A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

The Almack’s Scene in Pam Rosenthals’s Almost a Gentleman

(A reblog from Heroes and Heartbreakers)

It’s a strange alchemy that makes a trope that’s tiresome in one writer’s hands a winner in another’s. “Chicks in pants” is high on my list of instant turn-off tropes, but Almost a Gentleman has joined my (very) short list—The Masqueraders by Georgette Heyer, The Lady’s Secret by Joanna Chambers—of favorites.

Widower David, Lord Linseley, is on the watch for a suitable wife at Almack’s. It’s quite a shock to him to be hit with lust—or even perhaps love—at first sight:

He roused himself from his reverie to watch a particularly graceful couple glide by. Yes, that’s how it should be done, he thought. There was a purity, a concentration to the young man’s swift steps, a perfection to the set of his hips and shoulders, joy of movement elevated to art through intense control and mastery. The lady held herself very upright, but one could feel a tiny shudder of surrender in her posture, a willingness to be led. One could see it in the arch at the small of her back, the confidence with which she entrusted her balance to her partner’s gloved hand at her waist.

Of course that’s how it’s done, Linseley thought. It was how all the important things in life were done—from the body’s center. It was how you guided a horse over a gate, heaved a forkful of hay onto a wagon, took a woman to bed. This new dance led one’s thought to lovemaking: no wonder there had been such consternation in fashionable circles when the waltz was introduced. The couple whirled back into the crowd; losing sight of them, Lord Linseley stared at the space they’d occupied, astonished and rather shaken by the feelings that had seized him.

He’s even more shaken when he meets the young man’s—really, of course, a young woman’s—eyes.

Ridiculous, Linseley thought helplessly. Impossible. He wasn’t the sort of man for an exotic passion. But there was no denying that he’d felt something—a bolt of strange cold lightning had flashed through him when he’d returned the young man’s gaze.

What’s gorgeous about this scene is the attraction isn’t based on mere physical allure. David recognizes in the stranger, Phizz Marston, a form of exquisite excellence—someone who is utterly committed and simply smashing at what they do. When that’s combined with beautiful, forceful eyes staring into yours… who could help but fall in love?

Thankfully, the masquerade is not spun out for very long: this isn’t a story about David’s fears and then his relief. Indeed, there’s a lot of other plot going on—secrets, mysteries, past anguish, hidden villains. But the heart of the story is love strengthened with admiration and respect, because David continues to appreciate Phizz—Phoebe—for her courage and competence, even after her metaphorical mask comes off. His ability to recognize her special qualities in a man, and then continue to value them in a woman, make him a hero worthy of her.

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Now That’s What I’m Talking About

I’m reading a book in a series heavy on family drama and secrets, and based on the previous history, I started to get an uncomfortable feeling it was going to turn into one of those horrible romances where it looks for a while like the couple is related. And I’d barely thought that when the author inserted a line to make it clear that no, it was not. I appreciated it so much

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You Never Forget Your First

CW: Violence

(Since we’re talking about romance gateways on Twitter today, here’s a reprint from H&H about my first romance.)

The internet helped me locate the very first genre romance I ever read as an adolescent, a book that made such a strong impression on me, I still can’t use the word “chiffon” in a crossword puzzle without thinking of it. (You never forget your first heroine’s dress with usefully inconvenient tiny buttons down the back…)

The book was The Romantic Spirit by Glenna Finley, a prolific author in the ’70s and ’80s who is now pretty obscure. I’ve never seen a mention of her in the last eight years or so I’ve hung out in online Romancelandia; her GoodReads ratings are high, yet there are only two short reviews. Rereading this book now, it doesn’t seem surprising that her books haven’t lasted: it is very much a product of its time, yet in a way that already seemed dated to me when I first read it, around a year after it was published. With its superficial descriptions of the counter-culture, coupled with the heroine’s extreme prudishness about sex, it reads like the last gasp of a fading world; the main character is a wide-eyed tourist, not just in California, but in society at large:

Maggie shook her head wonderingly as they passed a teen-aged twosome where the coloring of the girl’s tie-dyed jeans resembled the many-shaded bleach job in her hair. Her escort had his shoulder-length hair pulled back in a ponytail as he strode along in a garment that looked like a Moroccan caftan except for the Wild West fringe on the bottom.

‘If I didn’t know better, I’d swear this was a “Come as you are” party,’ Maggie murmured to John.

Yet it’s not a bad book. Local color was Finley’s big selling point and it’s well done, even if I had to snort when the heroine finds a convenient parking spot in San Francisco. The writing is crisp and professional, the description are vivid, and the banter can be charming:

‘We simply went to another woman and had our fortunes told in tea leaves.’

John chuckled. ‘A real scientific approach.

‘Absolutely. She said I’d meet someone interesting in the water, so I started hanging around the swimming pool on campus.’

‘Nothing?’ he prompted.

‘Nothing. Since I was in the girls’ gym swimming pool, it wasn’t surprising, but I didn’t figure that out for several weeks.’

I was curious about how my memories of the book would hold up. I discovered with my reread of Anne Mather’s The Waterfalls of the Moon, another early favorite, that I had remembered the dramatic highlights of the plot, but got most of the details completely wrong. In this case, I largely remembered dialogue, and was intrigued to find that I had in fact got much of it word for word. What stuck with me was the meet-cute when Maggie drops a wrench on John’s foot (complete with his curse, “God damn it to hell!) and their angsty moment involving the difficult chiffon dress.  

But I completely forgot the plot, the suspenseful and vaguely paranormal elements, and the pun in the title. There’s a vivid scene in which Maggie is attacked, and it startles me that none of it stuck in my memory:

Frantically she tried to fight back but her resistance was hopeless against the other’s superior strength. Her startled, painful whimper was [unreadable] off ruthlessly when his fingers tightened their grip. Only her labored breathing rasped in the silence as she writhed in that suffocating grasp.

The agony was prolonged for an instant that seemed like a lifetime and her lungs were at the bursting point before darkness mercifully shuttered her senses. She was totally unconscious by the time her attacker released his grip and callously dumped her limp body on the floor.

Yow! Reading that now, it’s quite terrifying.

Comparing my memories of this book and others from that same first bout of romance reading, I think this book must have been the match set to tinder that was already laid, setting off a passionate love for romantic drama. The relationship is staid by the standards of later books, or even contemporaneous Harlequin Presents: a bit of uncertainty, a bit of jealousy, a bit of kissing, leading directly to marriage. The conflict could not be more dated: Maggie needs help undoing her dress, John thinks she’s coming on to him (which instantly makes her ”a carbon copy of all the other women he had known — charming, superficial and conveniently available“) and Maggie is shocked and outraged.

His voice roughened. ‘Come off your high horse, Maggie. Let’s not play any more games.’ He pulled her close against him suddenly, and she felt his strong fingers on the bare skin at her back. At the same time, his head bent to nuzzle the soft hollow of her shoulder. ‘You had me fooled,” he was murmuring against her satiny skin. ‘I was playing on a different set of rules. I didn’t think you were the type.’

Spoken as softly as they were, his words penetrated Maggie with hurricane force. Her eyes widened with shock. Dear God, he’d though she’d been angling for something like this ever since she’d knocked on his door. It was merely an excuse to fall into his arms.

It may be the nostalgia talking, but I still find that scene pretty hot.  Strong fingers and nuzzling and misunderstandings… it’s the stuff romance is made of.

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What Authors Owe to Their Readers


A big spoiler for the Feed series by Mira Grant. Proceed at your own risk. (But the whole point of this post is that the spoiler should have been known.)


I started Feed for an online buddy read, and I was getting into it. Good world building, interesting characters, sad backstory, fun title pun. I posted about this in the group, and mentioned that I was just a little worried about there eventually being a gross romance. I thought I was being paranoid, but nonetheless my YA-dar was tripped.

The group leader responded — apologizing for not having known this and issued warnings — that they had just learned there is an incestuous element to the series, which is not shown on page in Feed but is revealed in later books. You could argue that it is not technically incest, since the characters, though brought up from birth as twins, are not blood-related. I don’t care.

I particularly don’t care after I went looking for reviews, surprised that people weren’t bugged by this. And I found one in which a reviewer gushes about the beautiful brother-sister relationship in Feed, and how it reminds her so much of her own brother. She even posted pictures of them growing up.

At first I thought this was gruesomely funny, but the more I think about it, the more furious I get. The author of Feed, whether intentionally or not, involved her readers in a taboo sexual situation without their knowledge or consent. That is ethically and morally wrong.

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TBR Challenge: Thai Triangle by Jayne Bauling

 

CW: Racism, Misogyny, Sexual Assault

The theme: Contemporary

Why this one: Pretty much random, though I did think (erroneously) from the title and cover that it was a very rare Harlequin Presents interracial romance.

Thai Triangle was a flabbergasting read. I was reminded of a joke from “Community,” about how Greendale college is thought of as “weird, passionate, and gross” — what they call in marketing, “the Good Belushi.” Thai Triangle has that trifecta down pat.

Just to get this out of the way — of course there is othering and exoticizing of Asian women in the book. (One grieving Thai woman is described as having “slow tears rolling down her passive face.”) There’s also a surprising amount of kink-shaming, because apparently that’s what you do in Thailand. And slut-shaming. Massive, massive amounts of slut-shaming. I’ll get to that.

So. The weird: Nineteen-year-old Romney has sacrificed her entire life to be an unpaid, platonic caretaker for Kit, a spoiled rich boy who’s dying. She cares for him a lot, in the purplest of prose, despite the fact that he’s not only very needy but often very nasty.

Romney wants to help Kit reconcile with his older brother Justin, but Kit refuses to let her tell his secret, and deliberately goes out of his way to cause trouble for her with Justin.

The complicated dynamics between the three is actually somewhat interesting, except the plot really doesn’t do much with them except repeat the same patterns. Justin tries to seduce Romney. Romney refuses, declaring her undying love for Kit — apparently the words “as a friend” aren’t in her vocabulary — even as her will melts into a puddle from Justin’s manly manliness. She’s such a martyr, that’s probably the only thing keeping her from finding a cross and climbing up on it.

The passionate: Oh my God, there’s a whole lotta love. And hate. And burning loins.

This, this torrid, pulsing excitement, was what she had been created for, Justin the man she had been born to await unawakened and now find. He brought her to wild, wondrous life, his kisses deepening, becoming searching, in quest of her very soul it seemed. She knew she had never been truly alive until now.

The gross: The set-up in itself is on the gross side, but that’s nothing to where it goes. Justin, who must be in his 30s, is ruthless in his judgement and treatment of a 19 year old girl. And that’s even before Kit convinces him — Kit being so truthful and trustworthy — that Romney is a nymphomaniac and therefore apparently deserving the cruelest possible treatment. Kit also assaults Romney to set her up, because he’s just that wonderful.

It nonetheless all adds up to a somewhat compelling read, primarily because there’s some real drama amidst the angst. Kit’s situation is genuinely pathetic; he’s awful at least partially because he had a raw deal growing up, and he touches the heart a bit like Charlie in Alcott’s Rose in Bloom, for never getting a chance to grow up and be the person he might have been. Twelve year old me would have utterly adored this book. Now me kept on reading it, now matter how awful it got, albeit with a sort of “what in the hell…?!” thought balloon over my head.

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You Belong to Me: Lovers as Property in the Medieval Romance of Madeline Hunter

When authors began leaving the Medieval romance for other  genres, one of the saddest losses was Madeline Hunter. (Though that loss was certainly to the Regency/Victorian novel’s gain.) I don’t know precisely why the Medieval fell into disfavor, but I suspect it may have to do with readers becoming uncomfortable with the extreme power imbalances between class and sex that are inherent in the setting. And that’s exactly why I miss Hunter in the subgenre.

Hunter never went full-on bodice ripper as, for example, Brenda Joyce did in The Conqueror. (A very entertaining book, if you’re not sensitive to the disturbing elements.) Nor did she try to write as if power imbalances didn’t really matter. Instead she used the tension caused by those imbalances to create stories that aren’t only satisfying romance, but thematically fascinating. Two of my favorites explore the effect on love when one person is literally the property of another.

In By Possession, Moira is the illegitimate child of a lord and a serf; her father granted her freedom before his death, but she’s unable to prove it. She’s now the legal possession of Lord Addis de Valance, and to make things more complicated, she’s loved him most of her life. But Moira has no intention of following in her mother’s lonely, shameful footsteps, no matter how strong the temptation.

“Can you say that these hands misuse you, Moira, and that you are not willing?”

She sorrowfully extricated herself from his hold and stepped back. She hitched the blanket back on her shoulders and grasped it closed. “I am weak to the pleasure, but what you offer me will someday bring misery and I will not endure it. I swore when just a girl that I would not be any man’s whore, least of all one to a knight or a lord.”

Gold fires flamed. Dangerous fires, that spoke of more than thwarted desire.

“You say that often, and insult me with it. ‘Tis you who misunderstand, and think the worst of me without cause. Those garments are not meant as a bribe to buy a bedmate for a few nights. I do not seek to make a whore of you.”

She had suspected as much when she saw him at the doorway. Better if he did only want her for brief pleasure. “What you call it will not matter. All others know such women for what they are.”

The story is of two intense personal journeys, as Moira fights constantly against her own feelings in order to gain the secure, respectable life she wants, and Addis tries to convince her that she belongs to him in every way, while also trying to suppress the emotional hold she has over him. As a man born to ultimate privilege, it’s almost impossible for him to appreciate her point of view—until she is ordered to sing to entertain his betrothed, and he begins to see how much her love for him is destroying her.

Tell him that I cannot do it.

Nay, she could not, any more than he could. If someone said that he must watch her daily with another man, he could not do it. Not even if she needed him nearby. Not even in friendship and definitely not in love. Perhaps even while he demanded that she admit the love they shared, he had been counting on her never accepting it. He could ignore the hurt he planned to give her if she kept denying it.

Admitting that left him raw.

Moira fights for her freedom and wins, but Addis’s redemptive realization allows for a true happy ending between them, one based on free choices.

The class aspects are turned around in By Arrangement: Lady Christiana is of noble birth, while David de Abyndon is a wealthy merchant. Neither has any choice when the king orders them to marry,  however… and once David’s wife, Christiana is completely in his power.

David is an intriguingly problematic hero. Unlike the typical Alpha, he’s gentle and considerate, but he controls people by being extremely manipulative. The young and naive Christiana doesn’t have much chance against his ploys initially, and he not only frequently deceives her, but plays her like a violin. However, their class differences give Christiana some weapons of her own. In a powerful and disturbing scene, the usually imperturbable and subtle David gets nasty, believing his wife unfaithful with a lord:

“I feared that you might repulse me, knowing where you had been and what you had been doing the first time I left the city,” he said as his hands moved over her body. He smiled faintly, but she could tell that his anger hadn’t abated at all. “It would be ironic, wouldn’t it? To have paid all that silver for property and then found that I no longer wanted the use of it.”
Her mind clouded with horror at hearing him speak so coldly of their marriage. There had certainly been evidence that he thought of her thus and had even seduced her to lay claim to what was his, but to hear the words bluntly spoken and to have the confirmation thrown into the face of her love sickened her.

“Property…” she gasped.

“Aye. Bought and paid for.”

His blunt words repeated themselves in her head. She grabbed his wrist and stayed his hand. Love or not, she could not delude herself about what was about to happen and why he did it and what it meant to him.

“So, we are down to base reality at last,” she said narrowing her eyes. “How tedious it must have been to have to pretend otherwise with the child whom you married.”

He stared at her. His lack of response and denial turned her anguish to hateful spite. ‘The merchant has need of his property, much as he rides his horse when it suits him? Well, go ahead, husband. Reclaim your rights. Show that you are equal to any baron by using one of their daughters against her will. Will you hurt me, too? To make sure the lesson of your ownership is well learned?“

Still he did not react. Her heart broke with a suffocating pain and she threw out what she could to hurt him, in turn. ”Do not bother with seduction and pleasure, mercer. Soil feels nothing when it is tilled, nor wool when it is cut. I will think about who I am and who you are and feeling nothing, too. But be quick about it so that I can go cleanse myself.“ And then she looked at him and through him…

Both David and Christiana know how to “point the daggers expertly and draw blood from each other’s weaknesses.“ The assault doesn’t end in rape, but it’s a close call. But though the horrified and ashamed David redeems himself somewhat by giving her space and freedom in which to recover, Christiana doesn’t find it easy to forgive or forget his emotional violence against her:

”Even now, as you ask me to come back to you, I know that you just find that you have need of your property and resent being denied it. It may be the way these things always are, but I do not think many women have to hear it as frankly stated and then live with the truth in such a naked way. Perhaps that is the reason for dowries. To give women some value in marriages so that their dignity is preserved.“

This was Hunter’s debut, and it doesn’t have quite the structural perfection of By Possession. In the end, they find a balance and equality between them, helped by Christiana’s insight and her ability to see and bring out the best in David.

”I think you should choose the life that you were born to live, whichever you think it was.“

To the heart of things. Life with her would be fascinating.

”And what about you, Christiana? What about the life that you were born to live?“

She smiled and rested her face against his chest. ”I was born to marry a nobleman, David. And you have always been one of the noblest men I have ever known.”

Hunter wrote six Medievals in all, plus a novella in the anthology Tapestry.  (The novels are linked; they can certainly be read as standalones, but it makes the most sense to read them as two trilogies in this order: By PossessionBy DesignStealing Heaven and By ArrangementThe ProtectorLord of a Thousand Nights.) Although the stories are all quite different, the books share high stakes plots based on true historical events, vivid and immersive settings, wit, meaningful conflicts, and strong characters who are realistically constrained by their roles in life, yet who always find ways to fight for their independence. They give readers a chance to enjoy a rich Medieval setting, while still finding the emotional justice and requited love they want from romance. I wish we had more.

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More Precious Than a Crown by Carol Marinelli

 

CW: Mentions of rape, family abuse, domestic violence and miscarriage

 

I enjoyed Protecting the Desert Princess, an offbeat mix of “Roman Holiday” and “It Happened One Night” that may be the only Harlequin Presents that could be described as “rollicking.” This is is the previous book in the series, and though it also has a wild child heroine, some humor, and some very unexpected themes, it’s much darker.

I certainly never expected an HP to give us a heroine who was not only raped and impregnated by a family member (by marriage), but whose parents insist on “smoothing over” what happened and continue to invite him to family events. Unsurprisingly, she has a reputation for being uncontrolled and difficult, and she finds it very hard to open up to anyone. I thought the story handled this really well: Trinity’s behavior is all too relatable, and her hero Zahid is just about perfect. He accepts her — even before knowing why she acts out — and once he learns the truth, makes her well being and safety his top priority. In the end, she is free to choose exactly how she wants to handle it going forward, with him as back up.

I also liked the the darkness of the story is relieved by some goofiness between the two that made even a surprise old skool spanking scene, of all things, pretty funny. [Trinity is enjoying the spanking, to be clear.]

“You do not lie to me,” he said, as his hand went to come down again and then stilled. Zahid halted, barely able to breathe as he looked down at her red bottom and realised for the first time he was out of control. “Trinity…” His hand was in mid-air and he waited for her to shout, to tell him what a sick bastard he was, and then he heard her voice.

“One more, Captain.”

This could be a terrific trail-blazer — for Trinity’s story, not the spanking! — if it weren’t kind of… terrible. Marinelli’s writing often veers to the wrong side of effortlessly casual, and in this case, it went right over the cliff. I wanted to scream, “Go home commas, you’re drunk!” They’re all over the place, except where they should be.

The book shows not only lack of editing, but of the most basic proofreading. This paragraph completely baffled me:

Layla was happily late. Besotted with Trinity and when she should be meeting her father and brother, she smiled widely when Trinity knocked and Jamila, Layla’s handmaiden let Trinity into her room.

If the book was trying to imitate the error-filled style of “all the feels” self-published authors, it did a great job. It’s a shame no one seems to have been aiming to make it the best HP it could be, because it might have been fantastic.

 

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Anne Stuart’s Winning Recipe in Nightfall

(My very first Heroes and Heartbreakers piece, IIRC.)

 

Choosing an Anne Stuart book is like ordering pizza at a new restaurant: you know basically what you’re going to get and that you’re probably going to like it, but will it be your everyday tasty slice or something sublimely spicy and melting? 

Originally published in 1995, and now available digitally, Nightfall is authentic New York pizza with Neapolitan crust. It’s everything you expect from Stuart, at her most compelling:

The Hero. He’ll be dark, dangerous…and deadly? Unlike some of Stuart’s outright assassins, Richard Tiernan is even more chillingly ambiguous. He was convicted of murdering his wife, his young children are missing… and all we know for sure about him is that he has a plan, one which involves Cassidy Roarke. “He was going to use her. Sacrifice her, if need be, for his own needs.”  

The Heroine. She’s relatable, dependable, and vulnerable—though she may not realize it. “Five feet nine and well-rounded [Cassidy] had never considered herself shy, nervy or little in her entire life.” Although she might be surprised to learn how Richard sees her: “Everything about Cassidy Roarke was profoundly sensual, from her blaze of flyaway hair to her ripe luscious body, to her innocent face.” The mere sight of her long, narrow, bare feet makes him crazy with lust.

The daughter of a charismatic, severely narcissistic writer, Cassidy is sick of being manipulated in the name of love; she deliberately gives herself “a life of safe routine, where no one needs her or makes impossible demands.” Until she meets the even more charismatic Richard and despite her suspicions, finds herself unable to stop thinking about his haunted eyes, and “the elegant, tortured grace of his body.” Soon, her life because one big impossible demand.

The Suspense. Did Richard kill his wife? Is he going to kill Cassidy? Will she care if he does? The plot grows ever more taut as the harrowing truth about Richard’s past and motives gradually reveals itself; meanwhile Cassidy is torn between her deepening attraction and fear, desperately trying to hold onto sane behavior while feeling as if “her brain and all her self-protective instincts short-circuited.” To make it all even more disturbing, we know that everything that happens between them is startlingly deliberate, orchestrated by Richard:

Events had turned him into a conscienceless sociopath, and he accepted that truth with a certain grim satisfaction. He could trust no one, nothing. Not noble resolve, not friendship, not justice. He could only work with what he had. And the only thing he trusted was obsession.

The Sex. It’s always the most powerful weapon in a Stuart’s hero’s arsenal, and one Richard uses ruthlessly:

Now all he had to do was bind her to him, and that was relatively simple.

He needed to get her on the bed, where she wanted to be. He needed to get between her long, wonderful legs and make her feel things she’d never felt before. He needed to make her come, again and again, until she couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t do anything but what he wanted her to do.

‘So what’s your answer, sweet Cassidy?’ he murmured, moving closer to her. Her bra fastened in front. Thoughtful of her. He brushed his fingertips against the clasp. ‘Or if you prefer me to be more exact. Now? Or later?’

All of this inexorably leads to:

The Surrender. A Stuart hero is trouble, and a Stuart heroine is always smart enough to know it. The peak of their romance will be the heroine’s surrender to overpowering feeling despite her better judgement.  Cass’s surrender doesn’t come easily — her ability to fight is part of what Richard needs in her. But it come it does, and with it, the inevitable discovery that the surrender is mutual:

He closed his eyes, his strong teeth bared in a grimace, and she watched him. And she knew she owned him, as much as he owned her.”

It’s crazy, it’s unhealthy, and thank God it’s fiction, but that shared passion between them is thrilling.

Nightfall is a breathtaking trip into psychologically murky waters. But though much that happens is horrific, and our hero is manipulative, ruthless, and at best morally ambivalent, it’s not a nihilistic or amoral story. Just perfectly burnt around the edges.

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TBR Challenge: Fortune’s Lady by Patricia Gaffney

The theme: Kicking it Old School

Why this one: Gaffney was one of the very best historical writers, but I still have a few of hers unread.

Fortune’s Lady seems likely to have been inspired by the Ingrid Bergman/Cary Grant film “Notorious,” and the first half is somewhat uncomfortable to read in the same way the movie is somewhat uncomfortable to watch. The  basic plot is very similar: a beautiful young woman with a party girl reputation, left alone in the world because of a treasonous father, is convinced to spy on her father’s former comrades by getting “close” to one of them. She and her handler fall for each other, but he’s so jealous that he constantly berates her for doing exactly what he’s telling her to do.

The she here is frivilous 19 year old Cassie Merlin, the he is Phillip Riordan, a British MP and reluctant Scarlet Pimpernel, and the time and place are London, 1792, where a revolution threatens the monarchy. (This is less inherently sympathetic for an American reader than Bergman overthrowing Nazis, but old historicals are like that.) Cassie has a bad reputation (mostly unfounded — because old historicals are like that) so seems like the perfect person to seduce her father’s probable accomplice.

The book doesn’t achieve the excellent characterizations of Gaffney’s later romances, but if it had just told this one story, it could have been a decent read. Cass, it turns out, is farsighted and needs glasses: when she’s able to read without pain, she discovers a real interest in political thought. Phillip expects to marry a cool, elegant lady who seems perfect for the life he wants, but his relationship with Cass grows from lust to genuine partnership, as she helps him keep up his drunken oaf deception and studies with him.

Unfortunately, this was the time of the doorstopper historical, and so the story has to be spun out. And it spins with ridiculous Big Mis after Big Mis. Phillip stops being a complete assclown, and Cass takes over the role for him, with extra TSTL. And then we get the …. wait for it… sadistic, kinky, gay villain!

I love Gaffney’s sprawling, OTT old skool Lily, but this just alternated sex scenes and stupidity in a way that never built up the good angst rush that makes old school so fun.

 

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Introduced by a Bellwether: Romance in the Novels of Connie Willis

(This may be my favorite piece from “Heroes and Heartbreakers,” though Willis herself might not appreciate it.)

“I think that it’s a good sign that we not only want happy endings for ourselves, but for the people we love, both real and fictional: for Connor and Abby on Primeval, and Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars, and Kate and Petrucio, and Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane,” Connie Willis wrote in an undelivered speech printed in The Best of Connie Willis.

Willis is a speculative fiction writer who, like Lois McMaster Bujold, loves story in all genres; within the basic science fiction framework, her work encompass westerns, young adult, detective stories, Christmas stories, absurdist humor and perhaps most of all, romance.  You won’t find steamy scenes in her books, and you can’t always rely on happy ever afters—one of her most heartbreaking recurring themes is of women fulfilling an important dream or destiny, leaving behind grieving men who love them. But Willis is also a fan of romantic comedy, and those just have to end well.

Romances generally happen in a low-key fashion in Willis stories, in the background of other events, most often while the main character and a likable member of the opposite sex are trying to solve some kind of puzzle. The usual signifiers of romance like obvious physical attraction tend to get short shrift, because they’re too busy working together—while battling bureaucracy and red tape and obnoxious authority figures—yet the bits of their more tender emotions that sneak through are perfectly satisfying in context. Here’s a scene from the end of “All Seated on the Ground,” in which a journalist who’s inadvertently wound up in charge of a group of recalcitrant space aliens gets help from a choir director:


I picked up Calvin’s baton and handed it to him. “What do you think we should sing first?” he asked me.

“All I want for Christmas is you,” I said.

“Really? I was thinking maybe we should start with ‘Angels We have Heard on High,’ or —”

“That wasn’t a song title,” I said.


For Willis, that’s positively straightforward. Subtext is often key to the formation of a Willis romance and perhaps never more than in the clever short story “Miracle,” which is pretty much all subtext. Lauren is simply trying to get her Christmas chores dealt with so she can focus on getting the attention of the cute guy she works with, when a “Spirit of Christmas Present” shows up, magically changing all the gifts she bought into exactly the wrong things, making a tree grow out of her kitchen floor, and generally spreading chaos.

Lauren seeks help from a less conventionally attractive coworker — generally known as Fat Fred—with no idea that he has a Christmas wish of his own, one he never expects to receive. Amid trying to repair the damage done by the spirit and discussing the relative merits of It’s a Wonderful Lifevs. Miracle on 34th Street” with Fred, Lauren makes discoveries about the meaning of Christmas, the nature of attraction, and what her heart truly desires.

There are no obviously romantic declarations in this story; everything that happens builds on all the previous events and conversations, framed by the plots of the movies. Even Lauren and Fred’s most intimate moment happens via one of the movies, our pretty much dependable familiarity with it bringing intensity to a simple scene:


“Can you help me with this ribbon?” Fred said.

“Sure,” Lauren said. She scooted close to him and put her finger on the crossed ribbon to hold it taut.

Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed were standing very close together, listening to the telephone. The voice on the phone was saying something about soybeans.

Fred still hadn’t tied the knot. Lauren glanced up at him. He was looking at the TV too.

Jimmy Stewart was looking at Donna Reed, his face nearly touching her hair. Donna Reed looked at him and then away. The voice from the phone was saying something about the chance of a lifetime, but it was obvious neither of them was hearing a word. Donna Reed looked up at him. His lips almost touched her forehead. They didn’t seem to be breathing.

Lauren realized she wasn’t either. She looked at Fred. He was holding the two ends of ribbon, one in each hand, and looking down at her.

“The knot,” she said. “You haven’t tied it.”

“Oh,” he said. “Sorry.”

Jimmy Stewart dropped the phone with a clatter and grabbed Donna Reed by both arms. He began shaking her, yelling at her, and then suddenly she was wrapped in his arms, and he was smothering her with kisses.

“The knot,” Fred said. “You have to pull your finger out.”

She looked uncomprehendingly at him and then down at the package. He had tied the knot over her finger, which was still pressing against the wrapping paper.

“Oh. Sorry,” she said, and pulled her finger free. “You were right. It does have its moments.”


Willis uses literary allusions rather then movies in the hilarious time travel adventure To Say Nothing of the Dog, in which she brings the romance with the science fiction equivalent of a drunk scene. The normally cool and collected Verity’s defenses are down because of too many time travel trips in a short time:

“How does oo stan’ your mistwess talking ootsy-cutesy baby talk to o?” Verity said. “Oo ought to swat her when her does it.”

“Verity,” I said. “Are you all right?”

“I’m perfectly all right,” she said, still playing with the cat’s paws. “Where’s Terence?” she said, starting toward the lawn. “I need to tell him he can’t be in love with Tossie because the fate of the free world is at stake. Also,” her voice dropped to a stage whisper, “she cheats at croquet.”

“How many drops have you had?” I demanded.

She frowned. “Sixteen. No, eight. Twelve.” She peered at me. “It isn’t fair, you know.”

“What isn’t?” I said warily.

“Your boater. It makes you look just like Lord Peter Wimsey, especially when you tilt it forward like that.” She started for the lawn.

I took Princess Arjumand away from Verity, dumped her on the ground, and grabbed Verity’s arm.

“I need to find Tossie,” she said. “I have a thing or two to tell her.”

“Not a good idea,” I said. “Let’s sit down a minute. In the gazebo.” I led her toward it.

She came docilely. “The first time I ever saw you, I thought, he looks just like Lord Peter Wimsey. You were wearing that boater and—no, that wasn’t the first time,” she said accusingly. “The first time was in Mr. Dunworthy’s office, and you were all covered in soot. You were still adorable, though, even if your mouth was hanging open.” She looked at me quizzically. “Did you have a mustache?”

“No,” I said, leading her up the gazebo steps.

[some text deleted]

“Verity,” I said firmly and took the ribbon away from her. “I want you to lie down and rest now.”

“I can’t,” she said. “I have to go steal Tossie’s diary and find out who Mr. C is and then I have to go tell Mr. Dunworthy. I have to repair the incongruity.”

“There’s plenty of time for that,” I said. “First you need to sleep.” I pulled a slightly mildewed cushion out from under the prow and placed it on the seat.
“You lie down right here.”

She lay down obediently and put her head on the pillow. “Lord Peter took a nap,” she said. “Harriet watched him sleep, and that’s when she knew she was in love with him.”

She sat up again. “Of course I knew it from the second page of Strong Poison, but it took two more books for Harriet to figure it out. She kept telling herself it was all just detecting and deciphering codes and solving mysteries together, but I knew she was in love with him. He proposed in Latin. Under a bridge. After they solved the mystery. You can’t propose till after you’ve solved the mystery. That’s a law in detective novels.”

[some text deleted]

I watched Verity sleep.

It was almost as restful as sleeping myself. The boat rocked gently, and the sun through the leaves flickered softly in patterns of light and shade. She slept peacefully, quietly, her face still and untroubled in repose.

And I was going to have to face it. No matter how much sleep I got or she didn’t, she was always going to look like a naiad to me. Even lying there with her greenish-brown eyes closed and her mouth half-open, drooling gently onto a mildewed boat cushion, she was still the most beautiful creature I’d ever seen.

The partners in detection pattern breaks in the more serious duology Blackout and All Clear, set in the same world as To Say Nothing of the Dog, which has an exceptionally quiet (even for Willis) portrait of unswerving devotion — a promise kept by a sleeping beauty’s prince who “fought battles and spells and brambles and time.” (The last in more ways than one.)

Willis gets closer to genre romance than usual with the very funny and delightful look at individuality and inspiration, Bellwether. (Although there is also Promised Land, in which an alien planet’s inheritance law means a woman winds up being married without even knowing it…) Sandra Foster is a social scientist who studies fads for the corporation to end all corporations, the ultimate home for buzzwords, team-building exercises, and promoted incompetence; her bête noire is Flip, an office assistant who invariably leaves utter confusion in her wake. (Another common Willis theme.) A wrongly delivered package takes Sandra to the lab of chaos theorist Bennet O’Reilly, where she’s fascinated to meet someone who’s seemingly immune to fads:

When you spend as much time as I do analyzing fads and fashions, you get so you can spot them at first sight: eco-hippie, jogger, Wall Street M.B.A., urban terrorist. Dr. O’Reilly wasn’t any of them. He was about my age and about my height. He was wearing a lab coat and corduroy pants that had been washed so often the wale was completely worn off on the knees. They’d shrunk, too, halfway up his ankles, and there was a pale line where they’d been let down.

The effect, especially with the Coke-bottle glasses, should have been science geek, but it wasn’t… And there was something else, something I couldn’t put my finger on, that made it impossible for me to categorize him.


Like many other Willis couples, Sandra and Ben bond over being the seemingly only sane people in a world gone mad, as well as over their struggles with their current projects; finding some overlap in their research allows Sandra to help him when Flip screws up his funding—and to keep trying to investigate his immunity to fads. Then Sandra realizes that she’s interested in far more than Ben’s research and unusual clothing choices:


“Secondly,” Management said, “I’ve some excellent news to share with you regarding the Neibnitz Grant. Dr. Alicia Turnbll has been working with us on a game plan that we’re going to implement today. But first I want all of you to choose a partner —”

Ben grabbed my hand.

“—and stand facing each other.”

We stood and I put my hands up, palms facing out. ”If we have to say three things we like about sheep, I’m quitting.”

“All right, HiTekkers,” Management said, “now I want you to give your partners a big hug.”

“The next big trend at HiTek will be sexual harassment,” I said lightly, and Ben took me in his arms.

“Come on now,” Management said. “Not everybody’s participating. Big hug.”
Ben’s arms in the faded plaid sleeves pulled me close, enfolded me. My hands, caught up in that palms out silliness, went around his neck. My heart began to pound.

“A hug says, ‘Thank you for working with me,’” Management said. “A hug says, ‘I appreciate your personness.’”

My cheek was against Ben’s ear. He smelled faintly of sheep. I could feel his heart pounding, the warmth of his breath on my neck. My breath caught, like a hiccuping engine, and stalled.


There is much to love about Willis’s work—the ingenuity, the surprises, the tenderness and humanity, the humor, the way she points out nonsense we’ve been buying without even realizing it. (See the biting commentary on prejudice against smokers as a fad in Bellwether.) How wonderful to have all those things, and romance too.

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