Avon, $3.99, ISBN 978-0-380-00525-5
Historical Romance, 1998 (Reissue)
The TBR Challenge theme for July is “Award Nominee or Winner”. This is always a tricky one, as by the time a book wins something, either I’ve already reviewed it or I have no interest at the moment to read it. For this month, I searched quite a while among my mountain of unread books, but the RITA nominees and winners that were present there didn’t inspire me to want to take time and read them anytime soon. But hey, there is this classic romance novel, which is considered by many to be the romance novel that revolutionized the genre as we know it back in 1972. It must have won some award somewhere, right?
Okay, maybe not “as we know it”, as Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower was published back when it was a must for romance heroes to demonstrate their virility by raping the heroine and a few other women who couldn’t get away fast enough. No rape, no ring on the finger, baby. Nowadays, they just have to stalk the heroine and act all creepy-possessive, so clearly, these blokes have it easier these days. It is unfair to judge this book by the standards of these days, but at the same time, it is probably unfair to expect readers today to make allowances for the values in this book just because it came out back in “those days”. Therefore, the best I can say is that, you pick your poison, and if you do read this book, it’s best to either just embrace the craziness or think of the experience as some kind of intellectual exercise to see what things were like in the genre back then.
Heather Summons lives a Cinderella-like life in London with her miserable aunt, who forces her to wear dowdy clothes and do household chores, while constantly reminding her that she looks like her late mother, whom the aunt considers a whore, and thus, Heather is going to be a whore. But the story really begins when the aunt’s brother, a dashing if obese man, comes to visit and starts treating Heather special, buying her pretty dresses and leering at her. You can see where this is leading, but alas, Heather is as naïve as can be, and is the only one shocked when he reveals that he is a pimp and he’d like to install her as the newest attraction at his establishment. After he’s had his way with her, of course.
In a move that will be mimicked by countless romance heroines in the years to come, Heather whacks that dude and goes, “Oh, is he dead? I AM A MURDERER!” before fleeing for her life. She ends up bumping into Brandon Birmingham and his buddies, who mistake her for a prostitute. He ends up forcing himself on her – oh, she’s a whore, so it’s okay – and when she finally reveals who she really is through sobs, Brandon – with no remorse, mind you – is like, oh dear, now how he will get out of this predicament without facing the consequences of his actions. Never mind, he can bring her with him to his sea voyage home, pork her some more, and then, when he reaches America, he will marry Louisa, his fiancée. Oh, he doesn’t love Louisa, because she is not “lady-like”, what with letting him have sex with her and all, and she is not a virgin, ugh, but still, she has money. Yes, a rapist judging a woman as wanting because of her putting out to this rapist, ugh. That and the constant slut-shaming of Louisa are some pretty bitter pill to swallow when it comes to reading this book, so I’ll say it again: this book is definitely not going to go down well unless you make some major effort to overlook things like these.
The rest of the story is straight out of a soap opera. Murder mysteries, antics of the jealous other women, and, of course, nasty men all wanting to rape Heather. In this story, it seems like rape is only okay, and even romantic, if the rapist is hot and loaded. There are also plenty of unintentionally hilarious moments, mostly stemming from Brandon’s complete absence of self-awareness, such as this one:
“I don’t like being forced, my dear. It goes against my grain.”
So says the rapist who subsequently coerces his victim into following him to America, and whose subsequent “romantic moments” with Heather are more often than not the “I’ll do you whether you like it or not, muahahaha!” variety.
Meanwhile, Heather is pretty spineless, although there are occasional moments when she would mulishly rebel against Brandon. These moments are often fleeting, as all Brandon has to do is to glower, and she’d be “cowed” (yes, that’s the word used here) all over again. Heather can be quite unintentionally hilarious too, such as when she describes her rapist as being so-oo-oo handsome that women must have “forced themselves on him”. I’d think her experience in Rapist Loverboy’s bed would have told her that the truth is more of the other way around.
By now, you may be wondering, “Wait, all these things about rape, rape, rape… and four oogies?” No, it’s not dementia at work here. For all its rape and slut shaming and double standards, The Flame and the Flower is, for what it’s worth, a very entertaining read. Unlike her later books, Ms Woodiwiss demonstrated here that she could be a very adroit author: the pacing is excellent, keeping me turning the pages despite how often I wince at the things I am reading, and nothing here drags. Every scene counts, and despite the fact that the story is basically a series of calamitous events befalling Heather and, later, Heather and Brandon, with no overlying story arc to unite these events and with a noticeable lack of build-up, the momentum never lets up. Simply put, this is one book that demands to be read in one sitting, and no, it will not allow me to put it down until I’m done with it.
And while the author’s much later books can be as purple as Barney the Dinosaur’s bloated rump, here, the narrative can be elegant, descriptive, and even beautiful. A touch of purple prose here and there is unavoidable, I suppose, but the purpleness is very tolerable here, even adding to the atmosphere. I don’t know if it’s because the edition I am reading – the 1998 reissue – has been re-edited or whether the editor of the 1972 book pulled some heavy duty overtime to get the author to tighten up things, but this one captures me from the first sentence itself.
Somewhere in the world, time no doubt whistled by on taut and widespread wings, but here in the English countryside it plodded slowly, painfully, as if it trod the rutted road that stretched across the moors on blistered feet.
The rest of the opening paragraph is very evocative, and it gracefully leads to a scene of our heroine toiling in drudgery, unaware that one penis forcefully shoved into her hitherto undefiled femininity would soon change her life forever.
And to be fair to Brandon, he may be a rapist scumbag, but later in the book, he is unabashedly devoted to Heather. I guess her hoochie is magical to such an extent that any rapist (only the hot ones, please – please send the ugly ones to jail; we don’t want to marry those things) can be reformed into mere chauvinist pigs after raping her for a certain number of times. In those parts of the book, Brandon is like a different man altogether, but I’m not complaining much as this version seems to be good for Heather.
At the end of the day, The Flame and the Flower is very much a product of its time, and by the standards of today, reading this book would probably be a walk on the wild side, an immersion into a darker world that almost never exists anymore in present day mainstream romance novels. Even if you like darker romances, the old school writing style may be another barrier to overcome. Me, I suppose I’m rather old school, as I find myself, much to my surprise, having a good time while turning the pages. Perhaps it helps that I can’t take the story seriously, as there is an air of over the top soap opera vibe permeating the plot twists and turns here, so I can distance myself from all the rape, misogyny, and double standards. Ultimately, though, this is a case of craft trumping sensibility. The story moves like a tightly run ship, ensuring that, no matter what, I will dragged kicking and screaming into having the time of my life with the whole over the top plot twists, cartoon villains, histrionic, “manly forced seduction” moments, and what not.
So yes, four oogies. But you’re on your own if you choose to read this book – I am not responsible for any unforeseen consequences that may arise on your end, so there.