, “net three boyfriends?”

Also, there’s this whole class-tension thing going on wherein he looks down on her because he thinks she’s working class (and doesn’t know she has a degree), and so sometimes he makes her eat in the kitchen, like when he has a colleague over. Meanwhile his neglected-to-the-point-of-abuse daughter loves Kim, and has been telling the other children at school that Kim is her mummy, which unlike almost every other instance of Adorable Book Moppet I’ve ever seen actually had me sniffling. It was just so pathetic it got to me, damn it.

Then Kim goes out with a Sleezy Attempted Rapist who works with the hero. As revenge or something the hero goes out with an Ice-Cold Lady Scientist (whom his daughter, gratifyingly, hates on sight). When the daughter refuses to eat with them and runs into the kitchen to find Kim, her father becomes so enraged that Kim, fearing he’s going to hit the child, steps in. So he smacks Kim in the face instead. No, seriously, that happens.

He paled. “You’re defying me, Miss Paton? You dare to defy me?” His anger burst through like the breaching of a dam. He lifted his hand again, this time swung it, giving her a stinging slap on the cheek. Her lip quivered, her eyes filled, but she stood her ground. She would rather have taken the blow than have had it borne by the child she was protecting.

And, well, that was the exact point at which the retro flavour of this ceased to be entertaining and became flat-out infuriating instead. If you’ve ever wondered exactly how different the seventies were, here’s your answer, because she doesn’t call child services or the police or kill him in his sleep and run away with the child. Instead we get this:

And misery swamped her. She could not love him less because of what he had done. She felt perhaps she loved him even more. Now she knew that under the cynicism and coldness of his manner, he possessed a passion as impetuous and uncontrollable as any other man’s.

Seriously? Seriously? What the actual hell, lady. I mean, call me crazy, but I would take cynicism and coldness over “loses control and hits people” any day.

The next day she feels guilty for having argued with him in the first place, and, look: I am the least armchair-psychologist-y of people, but this reads so very exactly like a description of battered wife syndrome that my mouth was actually hanging open. How the HELL was this ever seen as romantic?

I mean, I can get all over cold and aloof and sarcastic and unknowable and mysterious and brooding and all that, but HE HIT HER IN THE FACE. So when she’s standing in the doorway the next morning watching him “with a deep compassion” because he has his head in his hands and I guess feels guilty, I felt less like I was reading a romance and more like I was forcing myself to read a stomach-churning, anxiety-inducing case study.

In the end she resigns (from her job, I mean, she’s long since resigned herself to the rest), he stops her as she’s leaving the house and confesses he loves her, and she admits she loves him too. All that happens in the last seven pages of the book. No one signs up for therapy or even, you know, admits there might be something wrong with a relationship where he only finally respects her because 1) she is from his social class after all and 2) her father is a famous scientist.

Active Ingredients:
Adorable Book Moppet
Attempted Rapist
Ice-Cold Lady Scientist
Cold/Unfaithful First Wife
Seething Class Tensions
Punishing Kisses (with a side order of I Could Rape You But I Won’t)
Condescending Science! Lessons
Improbable Happy Ending