Iris Johansen’s The Lady and the Unicorn was published in 1983; it is available to readers via Loveswept’s digital reprints. This is a romance novel stamped with the flaws of its time and a reader must suspend certain sensibilities to enjoy it. Enjoy it Miss Bates did, however, even while gritting her teeth and squirming with embarrassment in places. No matter its failings, Johansen is a lovely writer and can paint a scene with beauty and subtlety. For that alone, it is worth reading.
The compelling opening to The Lady and the Unicorn puts it in the Brontë Camp of romance novels. For this reader, one of whose favourite novels is Jane Eyre, this is a sure way to hook and reel me in. An original scene opens the novel: Janna Cannon rappels into millionaire Rafe Santine’s fortress, his “Thornfield,” determined to convince him to donate prime development-bound real estate to her employer, a wild life reserve looking for a new home for its wards. The associations to Jane Eyre are immediate: a lowering citadel; a heroine named Janna, an orphaned innocent with an independent spirit and a moral and spiritual bent; a hero who is irascible, discontented, impatient, officious and, to quote the Bard, at a point in his life where “man delights not me, nor no woman neither.” Though brooding, petulant, and seemingly indifferent to her, he’s affected by Janna’s beauty and purity. Her conquest of his stronghold walls is a foreshadowing of her triumph over his emotional ones. (Even her last name, Cannon, is indicative of the power she’ll have over them.) Like Jane Eyre, Jenna is cared for, coddled, protected; she converses as an equal and roams the grounds, experiencing sublime natural surroundings.
Johansen’s writing is graceful, fluent and makes interesting use of natural and animal imagery. The romance is structured around these metaphors and they both elevate and damn it. On the damning side, Rafe strikes a deal with Jenna: he will donate the land and she, in turn, will spend two months isolated in his fortress as his “pet.” Jenna is the “gazelle” that arouses his “hunting instincts.” Metaphors of hunter and prey, pet and keeper necessitate the reader to suspend certain sensibilities regarding the novel. Rafe and Jenna work out their relationship on the basis of this uncomfortable premise, made worse by the fact that Jenna is part Native American. Jenna is stereotyped when Rafe calls her “my little earth mother,” “Pocahontas,” and “little doe.” Rafe holds her captive, manhandles her, and flies into jealous fits. He is always, as he tells Jenna, on the brink of “losing control.” Thus, Rafe is the beast and Jenna the dove who will tame him. He, in turn, will domesticate her and rein her desire for the open spaces and independence. A distasteful scenario of captivity and compulsion.
The Lady and the Unicorn comprises passages of beauty; the writing is consistently polished and flows with ease and grace. As I said above, the use of animal and natural imagery elevates the novel and makes it worth reading. The reader will appreciate and enjoy the lovely passage where Jenna tames Rafe’s vicious guard dogs, the descriptions of the wild and craggy lands that surround Rafe’s castle, whose beauty sustain Jenna’s spirit, and the comfort Jenna draws from the splendor of a sunset when she is sorrowful. Most importantly, the legend of the lady and the unicorn serves as an elucidation of Rafe’s volatile, capricious moods and meteoric personality. In the end, Janna is free to decide her role in the legend and the answer lies in love, compromise, and sacrifice for both characters.
There is much to love about The Lady and the Unicorn and much that one can deride too. It is undeniable that the descriptive writing is a cut above; it is true that Johansen deftly makes use of a charming mythical reference. In the end, it reminded me somewhat of Laura London’s Lightning That Lingers, with the animal and natural world coming to bear upon the romance. You won’t like everything about it, but you won’t easily forget the lady and her unicorn either.
“Almost pretty.” Northanger Abbey
This review is the result of a generous e-ARC from Random House/Loveswept via Netgalley.