Monday, April 11, 2016

Romance Novel Month, Week Two, _Once a Princess_, by Johanna Lindsey, with alternate book, _Wickedly Wonderful_, by Deborah Blake

When I was an undergraduate student, literally a million years ago, before we had invented things like fire and such, I was trying to impress some girls (like you do). So, being a SuperGenious, I decided to denigrate romance novels, because nothing impresses people like slagging the thing they enjoy. Luckily for me, the girls set me straight, insisting that I read some of the novels before I attacked them. I did so, and continue to read romance novels (as long time readers of the blog know - if there are any long time readers of the blog, I honestly don't know anymore), especially when travelling to do research. One of the authors recommended was Johanna Lindsey, on the grounds that she tended to write strong plots with interesting characters in well envisioned historical settings. I'm pretty sure that Once a Princess was specifically recommended - I know that I read it. In light of that, I decided to re-read it.

First, it was not the book that I thought I remembered. I absolutely did read this book before, but the book I was remembering featured a young  girl raised by a group of men who insisted on teaching her a variety of languages and introducing her to a vibrant array of cultures from their ranch in the American west. This is not that book (and, if anyone knows what book that actually is, please let me know, because I think [maybe] I'd like to read it again). Instead, this is the story of a young girl taken to the United States as an infant to save her from a murderous feud between her noble family and a different noble family. Many years later, the prince to whom she was affianced upon birth is sent to retrieve her. However, her caretaker died en-route, and she has no idea that she's supposed to be a princess. And the prince doesn't really want to marry her, because he doesn't really want to be king (for reasons that I don't think are ever adequately explained, but have a great deal to do with the fact that for him to be king, his father has to die, which is fair), and she doesn't believe him when he tells her she's a princess, and he thinks she's a whore because she works in a tavern in Mississippi. The historical setting, by the way, is an ill defined period between the American Civil War (there are no slaves in the story, a large portion of which takes place in Louisiana and Mississippi) and the First World War (Prussia exists, the Ottoman Empire exists). Actually, because Prussia exists, this is perhaps an increasingly poorly defined period between the American Civil War and the creation of the German state - pre-Franco-Prussian War, perhaps? Or, maybe, Lindsey just didn't include any slaves in her story? Oh. Wait. The first page includes a date - 1835. Lindsey just decided not to include slaves in her story. Which brings me, roundabout and topsy-turvey, to my second point - this book has not aged well, at all.

I think I can say, with some degree of confidence, that Lindsey is generally well regarded as an exemplar of the romance novel genre. This book has a lot of classic elements of the genre. The principle characters both loathe each other upon first sight, yet find each other inexplicably attracted to each other at the same time - loathing and lust at first sight. There are a whole series of mistaken assumptions on both sides (she's a whore! [no she's not] He's lying! [No he's not], she must want to be rescued from her miserable life [she does not], he must be trying to take me away to a fate worse than death [he is not], and so on). These mistaken assumptions, naturally, make a romantic consummation unlikely, until they can be swept away by a series of much needed frank conversations in which the assumptions are presented, laughed at, and then discarded. The novel ends, naturally, with a happy marriage (based largely on mutual lust and physical admiration - the characters have little to nothing else in common with each other except for stubbornness and a tendency to yell at each other when they don't get their way). All of that is standard enough, and the antics of Tanya and Stefan as they attempt to figure themselves out, and get away from each other, and get back together with each other are amusing enough. What bugged me, exceedingly, in my re-reading is that Tanya's agency is completely destroyed. She goes from a plucky tavern worker who has every expectation of inheriting the tavern when the current owner croaks, and sees this (legitimately!) as a good life, to being a princess, with all of the restrictions attached to the classic state of princessness (lack of freedom in terms of marriage, lack of control over her life and choices, status derived entirely from her use as a dynastic bargaining chip, utter lack of any sort of agency whatsoever, etc). Not only does Stefan physically remove her from her previous life (it's not kidnapping if she agrees to it, am I right?), when she manages to escape and successfully return to her tavern, she finds that he has a) gotten there first and b) purchased and subsequently sold the tavern out from under her so she has no recourse but to come with him back to a tiny European nation that she has never even heard of, let alone thought of being from. Also, and equally upsetting, the sex is juuuuuust this side of rape-y - Stefan is prevented from forcing himself upon Tanya on at least one occasion because he is so drunk he passes out. Tanya is depicted, because of the historical period, as having neither experience with, nor desire for, sex. There are character reasons for this as well - Tanya is depicted as being stunningly beautiful, but consistently disguises herself so that no one in her regular life knows this (this is a strong element of her creation of agency - she knows that, as a beautiful woman, she will be pressured into marriage, and thus lose control of the tavern and her future life). The upshot is, however, that she is a virgin who doesn't want to have sex - is, in fact, almost incapable of knowing that she could possibly want to have sex - until her desire to have sex becomes completely overwhelming (because Stefan is so freakishly desireable [but only to Tanya - he has scars that every other woman can't get past {although they WILL sleep with him, because he will eventually be king, and that's worth overlooking some scars, am I right?}]). And yet (in another delightful trope), when the sex does happen, Tanya is both deeply aware of what she wants and highly skilled at providing what Stefan wants. So that's all right, then.

Anyway, my broader point is that this book has some serious issues that, in my callow youth I was able to overlook, but now I find glaring and unforgivable - not unlike Stefan's scars. (Also, clearly, some really interesting material, from an analytical point of view - but that's not what we do here!) Also, and this is totally petty, but the back cover looks like this:

And that scene NEVER happens! T here is no love-making in a lake with lily pads, even though the characters tromp all over Mississippi and Louisiana. So, there's that.

So, what do we do with that? What I suggest is this - read Deborah Blake's Wickedly Wonderful instead. It's a modern setting, and it is a paranormal romance, but it has a lot of similar elements. There is the mutual loathing and lust at first sight. There is a prince (although he's not the male lead). There is some mutual misunderstanding (and a truly delightful flounce by Marcus Dermott, the male protagonist). Beka Yancy is a Baba Yaga - a witch with Eastern European roots. There's even a boat! But, critically, no one relinquishes their agency, the sex is both consensual and realistically mutually satisfying. Further, there's both surfing AND an enormous Newfoundland dog (who is really a dragon). So, you can't go wrong with Blake (unless you don't like that sort of thing, in which case read something else).