Truth be told, as far as romance reading goes, Miss Bates is a category aficionado. Now that she’s somewhat extricated herself (and she was the sole person responsible for putting herself there) of the ARC-shackles, and given that the day job will make relentless demands on her until Christmas, you can expect A LOT of category reading and ruminating. Liz Fielding is an auto-buy and go-to author for Miss Bates. Why? Because the writing is laudable; characters; finely drawn; and, there’s humour and gravitas to the story. For example, Miss Bates loved the 2004 A Family of His Own, with its broody hero, grubby gardener-heroine, and gardening metaphors out of Wilde’s “Selfish Giant.” Fielding’s The Sheikh’s Guarded Heart has similar elements: an oasis-garden setting, a loving heroine, a cute moppet, a brooding, suffering hero and elegant writing. And the idea that the love of a good woman can water the soul of a brooding hero. Was it a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience for Miss Bates?
The Sheikh’s Guarded Heart has a dramatically magnificent opening scene. Brit Lucy Forrester is driving a 4×4 like a circuit driver to reach her husband, Steve Mason, a tour guide camped in the desert of Ramal Hamrah. She is hellbent to “confront the man who’d betrayed her.” She’s “dehydrated, hungry” and soon rolling into dunes, trapped in a flaming jeep, reminiscent of “the fire-and-brimstone sermons preached at the church her grandmother had attended.” An “angel” cuts her out of the seat-belt and hauls her out; she notes before she passes out that “the angel looked real enough, though, as he flew down to her on wings of gold.” The angel is Hanif al-Khatib, the Emir’s third son. Hanif’s only feeling as he saves Lucy is an “overwhelming sense of guilt.” The scene is tightly told and we learn a lot about our hero and heroine without the boring back-story that makes up the start to many a romance. Miss Bates loved the opening.
Hanif takes Lucy to the hospital in Rumaillah and cares for her himself, “Having saved her, I am responsible for her.” Though, as we’ve learned from Lucy’s harsh upbringing, she should recoil from Hanif’s ministrations, his care of her is figuratively, and beautifully described, in terms of dry- and lush-ness, of watering and caring for her body as if it was a garden, “He was tenderness itself and her hot, dry skin, dehydrated and thirsty, seemed to soak up the moisture like a sponge.” The scene between Hanif and Lucy in the hospital is beautifully rendered as he affords her succor and dignity by bathing her wounds and making her comfortable. His slow, methodical tenderness is lovely. When he takes her home to his private hunting and riding pavilion in the desert, Randah al-‘Arusah, “The Garden of the Bride,” to heal and deal with the mess that is her life, Fielding has a great scene where Hanif washes Lucy’s hair with the same solicitude and gentleness. Lucy wonders at his care, “You’re a stranger. You need help. I was chosen.” She responds, asserting her Western sense of self-reliance and grand-mother’s harsh lessons, “I’m in no one’s hands but my own.” “We’re all in God’s hands,” he replies. Miss Bates loved this confrontation between Protestant “Harsh” Christianity and Islamic surrender to God in the figures of Lucy and Hanif.
Most of the novel takes place in the secluded, walled garden and pavilion, reminiscent of Jane Eyre, her Rochester, and Thornfield … reset in an Arabian desert. While there is no mad wife in the attic, Hanif is haunted by a dead wife, Noor, a wife he loved and lost when she refused to accept therapy for leukemia in order to save her unborn child, Princess Ameerah, who shows up at Randah al-‘Arusah and gains Lucy’s love. Hanif cannot bear to be near the child and disappears for weeks, while Lucy and Ameerah play and laugh together. He returns and, in a Rochester-like confession, explains himself to Lucy thus, “I apologize for abandoning you. I have black moments when memory overwhelms me and I am not fit company for man or beast.” Hanif has isolated himself in The Garden of the Bride, grieving for Noor, but also angry with her for choosing the child’s life over her own. He feels betrayed and abandoned by Noor. But Lucy misunderstands him, misjudges him when she decides he would have supported Noor’s decision had the unborn child been a son, “his instincts were still those of a primitive tribal chieftain for whom women were no more than the expendable vessels who provided them with sons.” Though this was not clear, the suggestion is that Hanif could not forgive Noor for sacrificing herself for a girl baby; doing so for a boy baby would have been understandable, if no less painful to him. Hanif neither denies, nor affirms Lucy’s misjudgement and the novel collapses on the basis of one too many portrayals of sacrificing, saintly motherhood. Add to that one too many comments about Lucy’s worth on the basis of her virginity and Miss Bates’ disappointment was complete.
[BE WARNED: SPOILERS FOLLOW.] While Hanif and Lucy get to know one another in the desert paradise, Lucy’s marriage stands between them. Fielding is good at portraying honourable characters and Hanif and Lucy are nothing if not honourable. While Hanif and Lucy may not outright discuss her sex life with her husband, Lucy often ponders how she and Steve were never intimate. She’d mistakenly thought it was because he was considerate of her chastity and innocence, which is pretty weird considering conjugal relations are potentially one of the joys of marriage. Let’s not forget, thought Miss Bates, that Lucy is 28 YEARS OLD. Yet, Hanif is so virgin-attuned that he thinks, ” … she [Lucy] retained the air of a virgin, had all the instincts of a princess.” “Please,” thought Miss Bates, “I was really enjoying this till this moment.” Then, the thousand-and-one-nights prettiness of setting and sheikh were shattered by Hanif’s summoning Lucy’s husband to the oasis. He’d had him investigated and his worth was nil for Lucy in Hanif’s estimation, but he wanted Lucy to have a chance to confront him, or for Steve to show his love for her. Lucy, in the mean time, unbeknownst to Hanif, started divorce proceedings against Steve. What a mess when Steve shows up and what a mess this novel turned into, thought Miss Bates. It turns out that Steven’s assistant, Jenny Sanderson, was also Steve’s pregnant WIFE, who colluded in what he did to Lucy … but Lucy is so virginally saintly that she defends Jenny’s actions to Hanif, “I ask your mercy for the girl who loves him, her unborn baby.” Hanif is in love with Lucy; he can’t deny her. Jenny, like Noor, turns out to be a sacrificing mother figure and Hanif helps her to leave Ramal Hamrah. But not Steve: Steve is to experience the full brunt of Hanif’s power and vengeance. Miss Bates guesses that things could have been worse for Steve were it not that Hanif notes, “He [Hanif] hadn’t needed Mason to tell him that he had not touched his wife [that would be Lucy, in this case], had not stolen from her the one thing that he could never return.” Not her faith in humanity … but her virginity. Miss Bates likes to read romance with decent protagonists, or ones who are capable of redemption, but with the spice of a little moral ambiguity, or internal conflict. However, the moral elevation of the virgin heroine is symptomatic of an unreasonable judgement of a womanly ethic that is unrealistic and simplistic. To give Fielding credit here, Hanif is pretty idealized as well.
In the end, Hanif behaves well and squelches further alpha qualities by letting Lucy return to England to sort out her life. Lucy continues in her beatification by ensuring that Hanif and his daughter share a close, loving relationship before she leaves, though she loves him, claiming to herself that she is not princess material. Back in England, Lucy promptly finds a job, annuls her marriage, is promoted, and begins university. She also finds her long-lost mother, whom she thought had abandoned her, and there is another tear-filled realization of the sacrifices mothers make for their children. Hanif is appointed ambassador of his country to England and claims Lucy’s hand. Oh, and there’s a baby-filled epilogue too. But Miss Bates didn’t enjoy much of the second half of this romance novel. The beauty of the category, though, as she turned off the e-reader, is that it’s blissfully short and one can often see it through to the end, if not joyfully, at least tolerably. One is, it’s true, less likely to DNF a category.
The shorter, sweeter category romance often disappoints Miss Bates in its elevation of a heroine’s worth as an adulation of her innocence = virginity. Moreover, in this case, the portrayal of the heroine’s relentless virtue, which is associated with her sexual innocence, as if they are part-and-parcel, eventually left her character etiolated and flat. What portrayals of womanhood and motherhood have struck you about the category romances you’ve read? #notallcategories 😉