by Julia Justiss, historical (2002)
Harlequin Historical, $5.25, ISBN 0-373-29229-5
Once upon a time, this author writes romances that are, while not exactly my cup of tea, actually worth a read or two. Today, her books are brimming with tedious, point-by-point clichés that I actually experience a violent visceral rejection of My Lady's Honor (think nausea and dry stomach heaves). This book is the epitome of everything I dislike about the Regency historical subgenre: pathetically Puritanical when it came to female sexuality while giving the hero a free pass in everything (the Historically Accurate Codex) and oh yeah, virtue virtue virtue virtue.
I think my allergy reactions kick in on the first page when our heroine Gwennor Southford actually cleans up with the servants. Yes, she cleans up with the servants because we know that "noble, virtuous" females don't need servants - they just hire servants to matchmake them or something, I don't know. Then comes the plethora of Ugly Heroine Clichés: "I'm not pretty!", her father was crazy about breeding rabbits and other things and when he died he left his daughter and son completely dependent on - the next cliché on the agenda - the Evil Meanie Cousin who then - another cliché - arranges for our heroine to marry an Unsuitable Man. This Unsuitable Man is twice her age and has six unruly children. I wonder - isn't the six children thing the ideal criteria for a husband in a romance novel?
Our heroine has a brother who is... well, let's just ditch the political correctness. The brother is the Artistic Retard cliché who hangs out with Wild Happy Gypsies - anyone keeping count of the clichés in this story? Our heroine begs the Gypsies to ferret her and her brother away to an aunt's place far away, and the Gypsy asks our heroine to pose as a Gypsy and help around in their fun fairs and all.
Our "I'm plain, I'm unpretty, yes, I really am!" heroine puts on a Gypsy outfit and boing! Whoa, breastage! Our hero Gilen de Mowbry, rake, et cetera - cliché, cliché, cliché - spies her and wow, she is so innocent/pure/slutty in the beloved tradition of Madonna/Whore complex beloved of the romance genre, kisses her and whoa, she starts having stars in her eyes. She is never the woman to place much emphasis on looks, readers, so don't hate her, but ooh, ooh, ooh.
She goes to the aunt. No pretty dresses for her, she will do the housework, oh auntie, anything to repay the debt, and yes, auntie, she MUST clean, she MUST save and scrimp and starve just to make everybody happy, la la la born to make you and you and you and you happy.
Look, Ms Justiss, yeah, Gwynne is really adorable - if I'm looking for a cheap maid to do the housework that is. If I want to read about Cinderella, In Rags And Holding A Mop and Loving It, I may as well don the mop hat and start cleaning the house myself. Now get that stupid Gwynne woman out of my sight before I stuff the mop down her throat.
Of course, she must now marry ("I'm not pretty, no pretty dresses for me, I love my daddy, and I will spend my life being so grateful to everybody who loves me") and she decides to accept the courtship of this Mr Nice. For brother's sake of course. Maybe Brother can watch while Sis does her Duty Sex on the wedding night. But guess who is this Mr Nice's friend? That's right - Gilen. How shocking that this Gypsy slut - look, another cliché, but who's counting? - dares try to get her claws into his slutty, wastrel, drunk, no-good best friend! He will blackmail her! He will thwart her! (All the while he is lusting after her - great taste in woman, Gilen, bravo!)
Of course, at the end of the day, she is not a slut and after proving to him what a splendid, noble, virtuous "step on me, I don't care, I'm just so grateful you love me and take care of my brother forever and ever - I MISS MY USELESS DADDY!" heroine she is and hence worthy of his love, she marries him, the useless rake who places a woman's worth solely on her hymen and the vague aura of innocence only romance authors can sense in their fellow women (they probably use this aura as an entry criteria to the RWA - no slutty, sexually experienced women are allowed in the RWA!).
There has to a joke in there somewhere. But I'm too stupefied and numb to care. Somewhere near Chapter Nine, the pain has transcended into a state of acceptance and resignation, and by the last page, I am in a Zen-like trance as my mind keeps playing Five For Fighting's Superman (It's Not Easy) as some defense mechanism. You know that song? "I'm only a man in a silly red sheet, digging for kryptonites in a one-way street... it's not easy to be me."
This book? Whatever. Pffft!
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