Avon, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-06-265574-5
Historical Romance, 2018
Any marketer worth his or her salt will tell us that, to reel in the suckers, we give them something they want (or they think they want), and then, when the suckers are fully unwilling to stop buying, we can sell them whatever we want and they’d nod happily and want to buy some more. This is why I’m confused with If Ever I Should Love You. It starts out a beautifully subversive historical romance, in a way that would scare away readers who prefer something more familiar, and then, once it has reeled in suckers like me, does a 180 and starts being a conventional, familiar story. What? Is the author trying to sell me formulaic pap by reeling me in like I’m some sort of desperate junkie seeking a fix?
Okay, when it comes to romance novels, I’m that junkie craving something different, but the author switches gears too soon. I’m still sober when I notice the derailment, and I can only frown at first. And, later, feel like weeping in disappointment. Cathy Maxwell is always an author who thrives on subversion, but here, it’s like she is seized up into space by UFO after 100 pages and they plonked a poor clone in the author’s place.
Oh, and this is where I should warn all of you: major spoilers are ahead. The bulk of this review will touch on these spoilers, and hence, it is quite pointless for me to use spoiler bars. The result will be a hideous, near-unreadable mess. So if you wish to remain unspoiled, avert your eyes and press the back button!
Still here? Let’s get to the synopsis then.
Years ago, in India, the then Major Roman Gilchrist and his friends spotted our heroine Leonie Charnock for the first time. Or rather, they spotted her magnificent breasts – this virtue of hers will be mentioned quite often by various male characters in this story. They made a wager on whom would get her attention first, and this bet came to a tragic end when Roman’s friend Arthur took the “game” too far and raped Leonie. She shot and killed him, and Roman took the blame, claiming that he shot Arthur in a duel over Leonie. This prevented him from advancing beyond being a Major in the military, and hence, he blames her ever since for her “sin” against him. You read that right.
Oh, and he knows that his buddy raped her. But he still blames her, perhaps because the author is striving for some kind of historical authenticity, and men back in those days didn’t take sex crimes against women seriously. I am mentioning this not because I object on this premise, mind you. I bring this up because, as I’ll explain later, this aspect of Roman doesn’t jive with the Roman in the later parts of the story.
Back to the present day, Roman is the new Earl of Rochdale. At first, he was elated, as he imagined turning his new holdings into something productive as well as profitable… and then he learned that the title also comes with his late uncle’s debts amounting to almost ten thousand pounds. The debt collectors are pursuing their money, and our hero reluctantly confronts the fact that he has to marry an heiress STAT. But he doesn’t want to marry! And that heiress’s parents are commoners, eek. And that other heiress has such low pedigree, ugh. And so forth.
That leaves only Leonie, who is still unmarried after all these years, and her father is more than happy to offer her to Roman when he asks. Our heroine is not pleased, but oh well, it’s not like she has any choice. But she wants a marriage without any sex, as she’s still traumatized by her rape. Our hero’s attitude is like, hello, if he were marrying her, she’d better be putting out as her magnificent breasts are all his now. And she will marry him, because she owes him. Yes, he actually says that owing thing to her. Silly woman got forcefully penetrated and smacked a bit here and there by a man, and then had the nerve to ruin his career over such a trivial thing – what a selfish twit.
Meanwhile, Leonie’s mother is a slutty sort, but don’t get too excited. The author doesn’t demonize that woman at all. She actually tells her daughter that she has taken many lovers and will continue to do so because her life doesn’t end there and then when her husband decided to stop visiting her bedroom. She also tells Leonie that a woman’s sexuality can be a means for a woman to gain a semblance of control over her life. Marry a man who is generous enough to let her have some freedom, Mommy Dearest tells Leonie, and she will be able to pursue all the charity work and what not she wants.
Therefore, by the one third point of this book, I’m excited. The hero is so obnoxious and boorish, I’m anticipating a smackdown like Cathy Maxwell can deliver so well if she wants to. The heroine and her mother have a shockingly pragmatic conversation – does this mean that the heroine will discover her sexuality and how she can use the hero’s attraction to her to level the playing field between them?
No. As I turn the pages, this story turns into another familiar story in which a heroine, traumatized by rape, learns that sex with a hero isn’t just an amazing thing, she quickly turns into an eager randy woman begging for all kinds of pleasure. Because Leonie needs sexual healing that only Roman’s man thing can deliver, she remains in a position of weakness while Roman is the one who holds the upper hand. And Roman seems to lose his unpleasant traits overnight and turns into a more standard penis with rape trauma erasure powers type of character. On one hand, my blood pressure is gentler for this turn of events, but on the other hand, it’s like a completely different guy whose name happens to be also Roman has stepped in and taken over the role of the hero.
Also, the story adopts this cheerful battle of the sexes tone as Leonie does all kinds of silly things to show Roman that he is not the boss of her – or so she thinks anyway; we all know that he’s going to win simply by sticking that thing inside her and making her understanding that, in the end, all a woman really wants and needs is a penis attached to her true love to give her sexual pleasure and many, many children. Is this the approach to use in a story which has a heroine suffering from trauma due to rape? Come on!
Oh, and Leonie insists that her mother is a slag and she’s never going to be like her. So, all the initial themes of female sexuality and empowerment are eventually tossed aside as the heroine reveals that, in the end, she’s just a conventional romance heroine just like any other, looking and settling for the very same things all those romance heroines crave.
In the end, I don’t know whether this one was originally planned to be a total rule-breaker only to have the author chicken out on her own (or be persuaded into doing it by her publisher), but the early and later parts of If Ever I Should Love You don’t feel like they go together well. Maybe if the author had taken more time to make smoother modifications to erase the scary parts out of the story, or better still, just write a formulaic story from the start, I wouldn’t be so disappointed by the end of result. As it is… ugh, it pains me just to think about what could have been. Can we just stop talking about this book and move on to more pleasant subjects?