Trigger warning: Extreme fat shaming.
Harlequin Presents #186: A Bitter Loving by Lilian Peake
Best line: “Karen looked at Charles, who, at that moment, was contemplating the rising mound of his stomach as if it were a tumulus of great archaeological importance.”
Notes of interest: Implied unmarried sex.
I’m going completely out of reading order here, but I just had to reread this one when I found it. It’s one of the three HPs that I remember vividly from my adolescence — even the blurb was instantly familiar to me when I saw it. The book probably stuck with me because I was intrigued by a heroine who was fat as a child. On the other hand, it’s also a hell of a blurb:
Karen went toward the painting of Glenn like someone sleepwalking. Then, in a spasm of violent, uncontrollable anger, she plunged the points of the scissors into the canvas and ripped it open.
When she saw the results of her action and her brain started to spell out just what she’d done, she was appalled.
“Well,” Glenn asked, “have you got me out of your system?”
Out of her system? “Dear heaven,” Karen thought, “I’ve got you so much into my system that you’re part of the very blood running through my veins.”
Since I started reading Harlequin Presents again and keeping records, I’ve tried 4 Lilian Peake books. One I rated one star, two were DNFs, and one I hated so much I gave it one star even though it was also a DNF. But even without the nostalgia factor, I might have continued this one. It’s very odd, and oddly compelling.
Although the term isn’t used, Karen was — or is — clearly anorexic. She’s undergone treatment but I don’t think she could be considered cured, because her relationship with food and weight is still very fucked up. The book is filled with ugly fat shaming, and yet in a way it almost didn’t bother me, because much of it is clearly part of the heroine’s messed up psyche, and she’s aware of that herself. She also points out Glenn’s weight prejudice to him:
“I suppose,” she persisted, “you think that because Jerome’s fat, his mind is therefore stodgy and dull, which is how you described mine. But,” she pressed on in spite of the sharp gesture of annoyance which Glenn made, “he’s passionately fond of music, which means that deep down he’s sensitive and maybe even artistic.” Glenn Earl was silent, so she went on, consciously inciting him. “Which you, as his art teacher, should have discovered. And encouraged.”
It’s miles far from an enlightened book as far as body acceptance goes, so be wary, but there is a little nuance.
Glenn was Karen’s high school art teacher. (And how weird is that for a Harlequin Presents hero profession? But he’s also a very successful artist, so it’s okay.) Karen’s memories of being a fat child in high school are unsurprisingly dismal, and many of them center around Glenn, who mocked her when she was his student.
That was hard for me to get past. Blackmailing rapist heroes sure… or at least maybe. A hero who is cruel to a 13 year old child? Especially a poor child who is already the subject of persecution? Especially when the basis is his own prejudice? Yeech.
I’ve had cruel teachers and 30 years later, would still happily kick them in the giblets. Karen loves and hates Glenn, and she focuses most of her remembered misery on him. It’s not exactly clear why she’s come back to live in her old home and work at her old school — she seems to think she’s seeking revenge, but all she wants is to avoid him. She’s definitely far too depressed and aimless to have a plan.
I had trouble with numerous aspects of this story. The portrayal of the Evil Other Woman is particularly virulent, and Karen’s so-called friends laughingly betray her at every turn. Karen makes herself into a doormat for someone, threatening her health and well being. (She could be the subject of an interesting fictional “why she stayed” discussion.) The approach to an attempted rape is simply infuriating. Glenn comes off as something of an idiot as well as an unreformed asshole — his ex-wife threatens to destroy all his work if he visits Karen, and he still continues to share studio space with her? And this is where he draws his ethical line:
“By God,” he muttered, “I can’t do it. I have some standards after all. I can’t take another man’s woman…”
Finally, after all that, the resolution is abrupt and unsatisfying. But it’s an interesting book, if you can read it with some detachment.