Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Wildest Heart

The second romance novel I read was Rosemary Rogers’ Sweet Savage Love. Although the book is definitely the product of another time, it had a great deal of influence on the genre and set a Rogers standard for me. From then on, I expected exotic locales, feisty heroines, violent heroes and passionate (if not always consensual) love scenes. So I tried The Wildest Heart as well.

The heroine of this book had an unusual introduction. The book begins in colonial India in 1872, and the book starts with the wives of British officers discussing Rowena Dangerfield, the teenage granddaughter of an earl. Rowena is clearly more interested in reading and “going native” than in being a lady, and I liked that. I’ve read a lot of romances, but I have only come across three where the heroine is described as wearing glasses. This is one of the three.

Unfortunately Rowena’s grandfather dies and she’s forced to leave India to live with her mother and stepfather in England (her parents are divorced). The stepfather rapes her. I found this scene disappointing, because Rowena’s response is to thump him with her fists until she’s “half-swooning with exhaustion”. I would have thought that years of living rough in India would have made her a bit more competent in self-defence.

Rowena learns that her father now owns a ranch in New Mexico and wants her to live there. When she reaches America, though, she finds her father has died and she is now co-owner of the Shannon-Dangerfield ranch.

Her father’s partner, Todd Shannon, takes an instant dislike/lust to her, while his nephew Mark also seems to fall in love with her. Though there’s a blood feud between her father’s part-Apache protégé, Lucas Cord, and the Shannons, and Rowena finds herself embroiled in that. Unfortunately, here’s where the bespectacled bluestocking of the first part of the book gives way to a passive woman pushed around, sometimes literally, by men.

For someone frequently described as intelligent and composed, Rowena makes some surprisingly emotional and foolish decisions. Todd Shannon, despite being old enough to be her father, is determined to marry her, and his way of convincing her is to grab her, call her a bitch, kiss her senseless, etc. Then he’s shot, and as he lies in a pool of blood he asks tells Rowena to marry him.

“Oh, damn you, Shannon! I suppose I’ll have to now!”

I don’t understand this. If Rowena is a woman who flaunts proprieties, if she thinks for herself, why does she need to follow the convention that swearing love to a man as he lies dying is the best way to revive him?

Of course, Shannon isn’t the hero – he is, after all, old enough to be her father. The hero is Lucas Cord, who enters the novel relatively late (on page 172). I was never able to like him, mostly because he’s in an Oedipal relationship with a woman who he believed was his mother, but who had actually adopted him.

“I thought, at first, that she really was my mother. That I was her son. It was natural for me to love her then, and I did without question. And then one day she told me. I was old enough to hear the truth, she said. It must not make any difference to me, or to our relationship, for she loved me even more than she did her own sons.”

I don’t really want to read about a hero who lacks the incest taboo. Such a character can still work, but he’ll need a lot to balance that out, and I couldn’t see much to Lucas Cord beside his universal appeal to women (normal for a Rogers hero) and his relationship with his stepmother. I suppose he and Rowena have that in common, though – they both attract people who are much older than they are.

As for Rowena, she takes whatever little she can get from Lucas, including several days of lovemaking in a tiny cabin shortly after he’s been shot three times. After all the action is over, when she’s expecting his child, he tells her that he needs to be alone but she wants to stay with him.

He had argued with her, tried threatening, even tried picking a quarrel with her.

Threatening a pregnant woman, how romantic.

The style of this novel also lets it down. Most of it is from a first-person point of view – Rowena’s, meaning that she frequently describes herself or comments on her own traits. There are also frequent infodumps, long passages where characters go into detail about their history, families, the ranch, and so on. Finally, the sex scenes are not up to par with Sweet Savage Love; those were detailed (for that time) and scorching hot.

In conclusion, the intriguing potential of the novel’s start – an unconventional heroine in India – gives way to something much less so. This novel is a reprint by Sourcebooks, released November 2009, 736 pages. A long read, and it felt even longer after the beginning.


colbymarshall said...

intriguing setting...lots of stuff set in colonial American, but I haven't read much set in India. Very cool.

Marian Perera said...

I agree - can't recall a single romance I've read that's set in India, which is a pity.

Anonymous said...

Would you consider reviewing Sweet Savage Love?

Marian Perera said...

Ah, Sweet Savage Love. Yes, if I can get a copy of the book to quote from, I'll do a review some day, though I'm planning to do one of The Flame and the Flower first. I have all the quotes I need from that, and in many ways it's worse than SSL.

Anonymous said...

I like your pieces on the old bodice-rippers, so would be interested to see what you would say about SSL; I'm currently obsessed by it again and need an outlet. Too bad fanfic wasn't wide-spread in the 1970's....