Zebra, $5.99, ISBN 0-8217-7450-6
Historical Romance, 2003
If I am a religious person, I’d say: God bless the editor who gives Wendy Burge a publishing contract. While You Slept is not as good as her debut, but it still makes me laugh because it really appeals to my sense of the absurd. This author doesn’t just write melodrama, she wallows in it. Her heroes pout and lolls around in drunken guilt-ridden ghost-haunted haze that they would give my darling Heathcliff a run for his money. The villains are so unbelievably over-the-top insane. Even better, the author crafts her plots in a blatantly in-your-face Gothic-gone-amok melodramatic opus style that I just cannot stop laughing – and that’s laughing in a good way. Reading the villains turning onto each other is definitely the highlight of this book because the author’s timing when it comes to irony and the absurd is just perfect.
What is not perfect and reduces this book a few notches below her splendorous bombastic debut is the fact the main characters can behave in ways so childish I want do a Kate Bush wail myself and bite off some heads.
I dare you to find a book in today’s market that boasts a plot as gorgeously over-the-top as this one: fat, ugly Katherine is living a nightmare. Her father hates her (the feeling is mutual) – no, they just don’t hate each other, they will be more than happy to rip each other’s guts out with their bare hands if they have the chance. Her father, obsessed with having an heir of impeccable bloodlines, buys her a husband who hates her (again, the feeling is mutual). Thwarting her father by not getting pregnant – even if he beats her every time she experiences her menses – brings her her greatest joy. She’s also a virgin. Her husband can’t bear to sleep with her. The feeling’s mutual on her side too.
One day her father yells at her to get lost (it’s that or he will finally kill her, and he doesn’t want that, because if she dies, there will be no sons of impeccable bloodlines for him). Katherine and her companion get into a carriage in the middle of a really horrible storm (there’s always one in this kind of stories) and oops, the carriage sort of topples over and the companion dies and Katherine gets knocked out into a minor coma.
Sion Sinclair and his housekeeper Mrs T (who pities the fool who… never mind) find Katherine and put her in the upstairs room. Sion is tortured. In fact, he is close to being insane. An inebriate who just wants to die after losing his wife and unborn kid but never has the courage to pull the trigger, he is so overly dramatic in his torment that I don’t know whether to laugh or sigh. Nonetheless, when Katherine wakes up (after losing lots of weight and becoming a major babe), he immediately undergoes an amazing transformation as melodramatic as his dark brooding. He is In Love. He is now a Changed Man! He is Galahad. He is Lancelot! (Why not? He’s sleeping with a wife of another man.)
Katherine, in between a battle with anorexia that Sion lovingly helps her overcome with a healthy dose of Melodramatic Pure Love, decides to start life anew as an Italian countess and mistress of Sion. Strictly pretense, of course. First she has to deal with her father and her husband (both who don’t recognize her) in some finagling to get her properties transferred to this “new” her. Fun and games ensue, among them numerous Attempted Rapes, Melodramatic Sacrifices, Heinous Double-Crossings, and other jolly fun stuff that I thought has gone out of fashion since Wuthering Heights.
The characters don’t behave like people, but in a plot like this, who expects them to? Their conversations are bombastic. The villains snarl. The heroine pouts seductively yet innocently. The hero broods oh so beautifully. The denouement of the story doesn’t just go over the top – the lid of plausibility flies off into the stratosphere as Ms Burge cheerfully adds in the mayhem. I love this. I love every single moment of this.
Except those quiet times between Katherine and Sion, that is. Katherine is very annoying as the bizarre creature who alternates between being sage-like and being so unbelievably perky and childish. She bursts into tears at the drop of a hat and overreacts whenever Sion responds to her “innocent” seduction techniques. While You Slept shines best when the author is pushing the limits of how ridiculously overwrought her prose can get and how much coincidences she can add into her story. All the while, her prose is very readable and no matter how much she is in danger of seeing her plot spiral out of control, she always deftly moves the story along towards its inevitable, exciting, hilariously over-the-top climax.
Too bad about the ultra-annoying heroine who shows more recklessness than sense too often. If not, While You Slept would be a magnificent soap opera of love, deception, betrayal, impossible coincidences, lurid drama, sex, impossible angst, and a really dead-on sense of irony that makes everything worthwhile.