Makes Fifty Shades look like a relationship guide.

So I bought this because the title was so hilariously un-romantic, never guessing that it was a full and accurate warning of the contents.

Speaking of Fifty Shades: back when I read that, I thought Christian Grey’s instant and excessive devotion was annoying. Through all the various drama-sodden circular arguments, there was never a hint he’d walk away from Ana (and when she left they were apart for, what, two weeks?). Granted he needed truckloads of therapy, but he wasn’t hateful. Just…clingy, and emotionally abusive.

Then I met this asshat of a hero: Nick Radcliffe. How best to describe Nick? In a game of cliff, shag, marry, he’d get cliffed a LOT. But let’s do this thing properly:

Title: The Dark Side of Marriage
Author: Margery Hilton
Harlequin Romance
Published: 1978  
Reasons I might actually remember this one: Oh, I don’t know, the marital rape? The abusive arguments in which he basically calls her a slut? His sister, who is in love with him and whom he ACTUALLY calls a slut? SO HARD TO DECIDE. 

The set-up is this: Karen and her husband Nick been living apart for two years, ever since a newspaper published a photo of her emerging from an artist’s studio. The artist had been known to have been having a secretive affair, and had painted a nude, modern version of Rodin’s The Kiss, and everyone wanted to know who the woman was…so Nick doesn’t believe Karen when she says she’d never met the artist before that day or since, and she hadn’t been sleeping with him OR the man in the portrait, and she isn’t the woman in the painting. He assumes she was sleeping with BOTH men, or with one while the other watched. Because that’s a perfectly sensible thing to believe about your wife when she swears otherwise.

So they’re separated but not divorced, and he’s insisted on not telling anyone in order to spare the feelings of his adoptive mother, so they’ve been pretending she’s been with him in South America for two years. Really Karen’s been living in a tiny apartment in London, virtuously not touching the allowance he sends her and struggling to make ends meet, and avoiding all their old friends because he said so, and I am almost too blind with rage to type this up.

Now Nick’s beloved mother is dying, so he persuades Karen to come live with him–pretending they are still happily married–so he can recreate some sort of “happy family all gathered around their mother” scene. Because that’s what sick people need: manufactured drama and strained conversations, and to be surrounded by people who hate each other. But of course Karen goes along with it, probably because two years of lying for him, living alone in poverty, and being accused of sleeping around have broken her spirit.

The reason she hasn’t defended herself, much less denounced him as a jealous lunatic, is that the actual woman in the portrait is his (adoptive) younger sister Lisa, who WAS having the affair, and didn’t want to risk her marriage to The Honourable Cliff somebody-or-other by retrieving her bracelet from the artist’s apartment where she’d left it. No, really: she sent her sister-in-law, and then sat silently by through all the press coverage and didn’t, like, check in and notice that Karen and Nick had separated (even when, a year into the separation, she saw Karen alone in London and realized she wasn’t in South America at all).

The Lisa character is so utterly awful she’s practically indescribable. She’s selfish, spoiled, sulky, won’t carry her own luggage or help with the housework, is doted on by their mother (who is herself supposed to be loving and saintlike, but her inability to notice her daughter is a manipulative shit and her son an abusive rapist KIND of count against her), looks like a model, and threw Karen to the wolves. Or rather, Karen’s marriage–and since it’s more than hinted that she’s in love with Nick herself, I suppose that was an easy sacrifice.

So basically I hate everyone in this book except for Karen, who I feel too sorry for to hate OR like, and a sane compassionate doctor who barely has a walk-on part.

There is also, predictably for this kind of break-the-heroine’s-spirit abuse-fest, a rape scene.

After weeks of living with the horrible Lisa and the hateful Nick she slips and falls under a car, and it probably comes as a relief; she wakes up in hospital, where the staff are kind, and Lisa is bored and annoyed at having to visit. Karen cries a lot. During one of her nights there she sobs her way through a nightmare about her life (understandably) and the doctor hauls Nick into his office the next day to tell him about it, basically accusing him of traumatizing her, which is dead on. If I’d written this book Nick would have fallen down the stairs and conveniently died, and Karen would have married the doctor.

But instead Nick guesses from the report of Karen’s dream (during which she sobbed about Lisa and the painting)  what actually happened two years ago. He confronts Lisa (offstage, which is incredibly frustrating) and then tells Karen he knows the truth, and they’re reunited. There was a complete absence of the grovelling on his part that was the ONLY reason I stuck it out–I was hoping to see him suffer enough to compensate for Karen’s (and the reader’s) suffering, but no.

I also would have liked to see her beat a few of his teeth out with a hammer, but again, no.

This is the LEAST emotionally satisfying ending to a romance novel I’ve ever remembered. None of the bad people are repentant enough, or at all. Lisa is rewarded for being utter pondscum by…being happily reconciled to her loving, rich husband and having twins, immediately after which she gets her figure back. I’m not even making that up.

And the closest Nick comes to real regret about anything is when, right at the end, he says he’s glad Karen didn’t get pregnant that night he raped her because, and I have to quote this to do it justice:

‘The other night…when I…’ He raised his head and looked down, his eyes disturbed. ‘I’m sorry, darling. I was so brutal.’

She shook her head. ‘It doesn’t matter now.  Nothing matters now.’

But the shadow still  darkened his gaze. ‘I–I wouldn’t like to think that we–that we made a baby. Not in lust and hate.’

SERIOUSLY? Here’s a hint, genius: if you shy from the thought of babies being conceived in “lust and hate,” how about not going around BRUTALLY RAPING WOMEN? Just a thought.

Jesus. This book.

Active Ingredients:
Bad/Shallow Woman Wants Hero
Overly Loving Sister
Desperately Poor Heroine
Hounded/Lauded by the Press
Justice at Last
Kindly Servants
Marital Rape
Hero Insults Heroine by Refusing to Believe she was Faithful
Improbable Happy Ending

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The Golden Fig

A warning: if you’re planning to read “The Golden Fig” primarily for its plot (rather than for its gorgeous cover and recapturing-1974 time-capsule qualities)–don’t read the rest of this. SPOILERS FOR A 1974 PAPERBACK, in other words.

It took me a while to work out when this was supposed to be happening. Not 1974, I was pretty sure; it had the flavour of a 1970s historical novel rather than a contemporary-to-then gothic. But it wasn’t until page 29 that the book came right out and confirmed it was set in 1910 (although there had been hints in the form of hairpins and the heroine calling herself an old maid…but that *could* still have been the 70s, actually).

So I was a little irritated already when I hit the binding error: my copy of The Golden Fig is missing pages 31-62. In their place I have a second set of pages 175-206. So I missed the part where Paul, the young man the heroine-librarian is helping, courts and proposes to her, and was left on page 63 wondering why they’d gotten married and moved back to his cursed estate in the West Indies.

Once they get there he stops being charming and turns sinister and unfriendly, and also obsessed with producing sons. In case you haven’t caught on that he’s the villain there’s a marital rape scene. As in most gothic romances there’s also a seemingly-sinister but actually-kind male lead–in this case the heroine’s husband’s cousin–but the part where the heroine is MARRIED to the one that turns out to be an evil murderer is off-putting. Thus far in the 70s gothics I’ve been reading, there’s always a blandly attractive guy the heroine LIKES who turns out to be evil, but this is the first I’ve encountered where she spends weeks and weeks MARRIED to him.

Plus even after he rapes her, she’s still thinking about how she wants to save their marriage, which made her so alien a creature I couldn’t wrap my head around her at all. I think it was supposed to make you think she was a good, kind person, but it just made me wonder if she was suffering Stockholm syndrome. About ten pages after he rapes her–and beats her so badly her face is bruised–she’s thinking “Now things are back to normal! I have my own husband again!” just because he picks her up and spins her around in his arms. I can’t figure out how to read this: is she meant to be “too dumb to live” or admirably sweet and forgiving? I mean, HOW WOULD READERS IN 1974 HAVE READ HER? I don’t know why that matters to me–I mean, I should be content to take my own interpretation (Stockholmed into a state of too dumb to live) and just go with that–but it’s driving me nuts trying to figure out how this would have been interpreted in its own time.

1974 isn’t all that long ago, but in some respects it’s unfathomable.

Retro-Goth

For some reason* I’ve been reading a bunch of old gothic-romance paperbacks lately. It’s giving me the strangest second-hand nostalgia. I don’t remember reading these books when they were newer, but I remember *seeing* people reading them, and it’s all tied up in my mind with shopping from old Sears catalogues and grown-up women wearing long nightgowns and skirts with boots. And people smoking, and livingrooms having huge heavy glass ashtrays.

Anyway. The most recent haul:

*Okay, the reason is that I’ve been reading a whole lot of former-twific novels, and I needed space free from whips, chains, billionaires, childhood abuse, and endless conversations about NOTHING.