Welcome, Willaful, to the Alphabet Challenge! Whittling the TBR one letter at a time! For her “E” read, Willaful read a meh m/m romance, but her voice is droll and astute.
Miss Bates returns to her personal, too-long-abandoned TBR challenge: reading through the Doddering TBR one alphabetical letter at a time. She last posted in this vein in September of 2013! In tackling “e,” Miss Bates opted for a book about which she knew bupkis, but whose cover drew her: a foxy-looking pooch, pretty little girl, and smiling man in high-waisted jeans and bare feet, also leis … it looked awful and turned out great. In Margot Early’s 1996 Harlequin Superromance, Mr. Family, Miss Bates had the rare experience of reading an unexpected, unusual, a true original of a romance. Mr. Family blew her away: it was unlike anything she’s read in romance fiction in ages. Though it dragged in a few places, and its suffering-protagonists’ pitch had strident moments, it was terrific. She hopes that her post urges some of MBRR’s readers to try it: she’d love to hear what new readers make of it. It stands a cut above mundane contemporary romance in several ways: its believable portrayal of a modern marriage-of-convenience narrative (with epistolary element!) its treatment of grief and loss, self-loathing and sexual frigidity, its extensive creation of a cultural context for the protagonists and portrayal of religious ritual that isn’t Christian romance-inspirational.
What must be fully appreciated about Early’s category novel is her treatment of the marriage-of-convenience trope in a contemporary romance. Usually, these are silly: with broken condoms and alpha-future-dads insisting on “legitimate” fatherhood; alternately, reasons for the marriage-of-convenience may be expedient, practical reasons which are work-, or “keeping-up-appearances”-related. Early’s set-up is more convincing and interesting: she cements the marriage-of-convenience between Californian Erika Blade and Hawaiian Kalahiki Johnson in fear, vulnerability, and control. Kal Johnson, 30, tour guide, former rock/folk star, widower, and father to a four-year-old, advertises for a wife, requesting a celibate marriage based on friendship and a share in his daughter’s, Hiialo’s, upbringing. Erika Blade, 36, an artist, responds to his ad, after discussing it with her friend, Adele Henry, who admonishes her, ” ‘I think you’re afraid to take risks, and you’re trying to stay on familiar ground.” Adele’s loving words are true. Erika is afraid, but she is unsparing in acknowledging the truth of herself to herself.
Like Kal, Erika’s story is filled with uncertainty and pain. She hints at this when she thinks about what she wants to get out of responding to Kal’s advertisement, “Erika wanted permanence – if she could get it without more change. She’d known too much of that.” Daughter to a Jacques Cousteau-like figure, whose untimely death marked her, Erika is a woman who’s lived in someone’s shadow and known no permanent home, living most of her life on board various boats. A terrible car accident implicated with the death of her sister-in-law, Skye, left Erika in a psychosomatically-induced state of paralysis for years. At the same time that she was suffering thus, she took on the care of her nephew, Chris, and lived with him and his grief-stricken father, her brother David. Presently, David is in love and remarried; Erika feels at odds. She is able to walk, albeit with a limp, but is unhappy and restless, her art not selling and her heart despondent. She and the still-grieving-for-his-beloved-Maka Kal are in their respective corners, seeking the light of another person’s warmth, not quite reaching out … and yet, within the confines of Kal’s “conditions,” taking emotional risks.
This novel is delicately and beautifully written; the characters’ cautious reaching out for love believably and sensitively rendered. Initially, Kal and Erika correspond and occasionally talk on the phone. They spend months getting to know each other. Ostensibly, they do so because Kal wants a stepmom for Hiialo and Erika wants to be a mother. His question in his first letter to Erika is about her parenting philosophy: Erika responds by quoting Kurt Vonnegut, “Damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” His response is as astute and honest, “Maka and I were married for seven years, and no one can replace her in my heart. I want no other lover, and I would prefer to live alone, if not for Hiialo. Please understand this because, as you said, we all need to be kind.” Kal wants a celibate marriage to stay true to what he and Maka shared and Erika wants one because she is repulsed by sex. Miss Bates appreciated that Erika didn’t feel this way because of trauma. She just did.
Kal and Erika correspond for five months before they agree to a visit to Hawaii. This novel’s beauty lies in Kal and Erika’s reticent emotional and physical awakening, an awakening that is incipient in their circumspect first meeting. They experience more physical awareness and attraction than they expected. But Early is too good for insta-lust and insta-bed “beast with two backs.” Theirs is a slow movement to mutual satisfaction, with frequent and abrupt breaks and reversals. They talk and get to know each other. Erika meets Kal’s extensive ohana, family, and learns, from Kal, about the flora, fauna, and customs of Hawaii. The novel is as rich in description as it is in emotional intensity.
At times, Early’s romance novel is uncomfortable and awkward, as if the reader walked in on friends, or family in a semi-intimate moment. The novel is raw and honest and pokes at the romance reader’s comfort level. Kal and Erika are surprised at how attracted they are to each other, how much desire they feel for the other. Kal especially wants Erika, but he’s gentle, considerate, honest, and still in pain over Maka. He’s torn between the vow he’s taken to a dead woman and his desire for Erika: life and desire for connection in every way win. He says to Erika, ” ‘I’m lonely, Erika. I can’t help what’s happening. I knew you don’t like sex.’ ” Erika is honest too, ” ‘I’m not afraid … ‘,” she tells him, ” ‘I’m repulsed.’ ” Yet, she’s in love with Kal, aware of him as a man, finds him attractive and desirable, “He was like the ocean for her. Necessary. Sometimes healing, sometimes too scary.” Exactly. Because he starts a slow, patient, loving, gentle seduction. The key to Kal and Erika is to understand that intimacy, emotional for Kal, physical for Erika and yet the reverse as well for both, and vulnerability, their fear of loss and abandonment are their impediments. They’re good people and they love each other: like most marriages born of love and desire, imperfections are not as important as the desire to be together, to take a chance to be happy together than lonely and doubtful apart.
Kal and Erika marry. Their love-making is not easy, but it’s raw, honest, authentic, and believable. The reader understands and acknowledges how well-matched they are: the reader can imagine them years from now, still happy, still loving, but never perfect. Never diminished in the false perfect happiness of the HEA. In the end, Kal and Erika, together, take part in the “bon dances,” a Buddhist ritual Miss Bates didn’t know about. “Bon dances” take place in Hawaii (among other places; Japan, for example) as a series of elaborate and ritualized movements, if Miss Bates understood correctly, a way of “dancing” the dead to their peace. (Miss Bates watched a few on You Tube and was moved to tears.) Kal and Erika contend with mortality: for Kal, Maka’s death and its emotional devastation; Erika, the loss of her sister-in-law and how it was bound up with guilt and regret. Margot Early’s Mr. Family is about the pleasures of the flesh when it is shared in a union of love and friendship and the dance of life that unites us to the dead, in living at peace with them and letting them go to their peace.
Margot Early is an original. Or at least Mr. Family was. Have you read her novels, whether Mr. Family, or others? Please tell Miss Bates your impressions of them. If not, is this a novel that you would interest you? Have you read other novels which handle the issue of frigidity? Grief, loss? Which ones? How do they handle these subjects?