Miss Bates is content to return to her neglected TBR Challenge! Check it out chez Wendy here. This month’s theme was to read a nominated, or winning Rita title. Because Miss Bates is pathetically slumping along to Ros’s Summer Big Fat Book read-a-long, she chose a category romance. They’re short and she’s already behind the BFB, and summer reading piles litter her apartment and slow down two e-readers. (Way too much time on Twitter for Miss B.; also lolling, gazing at sunbeams, and sleeping in. It’s a feline life.) Reading Rita winners was one way Miss Bates segued into romance: their annual nominated and winning title lists provided tried and true romance reading as Miss B. figured out what she liked and didn’t in the genre. (Shudder PNR.) It was with nostalgia for her early romance reading days that she looked at titles she’d added to the TBR from these romance reading baby steps. Marion Lennox’s Her Royal Baby won the 2004 Best Traditional Romance. Woot! thought Miss B., category, baby, Rita winner, and an author that she’s wanted to read for ages thanks to some nifty reviews over at Dear Author lauding Lennox’s more recent category novels. The whole royalty thing is not to Miss B.’s taste, no blood is blue she says, but she liked the cover. Miss Bates doesn’t regret her choice, but boy oh boy, was this ever a flawed and floundering effort.
Lennox’s Her Royal Baby sets up a solid conflict, as long as the reader accepts the premise that Europe contains countless picturesque principalities. Prince Regent Marc, of Broitenburg, travels to Australia to ask Tamsin, “Tammy,” Dexter, tree surgeon, to release her nephew, Henry, heir to the Broitenburg throne, to his care. Except for one tinsy-winsy problem: Tammy didn’t know her nephew existed until Marc appeared. She’s estranged from her bad, fortune-seeking mother and flighty society girl, also fortune-seeking sister, Lara. She didn’t know that Lara died in a skiing accident with Jean-Paul, her husband and then Prince of Broitenburg, Marc’s cousin. Tamsin is good, honest, and poor, a women who saves trees, a woman hated by her evil mother and ignored by her beautiful sister. Baby Henry needs her soft heart and loving ways because the ten-month-old royal infant has been ignored beyond his basic daily feeding and hygiene needs. He is a desultory baby because he’s never been loved, cuddled, or spoken to. Tamsin is a lonely woman who needs to love badly. She won’t hand Henry to Marc to be raised in cold-hearted luxury by competent, emotionally-void nannies. Marc, in turn, doesn’t want the throne: he wants to leave a stable, democratic country to Henry, but to lead his own life. He’d never been a part of the castle scene, or Jean-Paul and Lara’s dissipation. Baby Henry is Marc and Tammy’s battleground: she pulling for love and cuddles and privacy; he pulling to Broitenburg and caring for Henry with the idea that he’ll take over the title when he comes of age. Marc convinces Tammy to compromise by moving to Broitenburg, with Henry, where they continue to squabble over his upbringing and are swept up in an uncontrollable fierce passion for … each other.
Romance narrative has a sister-soul in melodrama: exaggerated protagonists and antagonists and centred on evoking and portraying emotion. It differs, of course, by its domestic setting. Even romantic suspense, or thriller-type romance narratives ease into domestic dénouement. But melodrama, like revenge, is a dish best served cold. It dwells in sentimentality: as feeling prevailing over sense. What better example than the category obsession with wealth and royalty? Those cold social constructs of power and privilege (not sure that’s what they are, but nevertheless, MissB’ll go with it for her argument’s sake) mitigated, humanized, and domesticated by feeling: in traditional romance (as Her Royal Baby was designated by RWA), the humanizing influence is brought to bear on wealth and privilege by heroine and children. Moppets are not everyone’s cuppa, but their presence makes sense in romance narrative. The skilled and inspired romance writer wields melodrama/sentimentality with a fine and knowing hand. Throw in irony and wit and the result is pretty nifty; witness Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels. Sadly, in Miss Bates’ estimation, Lennox did not do so. Her emotional pitch is set so high, the reader is beset by notes too strident and out of control for enjoyment.
The Badness (containing spoilers)
There are reasons: the protagonists’ back-stories and hysteria of their physical contact (not too much, folks, just burning kisses) thoroughly internalized and weak in light of the dearth of “quality” time they spend together as a couple.
“She learned early that solitude was the only solution to pain,” we learn of Tamsin. Tamsin has a horrifically evil, negligent mother and subsequent bad bad childhood, now dead, formerly drug-addicted sister, and emotionally catatonic nephew. Her magic touch returns him to emotional life. She learns that her brother-in-law was a drug addict and his friends tried to feed drugs to Baby Henry as well. Gasp. Topping off the nastiness, Baby Henry’s nannies have been emotionally-stunted automatons. Things don’t get any better for studly Marc: his father had an affair with Jean-Paul’s mother. Devastated, his good, loving mother committed suicide when Marc was twelve; subsequently, his father drank himself to death. Jean-Paul ran a corrupt régime and near bankrupted Broitenburg. By which point, Miss B. was squirming. Maybe these back-stories established motivation for actions taken, or not taken, in the romance? Except … um … there wasn’t much romance. Tamsin and Marc squabble over Henry for the duration. Except when they kiss.
When kissing transpires, celestial beings sing a hallelujah chorus. Check this out (be warned, if you’re still reading, Miss B. quotes ad nauseum):
Sense had nothing to do with it. Logic had flown out through the vast French windows [of course, when Miss B. loses her sense, it flies out windows, but not French ones. She be poor.] … For now, there was only his absolute need. He needed her. For this moment he needed her like life itself. She was his home. His heart. His life … [smooch smooch] … She was responding! … This woman was his life, he thought incredulously. He could feel it. She was the other half of his whole … [this vein continues for FOUR PAGES in chapter eight.] …
[And in nine.] He couldn’t even put her away from him. Not when she clung to him with such passion – such a fierce wanting – as though she recognized that here was her mate. Here was his home …
[Next chapter, folks … again the smooching] Why didn’t she fight him? he wondered in that tiny part of his brain that was capable of such thought. [Think about this one.] She should kick him and run. [Miss B. was guffawing big time … kick’im in the shin and RUN OUT THE FRENCH WINDOWS.] … Her lips were opening under his, a rose unfurling from bud, and it was no longer anger he was feeling. The fury was surging out of him to be replaced by an emotion that was even stronger. [And that would be what other internalized monological emotion?]
… All his life he’d avoided this, and here, under his hands, was the thing he’d tried desperately to escape. She was his woman. His! Half of his whole. [This guy really knows how to do the math.] He’d never known he was incomplete, and yet she fitted to him as though he’d been torn in half at birth and not known. Until now, when she melted with such searing sweetness … He couldn’t move. He could only hold her and kiss her and feel the surge [Here we go again with the surging.] of change rip his whole being. Tammy …
And Tammy? [She doesn’t surge, but she does merge with nifty Bardic quotation.] Like Marc she was powerless to stop even if she’d wanted to … What had Shakespeare said? ‘A consummation devoutly to be wished.’ A consummation. That was what this was, she thought dazedly. A consummation … She was merging into him right now – changing – learning that there was a whole sweet world that had been locked to her until now. But for now there was only him. The feel of him. The wonder. The aching need. So her lips welcomed him, her hands clung and she felt her body light with fire. He was her man. For this sweet time – for this minute, maybe, if that was all there was – he was her home.
Miss Bates was exhausted. A breakdown of language and writer not in control of her material. She understands what Lennox was attempting. D. H. Lawrence said, not sure where but in reference to Lady Chatterley’s Lover?, that what he was trying to convey in language was that which is beyond language: union with the other. Romance writing often tries to do the same. Sometimes, it succeeds (read Cecilia Grant’s A Lady Awakened right now); sometimes, it doesn’t, as in Lennox’s case. In Miss B’s estimation, the reason isn’t complicated: it has to be accompanied by a whole lot of other stuff, the most important being, communication. It can be silent and smoldery; it can be banter-ish. It can take the form of dialogue, or gesture. But it has to be there and it has to be there A LOT. Even Mellors and Constance communicate before they consum/mate. Marc and Tammy bicker and spend an awful lot of time in their heads (sadly, we do too), but they don’t communicate. They don’t understand where each stands, and comes from. They don’t connect, except for Soulful Canoodles.
The Goodness (not too spoiler-ish, but if you’re going to read the novel, stay away)
Lennox’s Her Royal Baby is not pernicious; it shows promise. Said promise, however, is evident at the beginning and end, the middle pretty much what you’ve read above. Her Royal Baby uses a great framing device. When the novel opens, Tammy’s up a tree in the Australian outback. Marc arrives in full princely regalia to convince her to give up Henry. It’s a great scene: gently humorous, again with plenty of room for head-space ruminations, but charming and fun. The final scene has Tammy up another tree in Australia. Marc’s back too: this time to tell her how much he loves her and propose marriage. It’s a great scene: head-space ruminations at a minimum, pretty cool avowals, great use of “falling for you” metaphor as Marc precariously makes his way up the tree … if only the middle bits had been as good.
Marion Lennox’s Her Royal Baby didn’t live up to its Rita-winning promise, though Miss Bates would give Lennox another try. This “royal baby” had a “high claim to forbearance,” Emma.
Miss Bates bought Her Royal Baby out of her spinster’s savings. Published by Harlequin, it’s available in “e” only, at the usual vendors.
What have you read, dear reader, that you went into with “high hopes” only to have them dashed?
Alternately, Miss Bate is fascinated by the breakdown of language in romance, where the attempt to capture emotional or physical experience is out of the writer’s control. What instances have you encountered in your romance reading?