Along with the frisson of utter delight that the first commentator (Pamela from Badass Romance) to MBRR gave Miss Bates, in the exchange, she articulated what always pulled at her when she read Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Yes, Jane got her man, a little broken, but she got him; yes, in the end, she was an heiress. Yes, she had her allotted babies, an indication he wasn’t broken where it counted. Jane won her glorious HEA. More than anything, however, in reading Jane, Miss Bates asks: quoting Hamlet (because Shakespeare always says it better) why do we endure “the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes”? Why indeed? Why does Jane endure the nastiness of Rochester’s house-party, the fortune-telling fiasco, Blanche and her mother’s jibes, the horrible aunt and cousins, the evils of Lowood? (To a certain extent because she has to, but let’s not be reductive, Jane never is.) Why do we sob in self-pity when we read these passages and secretly remember every hurt to our self-worth and read on and on even though reading causes us pain? Because at the end of Jane Eyre, at the end of every GREAT romance novel, the heroine (or whoever stands in for the “heroine,” but that’s for another discussion) isn’t just LOVED, SHE IS VINDICATED. Hah, we say, see, she showed them! (The ugly-duckling-fat-girl-awkward-girl-heroine incarnates our vindication fantasy … maybe it’s even sweeter than getting your man, the foiling of the queen bee and bullies?)
And herein lies the pleasure of Courtney Milan’s Unlocked. Does it get any better than the golden-boy bully, who tormented you and rendered you a shadow of your youthful, hopeful, bursting-with-life self, turning into love’s supplicant? You, the water in his desert, only you to slake his thirst. This happens to Lady Elaine Warren, who at her début, was thereafter teased, ridiculed, and scorned by Evan Carleton, Earl of Westfeld and his partner-in-crime and cousin, Lady Diana Cosgrove. He returns, after years of mountaineering, guilt-ridden, contrite, apologetic, and prepared to make amends for his former execrable behaviour. He also harbors a secret: at the time, he desired Elaine, yearned for her attention, but could only muster these mean-spirited means to get it. He still feels this way about her, but knows that the trust he’s broken cannot be repaired. He sees that Elaine has withdrawn into herself, lost her zest for life, and approaches every social event with trepidation, wishing only to remain unknown and unseen, anything to avoid negative attention. Needless to say, every attempt at apology, or reparation, is met with her assumption that it is a set-up to machinate a yet greater humiliation. Heck, he even proposes marriage: foolish Evan, as if a girl would ever accept a pity-proposal! How Evan breaks down her defenses, becomes her knight-errant, champion, knight-in-shining-armor, and best friend is an attempt at one of the great heroine vindications in a romance novel that Miss Bates has ever read. Does it succeed?
Spectacularly! And, as result, weakens the romance, which is not to say that Miss Bates didn’t enjoy it and thinks it worthy of readership. It is very thoughtfully and well-written. It is moving, heart-wrenching in places, and a nice punch in the faces of bullies and queen bees. Just like Evan tore Elaine down, he builds her up. But this is not a narrative that leaves the heroine without a will and spirit of her own. If there’s one thing that Jane too had plenty of, it’s will and spirit; as she says to Rochester, “I am a free human being with an independent will.” Jane withstands the “spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes,” from all and sundry without ever losing herself. Elaine is less defiant, but with Evan as her champion, she does, in the end, stand up for herself, recognize her own worth, and take centre-stage in the wolf-den of the haute monde.
On the romantic front, the first six chapters of Milan’s novella were wonderful: engaging, honest, poetic. The metaphor of Elaine as locked and Evan as the key is sustained beautifully. But, something happens at chapter seven and a didactic note is evident in the narrative: from thereon, the romance is in service to the message and some warmth is lost. Maybe the problem lies in the hero’s grovel that comes so early and makes the first six chapters so strong? Miss Bates thinks “Unlocked” is, like all of Milan’s work that she’s read, far superior to many other romances because it’s so original and interesting. But there is a loss of zest here, a spark going out … it’s Evan’s earnestness, his relentless conversion to Elaine’s cause that impoverishes the zing of the romance.
There’s Elaine, Katie to Evan’s Hubbell. Remember K-K-Katie in The Way We Were (one of Miss Bates’s favourite films) and Hubbell, unreachable, unattainable golden boy? How hard Katie pushes to win him, with an iron will, humour, and the chutzpah she’s gleaned from the jeers and catcalls: Katie – “I’m a very good loser.” Hubbell – “Better than I am.” Katie: “I’ve had more practice.” Maybe The Way We Were is a more realistic ending, “Your girl is lovely, Hubbell,” but doesn’t make for vindication. Elaine is vindicated and maybe in the process Evan-Hubbell has to eat so much humble pie that he’s not half as vibrant as he could be, but neither is Rochester, pathetic saddened creature that he is at the end. It’s hard to find that perfect balance of vindication and romance: Miss Bates thinks Brontë manages it. The Way We Were rejects it in favour of some realistic failure and loss: nobody wins; Katie and Hubbell are less than they could have been because they don’t manage to make room for each other to be the most each can be. She could have stayed home from that protest when she was pregnant; he could have made room for her politics. What they had to work out was not insurmountable. That’s what makes the romance genre, when it’s done well, so hopeful and positive. In the face of the bully of reality, pow … here’s an HEA; it may not be perfect, there may be imbalances, but it’s there.
This isn’t much of a review, Unlocked served as a kind of catalyst here, but Miss Bates would urge you to read it for Milan’s “mind lively and at ease” with her ideas, characters, and the strength of her metaphoric language. Miss Bates would certainly like to know what you thought of “Unlocked.” Moreover, can you think of some “vindication” romances you’ve read and loved? (One of Miss Bates’s favourites is not a terribly PC one, but she periodically pulls it out of the Keeper Shelf, sobs over it, and celebrates the HEA, Judith McNaught’s Paradise! Actually, any Judith McNaught she thinks would qualify.)
Miss Bates read Unlocked on her e-reader, where you can too if you care to purchase it from your choice of the usual places. She can’t be sure, but she thinks she may have nabbed it at a time when it was available free of charge.