Dell, $5.99, ISBN 0-440-22199-4
Historical Romance, 1997
As You Desire is my favorite romantic comedy to date by Connie Brockway. All those readers who won’t read this book because it’s set in 1890 Cairo are missing out on a great deal. By great deal, I don’t mean harem sex, sheikhs, or anything even remotely resembling something by Bertrice Small. Connie Brockway gently skewers those old Valentino movies even as she celebrates the romance of the explorer hero.
Desdemona Carlisle is our heroine, and she is not a normal heroine. She is a genius in that she can read many, many languages, even if she can’t speak most of these languages. (Yes, I can’t figure that out either, but hey, who cares? This is too much fun to quibble.) As a result of her childhood, where Miss Genius here was kept sheltered and isolated, she develops a habit of daydreaming, reading romance novels and “antique” pornography, and dreaming of England just to while away the tedium of managing her household.
In her youthful fantasies, she adored a fellow Englishman, the dashing scoundrel Harry. She even went up and offered herself to him once, only to have him sending her home. Today, they are somewhat friends/rivals/occasional symbiotes. He plunders and discovers relics from the Egyptian tombs, and she will translate any text or writing on them for some extra money. She is so over her infatuation. Really.
But what she doesn’t know is that as the years pass, Harry only fall deeper in love with her. Cool or what? The only thing holding him back is his dyslexia – how can he hope to keep her love when she discovers his secret? – and the fact that she wants to go home to England and he will never want to return to the land where his dyslexia made his life a living hell.
Of course, Desdemona, or Dizzy as he calls her, doesn’t actually want to go home to England, oh no. Maybe a little, but she loves Egypt. Her main reason to want to return is the hope that her grandfather will gain the recognition he deserves as a prime Egyptologist if he is based in England. Also, maybe, in England she can finally learn to live as a normal girl. When Harry’s cousin Blake arrives in Cairo, an Englishman to the core, Dizzy starts making batty eyes at him, much to Harry’s ire. Thus his jealousy soon galvanizes a series of amusing, often romantic set of reactions where he tries to win Dizzy back.
One thing that struck me from the get go is how the author has set the stage with familiar characters and then slowly develop them into characters of actual substance. Dizzy’s grandfather is the quintessential absent-minded guardian, but he soon becomes a caring guardian who tries. He may fails, but he tries so hard to take care of Dizzy, only he doesn’t know how. Likewise, the protective servant/matchmaker Magi is a local who embraces the wholly English lifestyle as a rejection of her past as a harem girl, which is hinted as not at all sweet and rosy. The Other Woman, Marta, wants Harry for all the right reasons and learns to let go with her dignity intact (and not a single shrill cat fight in sight). The Other Man, Blake (Harry’s cousin) is all wrong for Dizzy, but he’s wrong because his personality doesn’t suit Dizzy’s, not because he is a cackling psycho who will hold Dizzy at gunpoint at the end as he demands for some treasure or something. The only psycho here is the obligatory French pig (Napoleon is still not forgiven, I guess) who will provide the obligatory drama and emotional high.
Hence, it is very satisfying to read about so many well-fleshed characters interacting as friends/rivals in a romance story.
But best of all, the main characters. This is a very well-written story of two people who start off at the wrong foot, become friends soon after, and later lovers. Plus, he has a secret crush on her, how sweet. Harry is a charming scoundrel – he is witty, adventurous, knows several ways to kill people who try to hurt his precious Dizzy, and he makes beautiful poetry out of words (check out the scene where he compares Dizzy to Egypt, I tell you). Er, ssh, don’t tell anyone, but I think I’m half in love with him myself. Funny, strong, witty, and will do anything for his woman, even as he hides this pain inside that he is hurt and he is afraid that she will reject him – awww, how can a woman resist? Baby, Harry, you are such a sweetie. Awww.
As for Dizzy, maybe Harry sums her up best in this conversation:
“You are a remarkable woman, Dizzy. Here you are, half sotted on the fermented goat’s milk Rabi claims was the only way to keep you quiet, having convinced yourself that you’re nothing but a pitiful slave heading for auction, and still you manage to buy – ” His eyes widened as her guilt betrayed itself on her cursed face. “You didn’t steal these things, did you, Miss Carlisle? That would be wrong. One is tempted to say unethical, not to mention immoral. A virtuous young model of English womanhood like you – ”
“I did not!” she protested. “That boy Rabi gave them to me. They’re mine.”
“You actually talked your captors into giving you presents?” He was staring at her in open admiration. “Marry me.”
If Dizzy does some stupid things – okay, just two stupid things but they lead to a good thing, if you know what I mean – anyway, it’s usually under the influence of hashish. Kids, don’t try it at home. But I must say there’s something charming about a hashish-smoking (okay, just once), romance-reading, pornography-loving heroine who tries so hard to be practical and only succeeds two-thirds of the way. She’s an endearing mix of naivete and genuine intelligence without resorting to ditzy antics to up her charm quota, and the young girl in me connects with her. We all daydream too much sometimes, eh, Dizzy?
There are plenty of adventures and romance – hey, we’re in Egypt, people! – but best of all, the developing relationship between Dizzy and Harry. This time, it’s a more mature thing, as Dizzy learns to let go a little of her dreams and realize that the real thing – Harry – is the best she can have. And Harry, oh Harry. My Harry. Oh baby. He isn’t just in love, he’s driven. He is tenacious and he fights so hard for Dizzy, because all his life he has to work twice as hard to get what he wants. Marry me, Harry.
I laugh, sigh, and chuckle my way through this book. And I actually destroyed a pack of Kleenex at the ending, amazing, considering that is a funny book and not some dramatic tearjerker. And the good feeling just lingers on for so long after I closed this book. What a great book, I must say. It’d be perfect if author hasn’t gotten all the local guys’ names wrong. Seriously, marry me, Harry.