REVIEW: “Charlotte Lamb’s HOT BLOOD: Passion/Dispassion”

Miss Bates was fascinated by Lamb’s Hot Blood and all that it implied, but she didn’t love it. She couldn’t embrace it as one would a beloved stuffy, a comfort read, a well-worn volume on the keeper shelf. It is a cat, sleek, mysterious, interesting, but definitely not cuddly, or warm. It engaged her and made her think about what defines inspirational romance.

Miss Bates reads, reviews, and enjoys inspirational romance, but has been dissatisfied by its definition and parameters. Inspirational romance is denominationally defined. (The no sex, no alcohol rule is also found in many “sweet” romances. None of these things in the hands of a master writer will detract from the creation of a deeply moving, interesting romantic narrative.) What inspirational romance lacks is plurality.

After reading Hot Blood, Miss Bates would argue two things: first, that inspirational romance and its readers would benefit from an expansion of their delineations; two, romance novels in general, non “inspirational” ones, like Hot Blood, would benefit from being examined through the lens of their religious implications.

Hot Blood was the final volume in Lamb’s “Sins” series and a fascinating concept. Hot Blood, Miss Bates thought in the course of her reading, is inspirational romance, though niche publishers and readers of the genre as described above would not recognize it as such. There is no God talk, and none of its characters practice any religion. Yet, it emerges with a theologically correct position, for want of better words. The key to understanding and appreciating this is evident in Lamb’s characterization; what matters in looking at the novel through this lens is not who these people are, but how do their instinctive selves behave. What do their bodies do as they are overwhelmed by emotions? What makes Lamb’s novel a romance with religious implications is a turning away from the passions, the “hot blood” of the title, to a movement, for the characters, towards “dispassion.” In the romance novel as envisioned by Lamb, this is a movement away from eros and towards agape.

There isn’t much to the plot of this novel; yet, certain unusual elements drew Miss Bates to it. The hero and heroine are in their fifties and they’re sexy as hell. Kit Randall is divorced and a grandmother; her lover, Liam Keble is a widower and grandfather. They’ve been lovers for two years. When the novel opens, they are estranged because Kit wants to marry, but Liam is commitment-shy. There are secondary love interests, Joe Ingram and Cary Burnaby respectively, who exacerbate the main couple’s volatile relationship. Though there is no physical or verbal abuse in this novel, these two seethe with rage, hatred, and jealousy. Note some of the language and imagery Lamb used to describe her characters and build an argument which privileges dispassion over passion:

Kit’s eyes are, “wide, glittering and sharp like shards of broken green glass in sunlight.” (7)

When Kit sees Liam, “She looked at him with love and anger, wanting to smack him hard.” (32)

When Liam confronts Kit about being seen with Joe, “his tone [is] as cutting as a knife going through silk,” and “he bit out like someone snapping cotton between their teeth.” (35) (The grammatical error in that last one grates.)

In just a few pages, note how physical responses represent their extreme emotions: “Are you dating Joe Ingram to stick a knife in me?” and “His voice was angry” and “Face burning, she angrily said,” and “His mouth twisted cynically” and “She bristled, glaring at him” and “she asked in pain” and “His eyes flashed; she felt the violence seething behind his face and tensed” and “her face clenched in misery and anger.” (44 – 47)

As emotions reach feverish intensity, Lamb pens Miss Bates’s favourite little passage describing one of Kit and Liam’s many confrontations, “Across the table their eyes met, like the eyes of deadly enemies with drawn swords between them” (112). These characters are out of control, their passions, or “hot blood,” rule/rules them, so much that their arguments take on a force “as if they had been fighting physically instead of verbally.

One of the ways in which Lamb intensifies the tension between the protagonists is by making Liam’s actions and reactions a mystery to Kit. (Indeed, Miss Bates enjoys this also in Betty Neels’s romances.) The hero is a closed room to the heroine. By staying strictly in the heroine’s consciousness, without accessing the hero’s, the hero holds as much mystery to the reader as he does to the heroine. Note the following passage from Hot Blood: “Yet Liam was still mysterious to her, his responses and emotions as indecipherable as some ancient script scratched on a primitive artefact. You could sometimes make out a line here or there, but the meaning of the whole defeated you. In fact, she was sure that he did not want her to know too much about him” (42). Miss Bates thinks that this is what makes the alpha hero, a hero whose motivations remain mysterious. He remains mysterious, unknowable, other.

As our protagonists boil and seethe and clench their teeth and turn red, even “fuchsia” for poor Kit, as their tempers run rampant and burst out of them uncontrollably, Lamb places her novel squarely in the inspirational camp, establishing an argument for dispassion. Passion puts these characters in a hellish realm. Indeed, the character who speaks for dispassion is none other than Liam’s foil, Joe Ingram, a war photographer who has witnessed what the rule of the passions brings to humanity. He says to Kit, ” ‘I want to believe in things again — in innocence and goodness and kindness. And people. Most of all, I want to like people and believe in them, without getting laughed at for my gullibility. I wanted to get up in the morning without being afraid that before I went to bed again I’d see people being blown apart or tortured or raped’ ” (87). “Hot blood” is outside of the rational, outside of attaining Joe’s “innocence and goodness and kindness.”

Lamb puts sexual passion in that realm too when she writes about Liam and Kit’s reconciliation in their love-making as, “her blood had begun to run like wildfire through her veins” (156). When Liam finally reveals the reason he was reluctant to marry, even though he loved Kit and was eaten by jealousy over her friendship with Joe, it involves “hot blood,” a traumatic experience he lived through with his wife (trying to avoid a spoiler here). “Hot blood” makes a character weak because he/she is not in control of him/herself. Anger, jealousy, lust, these are the passions that beset our protagonists and only dispassion can set them free to love, to be good to each other, to be kind to each other. When Kit and Liam finally come to this loving point, Kit in particular does so as a rational being in full control of her will and heart; her love for Liam and his for her is genuine, freely chosen and given, and will lead to a shared life of loving equals, “it had come at last in a mood of warm contentment, a shared happiness, not in the hot blood of their lovemaking” (188). Agape over eros, dispassion over passion.

This is a provocative and interesting read. In rendering her judgement, Miss Bates must look to Miss Austen’s own propensity for dispassion in creating/critiquing her most pro-passion heroine, Emma, when she described her thus, “A mind lively and at ease.”

(If you’d like to read Hot Blood and Miss Bates recommends that you do, it is available digitally, or used at the usual places. It was published in 1996 by Harlequin. Miss Bates picked it up for pennies at a church bazaar because the hero and heroine on the cover are grey-haired and the coverlet on the bed is kitschy.)

6 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Charlotte Lamb’s HOT BLOOD: Passion/Dispassion”

  1. I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the concept of “dispassion” as I begin to revise my second book–I want my hero to be working towards a state of “Zen” or emotionlessness without actually having him know about or practice Zen Buddhism. (Of course, the heroine will come along and shatter all his illusions of being emotionless!)

    Another author that does an excellent job of telling a story while remaining solely in the heroine’s perspective is Susan Napier. All of her work is great, but “In Bed With the Boss” is one that is particularly good.

    And now I need to track down a copy of “Hot Blood”….

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    • Hi G.,I’m writing from a massive invigilation gymnasium, so I hope to make sense! Whodathunk that the romance novel could be married to the notion of dispassion. I had so much trouble with this post &, in the end, was thoroughly discontented with it. It’s so generous of you to write! I also love the idea of your dispassionate hero, do write him. I guess dispassion even in Buddhism, which fascinates me, is not about “emotionlessness” per se, but about the SUFFERING that comes from desire taking over our being, or any extreme emotional state. So your hero is going to suffer in this state until he makes his peace with his love for the heroine! Voila! I can’t wait to read it.

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  2. Miss Bates has crafted a provocative and interesting review post of a novel to which I would not otherwise have given serious consideration. I rarely read contemp romance and don’t specifically seek out older H/h titles. Second Chance At Love is one of my favorite tropes, however, and a couple in their 50s is suddenly more intriguing to me for non-literary reasons…. 😉
    It does sound like they fight a lot, and I’m not sure how appealing that is, but I love the way Miss Bates has linked their emotional journey to fundamental inspirational tropes, compelling on a deeper level than that provided by fiction with a specific religious context.

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    • Tee hee, truth-telling here: Miss Bates too was encouraged by a couple in their fifties, and an HP no less! No one’s a billionaire though, and that too is refreshing. Liam and Kit run an antiques business (here’s another metaphor to be explored)! Kit’s the real heart of the novel: she’s vain (love that!), she’s smart, she’s unhappy, short-tempered, lonely, sad … such a range of emotions in a character is very interesting to read. There’s one very problematic passage that Miss Bates bypassed:

      “The heart is the centre of a woman’s world, not the body, she thought. Women give birth to the next generation, nourish, and protect, but above all love it. A child needs love as much as it needs food and it’s a woman’s instinct to give it that love; that is why women are driven not by their emotions but by their instincts. Women are closer to nature’s heart, more down-to-earth than men — they have always needed to love and be loved because they understand the necessity of love.”

      Have you run for the hills yet? What does Lamb mean by distinguishing among heart, body, emotion, instinct?

      As for the inspirational implications of a romance narrative, it is a topic that I do find very interesting, maybe more interesting than those romances that designate themselves as inspirational. When you read inspirational romance, you know exactly what you’re getting; its religious outcomes are as sure as its HEA. But in a romance that doesn’t name itself as inspirational, while the HEA and other aspects may be predictable, the religious themes may be implicit, but very interesting as in Hot Blood. The Wikipedia article on Lamb says that she was educated at an Ursuline convent. I do wonder how much of the Catholic doctrine of the seven deadly sins permeated this series … there are seven books in the series!

      And it would be refreshing to see inspirational romance being written not only from the perspective of a variety of faiths, but inspirational romance that includes the depiction of characters coming from a variety of faith perspectives, including agnostic and atheist. That would be a much more realistic depiction of what people of faith experience on a daily basis.

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      • Hmm – I think if anyone can get me interested in inspirational romance, it may be Miss Bates, especially if we take the liberty of this inclusive and broad definition of romance that is faith-inflected, if not necessarily faith-based.

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        • Pamela’s generous heart is showing! Even Miss Bates finds a lot of inspirational romance to be the Pollyanna of romance. I do like your “faith-inflected” though, a lot, like a little brushstroke in a painting that can change the whole picture. Miss Bates is definitely more attracted to, and interested in, the implicit religious message in a text than well the … truth be told, proselytizing nature of many, not all but many, a romance narrative. There’s just more to think about.

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