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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