Avon, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-380-89953-1
Historical Romance, 1985
This review of Love Only Once by Johanna Lindsey is the result of a request by Andrea, who asked me to review something “super old school”. This one came out in 1985, a time when rape was becoming out of fashion as a shortcut to love, but when assholes were still celebrated as husband material.
Now, old school romances are touch and go where I am concerned. Sure, assholes are bad for the blood pressure, but many old school romances are also guilty pleasures with the added bonus of a genuinely spirited, feisty, and exuberant heroine showing up now and then. The latter is rare these days, as romance heroines nowadays tend to play the disingenuous self-depreciating dingbat. That’s why sometimes older romance readers will tell the newer readers that the latter group is soft. Old school readers read stories of rape and abuse sold as true love on a regular basis, and the young ones are complaining because Marquis Milquetoast exhibits perceived microaggressions that reek of male privilege. What softies!
Anyway, will this one be a guilty pleasure or a painful shock to the system? As you can surely tell from the one oogie, this one is no fun at all.
Nicholas Eden, Viscount Monteith, is an asshole, and the author spends the entire first chapter ramming that fact home. He has seduced a few virgins, flits from one affair to another with married women, and treats women like crap. I’m still confused by the author’s contradictory treatment of Icky the Poo: on one hand, she says that his reputation has taken a hit among polite society, and yet, in this story he keeps getting invited to all the nice balls, while women throw themselves at him like it’s free dairy day. Which is which? The author also has Icky blaming his conquests for being seduced – apparently it’s their fault to put out to him – and he feels sorry only for the men saddled with the women he had debauched and discarded. Oh, and his reputation as a skilled duelist means that he can still wag and shoot it anywhere he wants without consequence.
Now, let’s take a look at the heroine, shall we? Regina Ashton is an orphan who has four overprotective guardians. These men wag and shoot it anyway and anywhere they want, but no man is worthy of even sniffing at Reggie’s direction. Hence, after having her Season, poor Reggie is still unmarried. In fact, the idea of going through another year of social whirl, knowing that no man will ever get her uncles’ unanimous consent to marry her, makes her want to scream. She’d like to take a break back in the country, but of course, all the alpha men have no respect for a mere woman’s wishes unless the wish happens to be “Pump me insensate with your big bat, baby!”, so what happens is a convoluted, tortuous turn of events involving her in the carriage of Icky the Poo’s recent mistress and Icky the Poo mistaking her for said mistress and holding her captive in his place – a punishment he has planned for his mistress for daring to have a social life after breaking up with him. You see, he wants to make sure that she misses the ball she wants to attend so much, and hears from her friends the morning after how he has pawed and molested the females in the said ball.
They are forced to marry, and the rest of the story is basically the hero treating Reggie like… I almost said chewed gum stuck at the sole of his boot, but you’d just scrape the gum off and throw it aside in a heartbeat. Here, Reggie is subjected to prolonged humiliation, psychological browbeating, some gaslighting, and more from Icky the Poo.
Oh, and if you are hoping for good sex scenes to make up for this, he basically humps away at her while he is drunk, and apparently they both have the time of their life as a result.
Given how terribly he treats her, and how she seems to love him despite all that, I often wonder whether the author is trolling me. Given how romance novels were back in those days, though, I sadly suspect that I am expected to salivate at Icky the Poo’s mistreatment of Reggie and go to bed dreaming of receiving the same kind of abuse from my beloved.
Now, bear with me when I say that this kind of premise alone doesn’t necessarily translate to a bad romance novel. There is an enjoyable kind of escapism in reading about how a crappy douchebag gets pummeled and battered into being a tame husband material by the last page, a kind of female power fantasy, if you will. This works, however, if there had been chemistry or sexual sizzle between the hero and the heroine. Here, though, Reggie and Icky spend quite some time apart, and when they are together, their scenes are full of cringe. It’s hard to even pretend that these two care for one another because Icky the Poo is a genuinely horrible kind of person.
One thing the author does right – intentionally or not, I have no idea – is making Reggie completely unbelievable as a human being, hence the degree of Icky’s non-stop emotional abuse doesn’t seem that bad, in the sense that getting one’s thumb sawed off is better than having two fingers given the same treatment. Here, Reggie is bipolar. One moment, she is spirited and feisty, and in the next moment, without rhyme or reason, she is acting like an unreasonable harridan. She is also the biggest doormat in the land, constantly self-censoring herself in order to keep her uncles happy. She veers from one extreme to another, to the point that she resembles more like a robot with malfunctioning programming than a real person. This is a good thing in the context of this story, because Icky treating a believable character the way he does would be truly painful to follow.
Love Only Once is, therefore, a failure as a romance novel in every sense of the word. Why is Reggie in love with Icky? It’s because the author says so. How come nobody has shot Icky down with extreme glee? That’s because he’s the romance hero and, hence, his mistreatment of women is hailed as a representation of his virility and masculinity. Sure, romance novels sell a fantasy, but for this fantasy to work, I need to understand why these two are in love. Even by the last page, I still have no clue. I really feel like I’ve been trolled by the author.