Joint review: The Italian's Future Bride, by Michelle Reid

Tumperkin read this one and asked me to chime in. I did, with my usual brevity.

First, Tumperkin:

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.

Jessica?

************

Hey T!

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.

Monday Stepback: Even More Random Than Usual

The occasional links and opinion post, on the week that just was…

Links of Interest

In Slate, The Purpose of Science Fiction:

That said, our job is not to predict the future. Rather, it’s to suggest all the possible futures—so that society can make informed decisions about where we want to go. George Orwell’s science-fiction classic Nineteen Eighty-Four wasn’t a failure because the future it predicted failed to come to pass. Rather, it was a resounding success because it helped us prevent that future.

A response from The New Yorker’s Book Bench (Via @Book Bench)

Sawyer writes that it “raises profound questions about who should have the right to create living things and what responsibility the creators should have to their creations and to society.” This seems like a good prescription for writers of any sort, who are creators of “living” literature. Is Gary Shteyngart’s novel “Super Sad True Love Story” sci-fi or literary fiction? Who cares? In a reality increasingly permeated with science, as the lines between reality and manufactured reality, science and art, creator and created fade, it follows that genre lines should, too.

While I agree, I can’t help but find it interesting how literary types refuse to allow genre distinctions when they place anything good on the genre-only side of the divide.

*****

Robin @Tuphlos Bradford posting at Lauren Dane’s blog about libraries(via @Mike Cane):

The book culture is about sharing. The book culture is about falling in (and sometimes out of) love with books. Readers talk, extensively, about breaking up with series and authors. There is a stop, though, between “I love this series” and “I’m done with this series” and that stop is: the library. Long running series would be a lot shorter without the library. When readers are tired of reading the same book June after June, they stop buying. New authors have come along they would rather spend their money on. But if the library has the book, they may make an effort to keep up if they still have some interest left in the tank. Maybe the last two books were horrible, but this one looks promising, so they’ll check it out from the library. If it works, interest may be re-ignited. If it doesn’t work, the breakup may be final. But do you really think people will keep buying books they have no interest in reading? Really?

*****

I really enjoyed this Totally Hip Book Reviewer vid from WaPo book critic Ron Charles. My favorite bit is when Charles says: “Oh, I’ve just been handed a note by the 92nd Street Y asking me to speed things up” while a “Refunds available in the lobby” shows on screen. (via @mathitak)

*****

In the NYTRB, philosopher Ronald Dworkin’s essay on What is a Good Life? I thought readers of this blog might appreciate this bit:

If we want to make sense of a life having meaning, we must take up the Romantics’ analogy. We find it natural to say that an artist gives meaning to his raw materials and that a pianist gives fresh meaning to what he plays. We can think of living well as giving meaning—ethical meaning, if we want a name—to a life. That is the only kind of meaning in life that can stand up to the fact and fear of death. Does all that strike you as silly? Just sentimental? When you do something smaller well—play a tune or a part or a hand, throw a curve or a compliment, make a chair or a sonnet or love—your satisfaction is complete in itself. Those are achievements within life. Why can’t a life also be an achievement complete in itself, with its own value in the art in living it displays.

*****

Interesting: Author Pseudonyms: Helpful or Harmful, with lots of examples, at Don’t Talk Just Read.

*****

Read a Book for Ten Minutes Each Night and Save Publishing? Author Sean Cummings thinks so. So does my son’s third grade teacher.

*****

From the Online Education Database, the 50 Best Blogs for Humanities Scholars. Devoid of  the good feminist blogs, like Feministing or Feminist Philosophers, devoid of the good blogs devoted to race issues, like Racialicious, and a very heavy focus on blogs attached to print journalism. *sigh* (via Books Inq.)

*****

An amusing critique of the concept of author branding. What Color is Your Font, by Steve Weddle. Good discussion in the comments, too:

Think about what makes you buy a book. It’s the postcards, right? The bookmarks left behind at the signings? You know, that’s how most of the books on my shelves were bought. I saw a catchy postcard near the register at the bookstore and said, “Damn. Look at that postcard. That’s the same font I saw on a bookmark last week. That author must tell a damn good story.”

*****

Don’t ever interrupt me when I’m readin’ a book…

*****

A different look at piracy from an author in the Phillipines. (via @cjewel):

The problem with discussions of eBook piracy, or simply giving away your work for free, is that it doesn’t affect everyone equally. If you’re popular like J.K. Rowling or Stephen King, then it’s mostly a loss to you, since you’re not really after fame but income (to say nothing of the futility of stamping out each and every pirate). To obscure writers, like say a genre writer in the Philippines, it’s probably more of a gain, since we’re not popular enough in the first place to acquire a sufficient following to earn a significant amount from our writing. My friend Lavie Tidhar laments that his books aren’t being pirated and to a certain extent, piracy is a popularity metric; if no one is pirating you, then there’s little demand for your writing.

*****

A helpful video … How to Strip DRM from Your Kindle books (via @janel)

*****

A fun contest (closes some time on Tuesday I think) from Smart Bitches celebrating 6 years of blogging. Sarah Wendell asked entrants to post their 6 favorite things about romance. Over 300 entries provide an interesting — and fairly consistent — list of top attractions, especially “escape”, “HEA”, and “the men”. Wendell may or may not have promised to devise a contest post mortem pie chart.

*****

From Tricia of Literary Sluts, You’re Not a Traditionalist, You’re A Snob.

*****

Someone started a rumor that Ellora’s Cave doesn’t publish forced seduction stories and Kelli Collins sets them straight.

*****

Two authors make the case against writing reviews: Stacia Kane, demonstrating the fine art of digging a hole, here, here, here, and finally here. Also Jeanine Frost.

*****

I noticed a romance website that was formerly flash free has succumbed to the allure of the flash ad. Finding these ads a huge distraction from content, I decided to reintroduce Flash block. I soon became greedy and upgraded to Adblock Plus. Bliss!

*****

Personal

I spent the entire Sunday in bed, at first thinking I was hung over from my late night at the EURO LOUNGE (cue disco music and very bad martinis), and then, by 10:00am, realizing I was just sick. I read Michelle Reid’s The Italian’s Future Bride, at Tumperkin’s suggestion, which I found depressing, and we plan a post on it soon. I also hope to publish that post on Lover Awakened.

I also watched a few episodes of Spartacus: Blood and Sand. I can’t remember the last time the sheer power of good looking men kept me glued to the screen. But it sure happened yesterday:

Now that I am recovered, I am back to PBS of course.

HAPPY WEEK!

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