Tumperkin read this one and asked me to chime in. I did, with my usual brevity.
Jessica, don’t take this the wrong way, but when I read this book, I thought of you.
Before I say more, let me contextualise the comments that are going to follow a little bit:
* Whilst Michelle Reid is not an autobuy author for me, I’ve read and enjoyed a number of her books in the past;
* She writes a particular brand of angsty, contemporary category romance (squarely within the HQPresents-paradigm) that I rather enjoy;
* This book suffers from “camel-back-breaking” syndrome i.e. the things I am going to complain about crop up in lots of other romances but sometimes, as a reader, a particular issue will come to a head when you read a particular book.
So what was the issue here, for me?
It started, when I read the following passage that takes place after the H/H have had a one night stand and realise they have not used a condom:
“Marriage comes before babies in my family,” he enlightened.
Marriage – ? “Oh, for goodness’ sake.” It made her feel sick to her stomach to say it, but – “I’ll take one of those m-morning after pills that – “
“No, you will not,” he cut in.
She stood up. “That is not your decision.”
His silver eyes speared her. “So you are happy to see off a fragile life before it has been given the chance to exist?”
“God, no.” She even shuddered. “But I think it would be – “
“Well, don’t think,” he said coldly. “We will not add to our sins if you please. This is our fault not the fault of the innocent child which may result. Therefore we will deal with it the honourable way – if or when it comes to it.”
Do I even need to say why I find this passage so objectionable?
Firstly, there’s the positioning of the morning after pill as equivalent to cold-blooded murder. Clearly there’s a whole debate about the morning after pill that segues into the debate about abortion. However, it’s not really that that I want to address. The thing that offends me here is the positioning of this complex issue, on which there are different views, as something which is essentially a “no-brainer”. Whilst the heroine raises the possibility of taking a morning after pill, it made her feel sick to her stomach to do so.
As if that’s not enough, we get a patronising, oppressive hero who decides that the heroine oughtn’t to have a say in what happens to her own body. Well, don’t think, he tells her, charmingly. And “We will not add to our sins if you please” … a prissy, paternalistic statement that made me want to eviscerate him.
For me, this strayed beyond the vocabulary of the standard domineering hero. This was the hero as a figure of authority (high status, older, male) and he was saying: don’t think, you have no say in what happens to your body, you will do as I say. To say it was a clear affirmation of the patriarchy circa 1956 would not, I think, be far off.
I want to emphasise again that this is not precisely an unusual passage to read in a romance of this type. And I don’t want anyone to infer that I am projecting particular views onto Ms Reid. I have no idea what Ms Reid makes of this particular issue. Further, many category romance plotlines (particularly in the Presents line) depend on core notions/ values that aren’t consistent with the social mores of the real world the reader lives in. (See this recent post on Teach Me Tonight, in which Laura Vivanco explores the divergence between reader values and book value ).
The passage above was extreme enough to prompt me to tweet about it, but even then, I think I’d have forgotten it had there been nothing else of note in the book As it was, however, the particularity of the morning after pill scene then proved to be just one example of a wider issue: the alarming control exercised by the hero over the heroine’s physical body. He has her followed when she goes out, telling her when she returns “I know where you have been… Tony works for me, not you”; When he takes her out to meet his friends and she strikes up a conversation with them, he takes her chin in his hand and turns her to look at him to say “You are here with me … don’t ignore me.” He acts as though he owns her:
His scrutiny paused right there and suddenly something else was adding to the turbulent mix. Rachel knew what he was thinking. She felt the muscles around her womb clench tightly as if it was acknowledging that it already belonged to him.
But if the heroine is a uterus on legs, at least she’s an attractive one. The H/Hs mutual lust in this book is – as is again typical in this paradigm – extreme. If only it wasn’t so completely rooted in the body, I might be able to believe there was something between them that might last more than five minutes.
So those were my thoughts.
Well, the scene you started with — the morning after pill — jumped out at me as well. In later passages that view of the morning after pill is concretized:
She felt like screaming! He really, truly and honestly believed that she was ruthless enough to calmly take something to rectify the wrong they had done, his wonderful fatalist attitude giving him the right to believe that his morals were superior to his own.
Why not tag her off as a woman who was capable of seeing off a baby before she was even sure there was one?
Later, the couple uses condoms, but this is inconsistent. If it is morally wrong to “see off” one possible (nonexistent, potential) baby, why is it not morally wrong to use condoms, which, like Plan B, attempt to “see off” another possible baby? In fact, it may be her moral duty not only to not attempt to prevent a contraception, but to have as many pregnancies as possible, a position memorably satirized by Monty Python.
Every sperm is sacred
Every sperm is great
If a sperm is wasted
God gets quite irate.
Perhaps they believe, wrongly, that Plan B not only prevents contraception, but prevents implantation in the uterus after conception, which would make it not a contraceptive but an abortifacient, at least under Vatican law (but not according to the AMA, which considers anything that prevents pregnancy in first 7 days after intercourse, regardless of whether conception and implantation has taken place, contraception). They would be wrong, by the way, on that. But characters can be factually wrong, as real people so often are.
And of course, characters can be conservative. Rachel is definitely very conservative sexually, at least when not actually having it, several times, with a complete stranger. For example, after their first conception-free interlude, Rafaelle — sensibly — asks Rachel about her sexual history, and she thinks, “she now had to endure the kind of conversation that belonged in a brothel!”.
Also, characters can be logically inconsistent, just like real people. Sometimes this makes for great reading.
Finally, also, as you say, none of this necessarily reflects the writer’s actual beliefs, and it wouldn’t matter to me if it did. The author’s actual beliefs are not relevant for reasons I set out in some detail here.
While I agree with you completely on the chilling and probably illogical nature of the ethical assumption in the Plan B scene, I think the failure of the hero and heroine to even consider Plan B was also problematic from a literary point of view in two ways, the first of which is minor, and the second of which goes to the major problem I had with this book.
First, these two do not know or like one another. Put aside their failure to use or even consider contraception. The big question is: how likely is it that a sexually experienced American woman of no discernible religious conviction, who is comfortable enough to sleep with a stranger, would feel this way about Plan B? And that the hero would as well? Very unlikely, but they have to feel this way for the plot to unfold. So, as a reader, it feels very forced.
Second, as you say, he takes control of her body and mind from the get go, and never gives it back. When they first meet, she kisses him (as part of an elaborate plan which I won’t go into) and just that one public kiss apparently licenses kidnapping her (“she’d never felt so afraid in her entire life … the panic had not subsided”), holding her hostage, and surveilling her for the rest of the book. After he literally drags her back to his apartment, they talk, and then she finds herself “being dragged down the hallway… her wrist still his prisoner … she had to follow where he pulled…”.
This woman gets nowhere except by being dragged or otherwise compelled by a man:
How did she get to Europe in the first place?
“No wonder Mark [the brother] dragged me back here.”
Rachel’s old boyfriend Alonso shows up at one point, and he, too takes immediate physical control of her: “Rachel found herself engulfed by the pair of arms…then found herself being kissed … She tried to pull back but he was not letting her. … And it was, just like old times, when he had used to sweep up in one fast car or another without a care while he waited for her to scramble in next to him. … Now it just scared her witless…”. And on and on.
You have already pointed out she is not allowed to think. He doesn’t let her speak, either. As you pointed out, mid book, he asks her if she enjoyed her day without him, and when she tries to answer, he interrupts her:
“I know where you have been,’ he cut in. “Tony works for me, not you.”
This takes place well after we are told that their relationship is now based on more than sex. Um, yes, it is also based on his power and control of her. Even in the last scene, he interrupts Rachel as she is trying to explain something, and instead of being annoyed, she thinks, “What a waste of breath.”
Rachel is constantly off balance, literally and figuratively. Reading about Rachel’s adventures was like reading about a bowl a bowl of jello, not a human being (these quotes span the entire book):
“the little tremor he could see happening with her lips”
“tense, apprehensive big blue eyes.”
“her legs had gone hollow”
“Rachel tensed … a strange little laugh”
“beginning to feel disturbingly hollow”
“taking a few shaky steps away from him”
“Rachel bit down hard on her bottom lip to keep it from quivering.”
“Rachel found herself coming to a trembling halt in yet another doorway.”
“Rachel’s stomach started rolling sickly.”
“…she tossed out helplessly”
“Her pink upper lip gave a vulnerable quiver.”
“… leaving her trembling and shaken…
“Rachel hovered, wanting to go to him but still too scared to move.”
She can’t even decide how she feels:
“She was too busy trying to decide if she was dizzy with relief because he hadn’t thrown her out to face the paparazzi alone, or if she was dizzy with fear over what was still to come.”
“Rachel stripped off her clothes and walked into the bathroom, not sure if she wanted to throw things or cry her eyes out.”
The woman cannot even pick a drink, answering “I don’t know — anything” when he offers one.
When Rafaelle forcibly kidnaps and confines her, she thinks: ““He had every right to be angry. She had no right to be anything at all.”
Rachel does eventually gain one active desire, that Rafaelle “want her for herself, and not just because she was here for the taking.” But she never questions why she is “here for the taking.” Why does this modern woman believe that one stolen kiss allows him unlimited access to her body?
And yet, in Rafaelle’s eyes, Rachel is not scared, uncertain, or worried. She is a femme fatale. A seductress who holds all the cards. He refers to her as “a fantasy siren most men would kill to possess”, “the sex nymph”. And how’s this for a good example of the double bind: “He’d been tempted by sirens far more adept at their craft.” If she’s bad at seduction, she’s bad, and if she’s good at it, she’s worse.
Another example of the double bind, and of twisted thinking, while I’m at it: in the opening scene, Raffaelle looks around at the women at a party, and thinks “Expensive tarts in expensive dresses were ten-a-Euro to buy in this room.” He mocks the women with “breasts implants and carefully straightened and dyed blond hair. They circled the room eyeing up victims…”.
And yet, Rafaelle, disgusted as he is with women, is obsessively interested in how they look. When he first meets the heroine, Rafaelle looks her up and down and wonders if the carpet matches the drapes. He checks out her cleavage. He even wonders about his stepsister, “Were Daniella’s breasts her own?”
Gee, why do some women expend so much effort on their appearance? Attracting a male partner has no bearing on anything in a woman’s life. And besides, men do not even care about these things. So inexplicable! Must be because they are greedy and vain. Ayuh.
But the main thing is really that this heroine begins and ends as a non-person, a trembling, reactive, rudderless ball of mush. A ball of mush who is supposed to be grateful that a handsome hero takes any interest in her at all, no matter how controlling and autonomy-defeating that interest is. And, because she appears in the romance genre, I am supposed to at least cheer for her, if not identify with her. I know that it is cool to like Presents. I know I am supposed to be clever and hip and ironic enough to read this thing as a coded fantastical message of female empowerment. But I just couldn’t.