Prion Books, £12.99, ISBN 978-1-85375-734-1
Contemporary Romance, 2009
Swept Away is a collection of three Mills & Boon titles – one from the 1960s, one from the 1970s, and the last one from the 1980s – published to celebrate the legacy of the publisher. Or something. I suspect this is just an excuse for publisher Prion Books to add a title to their catalog. Yes, the publisher is Prion Books, not Harlequin Mills & Boon. I know, it sounds ominous – a collection of old series romances, which can be as fun as working as a maid in a Dubai tyrant’s household, from a publisher with the same name as those things that cause mad cow disease. Is the universe trying to tell me not to pick up this thing?
We start with the 1960s with Violet Winspear’s Lucifer’s Angel. Ordinary home girl Fay Marsh has her dream come true – she’s married to her hotshot Hollywood actor of a sweetheart Lew at the beginning of the story. Unfortunately, Lew’s like, “Hah, love? Don’t make me laugh, love is rubbish!” and she soon finds herself feeling like a fish out a water in Lew’s new home and lifestyle. The fact that his friends often look at her in a “Wait, he married this thing?” expression on their faces doesn’t help much. Is this marriage going to work out, or is it going to crash and burn?
What I find fascinating is that the story published in the 1960s turns out to have the strongest and most sympathetic heroine of the three stories here. Lew has all the archetypal traits of the scowling, cold, sneering hero – although he never crosses the line to outright cruelty when it comes to his behavior – but Fay doesn’t let him cow her into submission. I am especially struck by this exchange she had with another woman late in the story, who is sighing over how much Lew resembles some kind of bloodthirsty pirate:
The girl’s eyes sparkled into Fay’s. “So you do see what I mean? You do see that touch of the brute patrician? That guy could hurt like hell, but oh boy, I don’t think I’d mind!”
“Wouldn’t you?” Fay looked curious. “Just because he’s something out of the ordinary, does that mean he has to be excused an ordinary code of behaviour?”
The girl considered the question, her attention caught by Fay’s sudden look of seriousness. “I guess nine women out of ten would excuse the guy quite a lot. The tenth, in my opinion, would have to be a pretty cold potato.” She grinned. “Don’t tell me you wouldn’t make excuses for that handsome brute?”
“I make them all day long.” Fay’s lashes swept down over her eyes. “He’s my husband.”
Fay struggles with issues related to her perception of her own self worth in her husband’s eyes. She doesn’t want to be seen as merely his possession. Her insecurities feel pretty real to me, and the author does a great job in creating those painful awkward moments of marital spats that make me wince because of how much those scenes can resemble real life. The only issue I have here is the author’s reliance on life-and-death melodrama – twice! – to force these two to get back together when the chasm between them seem too wide to be bridged across.
We move to the 1970s with Charlotte Lamb’s Desert Barbarian, which has me alternating between making derisive snorts and rolling up my eyes. It encapsulates most of the elements that make sheikh romances the politically incorrect turd balls that they are. We have a Middle-eastern hero with a name like Stonor Grey. His middle initials must be WTF. His company buys over that belonging to our heroine Marie Brinton’s father. She hates him! She hates him! But he soon sweeps her to his backwater area where she then proceeds to introduce superior white culture to those people. How much politically incorrect is this story? Well, at the very beginning, Marie thinks of how handsome and virile Stonor looks in Western-style suit and pants, which clearly suit him better than those Arabic robes. The story goes on to portray “favorable” aspects of Arabic culture – in this story, “Arab culture” is a singular homogeneous concept – typically as those of white people in luxurious mansions with vaguely Arabian elements in the architecture and furniture, fawned over and waited upon by meek and efficient native servants in cute uniforms. Don’t get too angry, though – the dear author is no longer with us, and the book came out in 1978, probably with the author completely missing out on John Lennon’s message of love and peace in a world with no religion and other crock.
And then it is the 1980s with Sally Wentworth’s Summer Fire. This one starts out pretty painfully, with heroine Pandora Smith giddily embracing the concept of act first, think never. Unfortunately, the things that she does without thinking tend to be the stupid sorts, and her grandfather calls her a disaster magnet. Pandora comes over to visit her grandfather and ends up being a maid at his employer’s house, all the while hiding her relationship with her grandfather from the hero, James Arbory. Don’t ask, it’s a pretty silly plot. James starts out on an irrational note, completely overreacting to Pandora being a biker by pointing a gun at her, siccing his dogs, and even grabbing her and shaking her, all because he has some issues with bikers in general. I can understand his vehement dislike of bikers, but he still comes off as over the top crazy in that scene.
However, the story turns out to be pretty entertaining. There is a broody Captain Nemo vibe to James which I find very appealing, while Pandora slowly becomes adorable rather than a concept of feisty gone awry. The story takes a plunge into “Ugh, what is this?” territory near the end, though, when the author plugs in an unnecessary the Other Ho Strikes Back nonsense. Apparently it isn’t enough that the heroine wins the guy – she has to be confident that she is the one by having her competitors shamed and dismissed as well. Maybe this story is written with readers who are desperately craving for some kind of vicarious validation of their existence in mind.
That fake-ass white dude with a bad tan pretending to be a Middle-eastern prince story is that one stinker that I could live without, and I guess, in order to be fair, I’d have to downgrade the final score a bit because of its inclusion in this collection. But I have a good time reading the other two stories, and let’s be honest here, how often do I have that kind of reaction to category romances published these days, much less those published in the last three decades? It’s probably okay for me to pretend that that low-rent tale of Valentino worship never existed at all, so four oogies it is from me.