Signet, $6.99, ISBN 0-451-21345-9
Historical Romance, 2004
People always ask me why, or more specifically, how I can enjoy books by Virginia Henley. Insatiable, were not for its copyright date, could easily be mistaken for a historical romance from the 1980s. Not that it’s filled to the brim with rape, just to make this clear. No, it’s just that the hero and the heroine have a very long separation that spans from about the midpoint to the late legs of the story, there is a decided emphasis on the heroine instead of on the couple, and the story sweeps across several locations instead of being concentrated on a single area like historical romances of today tend to be. But while this book would most likely not appeal to readers looking for something with more contemporary sensibilities (or, to put it in another way, something Avon would publish), I can’t say that Insatiable bores me in any way. It has plenty of flaws but this historical soap opera is as fun to read as it is campy.
Set during the last years of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign and spanning through King James’s ascension to the throne and ending with the onset of the bubonic plague, this story revolves around the life of twenty-year old Catherine Seton Spencer, the dressmaker of Queen Bess, and her love affair with Patrick Hepburn, the Lord Stewart of Scotland. It is hard to describe the plot of this story because this isn’t a “hero and heroine find love while solving a mystery or murder” story as much as a glimpse into the ongoing soap operatic lives of this couple and the people around them in that time period. Some of the problems or conflicts that crop up include: Cat’s good friend Arbella Stuart’s affair with William Seymour (Ms Henley taking quite a huge amount of creative license where Willie’s age is concerned in this story) which is a big no as their nuptial will mean that both houses that challenge Bess’ claim to the throne will be consolidated, James’ plotting to replace Bess on the throne, and of course, the Plague.
Cat has a typical antagonistic mother while Patrick has some psychic abilities that allow him to catch brief glimpses into events that will happen in the future. King James of Scotland sends Patrick to England because he wants Patrick to divine exactly when Bess will die so that James here can finally get to play boss in England. Patrick spots Cat in one of her many reckless hellion antics and it’s lust at first sight. The tangled connections and ties of the incestuous aristocrats of England and Scotland will make sure that Cat is a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend of Patrick and sure enough their paths will cross soon enough and sparks fly.
At first, the courtship can be off-putting because both Patrick and Cat act like children, bickering over the silliest of matters. Cat goes into “Hate! Want! Hate! Want!” overdrive for so long that I feel like I’m caught in some horrible Archie cartoon set in the Elizabethan period. But once the author sets the intrigue and events taking place around the romance to happen, Insatiable becomes a much more entertaining read. The romance is actually the weakest part of the story because Patrick is utterly bland. He is this author’s most beta hero to date in the sense that he may have the typical alpha male bluster but he doesn’t do anything in this story. It is Cat who ends up chasing after her guy and it is Cat who decides when and where they will love and live happily ever after in the end. I may even go as far as to say that Cat is the one who wears the pants in the relationship. The only contribution Patrick makes in this story are the overuse of the phrase “Hellcat” (die, Hellcat, die!) and pulling off some stupid stunts that would have cause huge misunderstandings if Cat isn’t as smart as she is.
Cat is a good example of why I often enjoy Ms Henley’s books apart from a few notable exceptions. Ms Henley’s heroines are definitely old-school hellion/spitfire types that will become tedious and irritating fast if these heroines aren’t, in the same breath, sharp and even feminist. Cat is no mealy-mouthed shy innocent – she has grown up in the bawdy court of Queen Bess and therefore she is able to take care of herself when it comes to dealing with unwanted suitors. She also unapologetically enjoys life in court, makes no judgments about other women’s promiscuity (except when they are trying to sink their claws into Patrick, of course), has a refreshingly upfront view about what she deserves out of life (when Patrick runs away in one of those misguided “I’ll set her free” nonsense, she chases after him to give him a piece of her mind) as well as her self-worth (she doesn’t let her disagreeable mother step all over her and she certainly doesn’t spend her entire life trying to win her approval), and more. It’s not that Cat is historically “anachronistic”, or at least, I certainly hope that we haven’t reached a stage where all non-submissive martyr heroines are considered historically inaccurate! Rather, I’d like to believe that Cat is a woman with common sense.
Mind you, Cat does has her share of cringe-inducing moments, but that is more like a misfire on Ms Henley’s attempt to create “snappy banters” than a character flaw in Cat’s part. At the very least, Cat starts out reckless but less wise than she’d like to think she is but ends up much wiser although just as reckless. The “much wiser” part plays a huge part in endearing her to me. How can I not, when Cat says things like how it’s better to be cynical than naive? Or how she wants to soar instead of merely fly when it comes to life?
Because Cat doesn’t actually do anything too stupid, her hellion antics are tolerable. Her outlook in life and take-no-prisoner attitude are very appealing. The story is pretty interesting too as Ms Henley takes the trouble to describe life in those era, with me learning quite a number of interesting trivia in the process. I don’t know if the author has the details right but it’s enough for me that she makes them come off as real enough to make the story more vividly colorful.
Unfortunately, Ms Henley’s writing in this book suffers when she puts the same sense of urgency into both her action and more sanguine scenes. When someone tries to murder Cat, the tone of the story is similar to the descriptive scenes of the clothes Cat wore to a ball. Shouldn’t there be changes in the narrative style – maybe shorter sentences, a greater sense of urgency, anything – when the story’s pace speeds up? As it is, Insatiable has the same pacing and sense of urgency throughout the story, regardless of whether Cat is yawning or screaming in fear, and that is a big problem right there. Also, because the romance is the most colorless portion of the story, when the book focuses on the romance especially in the middle of the story everything seems to be bogged down into a snail’s pace. Cat really comes to life when she has to deal with an antagonistic mother, unwanted suitors, and an unreasonable Queen in her refreshingly upfront manner. With Patrick, she’s reduced to either childish squabbling with that man or having the best sex of her life, the last being not as good for me as it is for her, alas, because those scenes bore me to tears.
The language is a problem too. For example, I wonder why King James would need Patrick to divine the future because King James seems like a visionary himself – he uses the phrase coitus interruptus in an exchange with Patrick. (And no, they aren’t sleeping together, just to make this clear.) I especially have a good laugh when Cat and her friends describe the bubonic plague as, er, the bubonic plague. My, these people are so clever! In a time when people associate the plague with superstitious or religious elements, Cat must be sneaking a peek into Patrick’s crystal ball. There is a bizarre dichotomy in Insatiable in that while the author tries to get the historical details correct, the story suffers from an overdose of contemporary nuances and concepts. Also, while the book adheres mostly to the contemporary politically correct overtones, there are some decidedly wallbanger elements that can push some readers’ buttons, such as Cat hitting Patrick several times in her fits of temper. There is a particularly button-pushing scene where Cat actually stabs Patrick to draw blood in anger, although I’m quite perverse in that I found the scene quite… er, memorable.
So what can I say? Insatiable isn’t a well-written book by any stretch of imagination. But it is interesting enough to keep me reading in one sitting, thanks to a refreshingly take-no-prisoners heroine, unusual setting, plenty of soap operatic intrigues of sex and lies, and enough lucid and humorous nudges from the author in her writing to let me know that sometimes she finds her story as absurd as I do. Like I said in the first paragraph, as long as I am not looking for great plot, great acting, or anything but a campy good time, Insatiable delivers just nicely. The lack of fun gratuitous sex makes this book weaker in comparison to some of the author’s books from the last decade but it rarely leaves me high and dry.