St Martin’s Press, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-312-37211-8
Historical Romance, 2010
In a time when it is better to play safe and hitch a ride on the bandwagon, Tiffany Clare shows up in the middle of the party with a romance novel that features a heroine who is pretty much a prostitute, in a romance set in Turkey in the 1840’s. That is akin to someone in a meat dress crashing into a formal banquet to start dancing to Lady Gaga’s Boys Boys Boys – it gets my attention, if nothing else. After all, in a formulaic genre, I have nothing but respect for risk-takers, even if a small part of me will always wonder whether these risk-takers are geniuses ahead of the curve or suicidal types passionately going down in style for the sake of the art.
The Surrender of a Lady is definitely a risk. We have Lady Elena Ravenscliffe who, in the opening chapter, realizes that her husband had wagered her off in a game and now she’s the property of the slave trader Ali Admen. She and her infant son Jonathan are taken from their home in Constantinople to the island of Corfu, where Elena becomes the newest member of the Amir’s harem. Realizing that there is truly no way out for her, Elena has to steel herself and do what is necessary to survive, for the sake of her son if nothing else. The Amir is an enterprising fellow in that he will sell off the sexual services of his harem to people rich enough to win a bid in his regular auctions, so Elena is going to be pretty much a glorified prostitute.
It is about five years into her service when she meets Griffin Summerfield, a man from her past who shows up to attend the Amir’s latest auction. Spurred by desire for her, Griffin at first purchases her services, and really, he has a great time, thanks for asking. But when time has run out and she has to return to the harem, he decides to drug her and kidnap her against her will from the harem so that she will be with him always. Naturally, he overlooks the fact that he is leaving behind her son. Oops.
As you can tell from my synopsis, I’m sure, Ms Clare is going to offend a few genteel readers’ sensibilities with this story. There are no contrivances in here to allow Elena to spend years in the harem while retaining her virtue. While Ms Clare doesn’t delve into detailed descriptions, she makes it clear that Elena has to do what she does to survive, which in this case means performing sexual services for the Amir as well as the men who purchase her services.
For me, I really like Elena as a heroine. She is realistically drawn. The years of her unhappy life with her husband and his betrayal of her trust actually see her realizing that, in a twisted manner that makes sense, the harem is closest to what she has to paradise. Despite having no say over who gets to sleep with her, she actually feels safe and protected in the harem. Her fellow harem sisters are the closest she has to a family, and in his own way, the Amir is also pretty kind to her. Therefore, Elena’s reluctance to leave the harem is real. We aren’t just talking about Stockholm syndrome here, as she knows that her old world will most likely not accept her back.
Elena is a memorable and admirable heroine because she is thrust into a nightmarish predicament only to discover that she has the courage to survive and even make the best of her situation. Her courage often is subtle, because she is also trained to submit while hiding her true feelings from the men around her, but it’s there.
The problem with this story is that the romance doesn’t feel real. Elena and Griffin knew each other very briefly in the past, and yet I’m supposed to believe that their love somehow remained strong and unbending in the ten years that followed. The weak romance is problematic because in this story, Griffin pretty much kidnaps the heroine and drags her into his world against her will, all because he thinks he knows what is best for her. It also doesn’t help that when they first meet again after all these years, he is leering at Elena in randy lust while she is trying to take a deep breath and steel herself for another round at the auction block. This romance starts out more like a connection between a prostitute and her client, and therefore, if Ms Clare wants to make this connection a believable romance, she needs to give me more than a short association in the past that apparently translated into a romance of a lifetime.
Griffin has a pretty intriguing background as an ex-opium addict, but somehow he doesn’t come alive here. He’s pretty weak in the sense that he bungles up pretty badly when he tries to make the heroine his and, ultimately, the Amir is the one who holds all the strings to his and Elena’s happily ever after. Poor Griffin’s problem here is that he actually comes off as a poor alternative to the Amir. Sure, the Amir is Elena’s pimp, but he shares the profits with the members of his harem – for Elena, he stashes some money aside for Jonathan’s use when he grows up – and he shows a degree of kindness and tolerance for Elena in the harem. On the other hand, Griffin kidnaps her against her will, tearing her away from her son just because he is hot for her, and spends the rest of the story acting like an emo brat. If the Amir is the unexpectedly benevolent tyrant in this story, Griffin is the spoiled brat who lets his pee-pee dictate his actions even if his actions break the heart of the heroine and tear her away from her safe haven. Both the Amir and Griffin view Elena as a possession, but I’m not certain that I buy the supposition that Elena will be happier with Griffin because Griffin has not demonstrated any ability in this story to make her happy outside the bedroom. Therefore, I am still not convinced by the last page that Elena ends up with the right man.
I wonder whether this story would be more successful if it had been written as a work of erotica. The relationships in this story have a domination and submission element to them. Had Ms Clare gone all the way with this domination and submission thing, Elena ending up with Griffin may make more sense if Griffin had demonstrated that he can dominate Elena better than the Amir ever could. And had this book been marketed as romantic erotica, it might find an audience more tolerant of the controversial elements in this story, who knows.
At any rate, The Surrender of a Lady doesn’t work completely for me because of the underdeveloped romance between Elena and Griffin. But it is an interesting and very readable story of a different kind, with a heroine who manages to show more spine and courage than most. While I sincerely wish that I can love this book much more than I actually do, I am glad that I took a chance on it.