Jove, $7.99, ISBN 0-515-14170-4
Historical Romance, 2006
Betina Krahn’s The Book of True Desires is not related to her previous book The Book of the Seven Delights apart from a shared romantic adventure theme. However, these two books are also polar opposites. In The Book of the Seven Delights, the hero is the experienced explorer while the heroine is the fish out of water. In The Book of True Desires, the heroine is the experienced explorer while the hero is the fish out of the water.
Comparing the two books can yield some interesting observations. For one, a female fish out of water character is treated by Ms Krahn as a shrewish and always wrong Calamity Jane who always needs to be rescued. Yet the male fish out of water character is allowed to be right and become a “man” as the story progresses. The experienced explorer heroine still crumples and has her head cradled by our hero in this book, the poor dear having fallen to the villain and Ms Krahn’s sexual stereotyping.
Cordelia O’Keefe is a hardy explorer who has braved the wilderness that few men, much less women, have dared venture into. Her latest project is to locate King Solomon’s Mines based on a relic that has come into her possession which carries a clue to the mines. However, she needs funding and as a last resort, she requests money from her estranged grandfather Samuel P “Hardacre” Blackburn. Hardacre however doesn’t play softball: he’ll give her the money she wants if he gets something that he wants first: the mysterious Mayan stone called “the Gift of the Jaguar” hidden somewhere in the jungles and ruins of Mexico. Hardacre also has another condition: she’ll take along his butler, Hartford Goodnight, who will also control the money Hardacre is giving Cordelia for the trip to Mexico.
Our hero Goodnight is actually forced to be a butler. A chemist, he once used Hardacre’s money to search for some rare plants that will cure many diseases, among them the gout which Hardacre is suffering from. Unfortunately, the search didn’t pan out and Goodnight finds himself contract-ridden to become Hardacre’s butler. No, that doesn’t make sense to me either but hey, Ms Krahn says that Hardacre is a sneaky man like that, so I’ll just buy her explanation. Although I don’t see what’s so sneaky about forcing someone to match your socks, come to think of it. That isn’t being sneaky as much as being too cheap to hire a real help. Anyway, Goodnight is a typical British fellow who doesn’t think much of women as explorers and if you still think he can survive out there, let me tell you that he doesn’t even know what a machete is until Cordelia tells him. And he’s like, “You’re kidding me.” Alrighty-then.
Fortunately, maybe because he has a penis unlike the heroine of the previous book, Goodnight doesn’t actively hinder the heroine out of sheer ignorance. He just pouts and writes tattle-tale entries in a journal which make some amusing reading even if the hero also comes off like a sad little crybaby as a result. But he mellows very nicely as the story progresses, becoming more capable and open-minded in a believable development. By the last page, he’s not Indiana Jones, but give and take a few more years, he may get to that level one day. The personality change from a crybaby butler to a carefree rogue is harder for me to accept though – it feels as if a switch has been turned on in Goodnight and suddenly he’s a different person.
I like how the author at first allows Cordelia to be an experienced explorer that she claims to be but as the story progresses, I start to notice that the author is deliberately weakening Cordelia so that by the last page, the state of the romance world as we know it will be restored. Cordelia starts swearing that she’s telling the truth so that Goodnight will believe her when previously she can’t be bothered about what he thinks of her. She begins to scream with horror even as the members of her entourage start to respect Goodnight for shooting a jaguar. She forgets to eat while Goodnight starts to learn how to use a gun. She has her first orgasm with Goodnight. And she nearly dies towards the end of the story.
While Cordelia is still recognizable by the last page, the dynamics of the relationship between her and Goodnight have me sighing a little sadly. Why oh why must Ms Krahn make all those little downgrades in Cordelia just to make Goodnight more “manly” and “hero-like”? Also, the ending of the story is embarrassingly mawkish and insultingly simplified. After all the nonsense Hardacre put them through, they act like he’s just a cute old coot and they’re all family again. That’s too unbelievable for me.
The Book of True Desires is a pretty readable story but because this story soon ends up trying to eliminate any trace of unconventional elements as much as possible, the end result is an unusual book who tries too hard to be ordinary. And ultimately, and unfortunately, succeeds.