When “the world is too much” with Miss Bates, when she’s “in disgrace with fortune” and has had the work month from hell, when Friday rolls around and fatigue comes cheap … she reads an HP. HPs are Miss Bates’s preferred escapist reading: the caricatured masculinity of the uber-hero, the moral goodness and myriad virtues of the often-misunderstood heroine (even heiress-party-girls are good and secretly self-sacrificing). Setting is set at minimum and the over-wrought physicality of the hero and heroine’s attraction is strung so tight Miss Bates hears zinging as she reads.
Thus was Sarah Morgan’s The Sultan’s Virgin Bride. Smooth, coconut-flavored chocolate, an espresso as dark as our hero’s eyes and Morgan’s PC-not tale and Miss Bates rejuvenated on a weary Friday night.
When Saturday’s grey-fogged incipient dawn crept into her room, however, she woke with thoughts whirling. She’d enjoyed every moment of her HP; however, niggling and annoying considerations sidled into her consciousness. She’s going to impose them on you, dear reader. Bear with her. This be reader response.
To the HP reader, there are no spoilers. One of the HP’s virtues is its predictability. But if you don’t read them and you’re reading this, there might be mild ones. HPs require the suspension of your suffragette and post-suffragette sensibilities.
“These stories are all about passion and escape – glamorous international settings, captivating women and the seductive, tempting men who want them.” This from Harlequin’s Writing Guidelines for the aspiring HP novelist.
Miss Bates calls the HP romance fiction’s id, the romance novel’s version of kitsch. In the romance genre’s orchestra, it is the highest note, the most strident. In its prose, it’s rococo. Like a glutton at a buffet, like a cat lapping the milk, Miss Bates relished it. And she’ll be ever-returning too.
“Like a predator he lay in wait, his powerful body still and his eyes alert and watchful” is the opening to Morgan’s The Sultan’s Virgin Bride and a fine HP opening it is. It establishes our hero’s wolfish nature, Sultan Tariq bin Omar al-Sharma’s of Tazkash, “the most eligible bachelor in the world, relentlessly pursued by scores of hopeful women. A man of strength and power, hard and tough and almost indecently handsome.” At a high society charity ball, he awaits our heroine, Farrah Tyndall, with barely suppressed impatience and a cold plan in his head … his heart, dear reader, is as dry as the desert from which he hails.
He wants control of Tyndall Pipeline Co., and plans to attain it by marrying Farrah, who possesses a stake in the enterprise, the 20% that Tariq doesn’t. By marrying her, he will do so, but there’s more to it than that. He and Farrah had a short, passionate affair when she was 18 and he a neophyte sultan … an affair never consummated, youthful arrogance and misunderstanding tearing them apart. This history is palpable in their present meeting and serves as a wedge to any reconciliation. Farrah is still strongly affected by Tariq, but now as then, doesn’t trust her tender heart to him. Tariq sees Farrah, and all women, as shallow, superficial, materialistic, and vain, ” … just like every other woman he’d ever had dealings with. She cared about nothing more important than shoes, hair, and the state of her nails.” He will marry her, ensure control of her father’s company and invoke a Tazkashian law that allows him to divorce her after 40 days and nights. He’s not happy about the marriage, but he’ll do it for his people’s future, “It was a sorry state of affairs, Tariq mused silently, when the wishes of a woman dictated the flow of business.” Tariq’s chauvinism is so over-the-top, it’s hilarious … it has to be.
Once Morgan sets up the hero and heroine’s past history, present encounter, and conflict, the HP’s most overt element comes into play: the inability of the hero or heroine to control their bodies’ responses to the other. No other sub-genre of romance, maybe the paranormal (though Miss Bates doesn’t read them and can’t speak with any authority) has bodies at such a fever-pitch of sensation, nor characters so much at their bodies’ mercy: “Although he was careful to betray nothing, he felt everything inside him tighten in a vicious attack of lust. Desire, hot and fierce, gripped his lean, athletic frame and, for a moment, he was sorely tempted to drag her from the ballroom and make use of the nearest available flat surface.” Farrah’s reaction is immediate and succinct and droll, ” … she was shivering like a whippet.” Morgan then, as the best in HP does, keeps these feelings in isolation to hero and heroine, neither aware of the effect he/she has on the other; Farrah thinks “He was a man who revealed nothing. She was ruled by her emotions and he was ruled by his mind … he’d already stolen the only part of herself she’d ever valued. Her heart.” Flee, Farrah, flee … the predator senses his prey.
Once they’re in Tazkash, Farrah is even more deeply at the mercy of her body’s response, “She stared up at him, his dark, compelling gaze holding her captive. Shocked by the intensity of feelings that washed through her body, she felt suddenly dizzy and disoriented.” Farrah’s legs can barely hold her upright when she’s in Tariq’s presence, which allows him to hold her up, grasp her arms, come in for a close-up and carry her around like an infant. By the end of chapter three, Miss Bates didn’t know if she’d make it to the end, especially in light of this great post at Something More on our response to problematically un-feminist passages in the romance novels we read. The HP is to a feminist as history was to Joyce’s Stephen: a nightmare from which we are trying to awaken.
Once Farrah and Tariq are in Tazkash, Farrah comes into her own: in love with Tariq, desperate to get away from him, she’s at the end of her tether in trying trying trying to be a good girl, to be what others want her to be, to please, to get and go along. No, she figures she’s going to just let go and be her natural spontaneous, emotional, snarky self. It’s fun and Morgan’s wit is hilarious, ” ‘You’re well and truly stuck in the Stone Age. When it comes to women, the average camel is more advanced than you.’ ” Nevertheless, the HP can still run to type: she behaves like an ninny by running off to the desert in a sandstorm and Tariq behaves like a condescending a — hole. In a caveman scene of driving prowess and condescension, he brings her back and convinces her to stay. He has decided, at the unfamiliar feeling of worry for her that he’s experienced (too male-dense to realize it’s Love) to ensure his business deal (but the reader knows it’s his male uncommunicative way of saying I want, need, and care for you), that he’ll woo her with friendship.
It is at this suspension of sexual tension, this hiatus of humanity instead of animality, that the heroine’s POV can triumph. Herein, once again, is the VINDICATION of the feminine, if not feminist, POV. In sharing banter and confidences of childhood memories, upbringing, joys and sorrows, opinions, meals, walks, outings, thoughts, ideas, etc., in CONVERSATION, the heroine tames and captures the predator; but she is hoisted on her own petard because, in doing so, she realizes that she loved him all along, and loves him more than ever now. But she’s not the naïve girl she was at 18; she’s stronger, more mature, and with a deeper understanding and compassion. She recognizes that Tariq cannot love or confide in another because he hadn’t been shown how to love and trust as a child: his mother, indifferent and dead in her prime; his father, concerned with duty and responsibility. No one had ever played with him. Our predatory sultan is now our Poor Little Rich Desert Prince. And once a woman’s soft heart is engaged, it’s like a dog with a bone. Tariq proposes and Farrah plunges into their marriage knowing in her heart that he loves her and hoping that her love and affection and friendship will help him open up and say that he loves her too. Until she finds out about his original scheme regarding a 40-day business-marriage-divorce plan; then, hell hath no fury …
The requisite hero-grovel follows, but it’s not as grovelly as Tariq merits. Morgan imbues him with his original chapter-one magnificence and dignity. When he speaks, it is about giving a little on both sides, about compromise, honesty, openness. Our virtuous and now-vindicated heroine can give a little too … and go back to him with a lighter heart, a vindicated POV, and a rosy future.
There is satisfaction in reading Morgan’s The Sultan’s Virgin Bride and no less because of the fact that, despite the baroque diction of the category, Morgan is a good writer, humorous and adept with neat turns of phrase.
Morgan’s The Sultan’s Virgin Bride is available in the usual places and formats. Miss Bates purchased it herself.
What of you, dear reader, what is your choice of escape when you’re at the end of your tether? When you need to put your feet up and turn the world off?