Wendy Superlibrarian TBR Challenge: Jessica Hart’s UNDER THE BOSS’S MISTLETOE, Taking the Sweet Out of Sweet Romance, Or From Heyer to Hart

Under_Boss's_MistletoeIf Miss Bates as romance reader has a romance writing twin, it’s Jessica Hart. Hart pushes all of Miss B’s romance-loving buttons: her books are a perfect balance of realism and fairy tale, emotional intelligence and ideas. (Miss Bates is indebted to Emily J.H., a Twitter friend, for inspiring this post, and hopes inspiration is with her.) All of this wondrous goodness is in Miss Bates’ latest Hart read, Christmas-inspired of course, the 2009 Harlequin Romance, Under the Boss’s Mistletoe. Miss Bates suspects that Hart’s writing is both intuitive and conscious (as the best writing is), aware of craft and led by muses and the unconscious. In Under the Boss’s Mistletoe, Hart offers a classic romance narrative arc, as defined, always for Miss B., by Pamela Regis’s A Natural History of the Romance Novel (social context defined – meeting – barrier – attraction – declaration/realization – point of “ritual death,” what Miss B calls “darkest before dawn” or “dark night of couple-soul” – recognition/overcoming of barrier(s) – betrothal/marriage/baby-filled epilogue, preferably all three!). In this case, Hart frames the narrative most beautifully with a prologue and epilogue set where hero and heroine first meet, reconciling past to present. Under the Boss’s Mistletoe isn’t quite re-united lovers, or second-chance at love, but it does bring together one wild youthful kiss shared by antagonists into their present, now ten-years-later, meeting. Let’s get the review part of this post out of the way first by quoting Audrey Hepburn to Cary Grant in one of Miss B’s favourite films, Charade. “You know what’s wrong with you?” says Audrey to Cary. He shakes his head. “Absolutely nothing.”  (All right, it lags a tad in the middle; and the dialogue sounds contrived there too as Jake and Cassie debate what makes a good marriage. But Miss B. quibbles.)

Other than the virtuoso handling of the romance narrative, what fascinated Miss Bates about this novel and, in general, novels deemed “sweet,” or “fade to black,” is how, when they’re as good as Hart’s, they portray as passionate and interesting a “take” on physical attraction and desire as more explicit ones. Miss Bates examines how the masterful Hart does so in this delightful novel. Be warned, dear reader, Miss Bates quotes the novel at length. Mixed up in these quotations are maybe-spoilers, though the joy of the novel lies in language and characterization, not plot. 

If “the proof of the [Christmas!] pudding is in the eating,” the proof of the romance is in the prose. As Liz argued at her blog, Something More, we don’t examine, or comment on the quality of the writing in romance as much as we should. Miss Bates finds Hart’s prose elegant, evocative, and figuratively assured. Whether you’re writing high-heat, or low-heat (and Miss Bates’ taste runs more and more to the slow simmer and ember), a romance novel, though we don’t often think or examine it, rises, or falls on its language. A “sweet” romance, a designation Miss Bates dislikes as it connotes “saccharine,” has an especial challenge to call up the dark gods and goddesses of physicality.

Hart is good at writing a hook: Under the Boss’s Mistletoe has a good one. No boring back-story, instead, a scene for the pleasures to come. “I want a word with you,” yells Cassie Grey, estate manager’s daughter, to Jake Trevelyan, leather-clad bad-boy of the disreputable family and motorbiking ways, and follows with, “You broke Rupert’s nose!” Aristocratic ne-er-do-well Rupert, nephew to Sir Ian of Portrevick Hall in Cornwall, is 17-year-old Cassie’s idea of a dream man. At yesternight’s Allentide Ball, hosted by Sir Ian, and also attended by his charlady’s son, Jake, Cassie kissed Jake to make Rupert jealous. Rupert, a dissipated wastrel in the making, and Jake indulged in fisticuffs. Jake left town to avoid arrest. When Cassie next sees Jake, she’s a wedding planner working for a barely-making-it company above a Chinese take-out and he’s a honed, disciplined, and uber-proper tech company Chief Executive, who’s also trustee to Sir Ian’s Portrevick Hall and fortune (not Rupert, whom Sir Ian didn’t trust to lose the whole kit and kaboodle). Turning Portrevick Hall into a wedding venue to render it self-sufficient, at the suggestion of Cassie’s Portrevick friend, Tina, (who advised Jake) and getting Cassie to do so throws these two antagonists together ten years after their youthful kiss.

Hart’s accomplishment in the ten-years-ago prologue, other than setting up conflict and characters succinctly, is to establish Jake and Cassie’s attraction and desire, an attraction she’ll stoke in the coming chapters. Moreover, when Cassie and Jake meet again, now 27 and 31, the memory of their two kisses that night ten years ago stands sentinel between them because of how well Hart depicts them in the prologue:

The coolness had become warmth, and then it had become heat, and then, worst of all, there had been a terrifying sweetness to it. Cassie had felt as if she were standing in a river with the sand rushing away beneath her feet, sucking her down into something wild and uncontrollable.

… [AND]

Cassie’s heart was pounding with that same mixture of fear and excitement, and she could feel herself losing her footing again. A surge of unfamiliar feeling was rapidly uncoiling inside her, so fast in fact that it was scaring her; her fingers curled instinctively into his leather jacket to anchor herself.

References to cold and hot, loss of control, loss of self in the physical experience are powerfully rendered in the nautical metaphor. Set by the Cornish coast, as Portrevick is, and with several seminal emotional scenes seeing Jake and Cassie strolling along it, the metaphor is set up early and well. The sand giving way beneath Cassie’s feet contrasts beautifully with her “anchoring” onto Jake’s leather jacket, symbol of his bad-boy status. Anchor and wreck: metaphors for the effects of physical desire, incipient and young, confusing and delightful.

When Cassie and Jake meet at his office to arrange for Cassie to take over Portrevick Hall’s make-over as a wedding venue, clumsy (and this makes for great comic effect, which is an entire other post) Cassie trips, near-falls, and is caught by the now-fully-adult Jake. The descriptive language, however, cleverly recalls the 10-years-ago kisses:

Her face was squashed against his jacket , and with an odd, detached part of her brain she registered that he smelt wonderful, of expensive shirts, clean, male skin and a faint tang of aftershave. His body was rock-solid, and for a treacherous moment Cassie was tempted to cling to the blissful illusion of steadiness and safety.

Firstly, Hart offers lovely details of now-Jake as successful and established. Then, she reiterates the Jake that can serve as “anchor” with references to the emotional effect his body has on Cassie even in this their first encounter after years. While the prologue is written from Cassie’s POV, in this scene, we have a notion of her effect on Jake as well:

The feel of her was startlingly familiar, which was odd, given that he had only held her twice before. But he had caught her, and all at once it was as if he had been back at the last Allantide Ball. He could still see Cassie as she sashayed up to him in that tight red dress, teetering on heels almost as ridiculous as the ones she was wearing now, and suddenly all grown up. That was the first time he had noticed her lush mouth, and wondered about the woman she would become.

That mouth was still the same, Jake thought, remembering its warmth, its innocence, remembering how unprepared he had been for the piercing sweetness that just for a moment had held them in its grip.

Miss Bates loved this Jake passage for its bridging of past and present. Hart establishes Cassie’s physical effect on Jake through his memory of her mouth. She also, economically, establishes his conflict: Jake hated where he came from, has worked hard to be a different, more disciplined, respectable, successful man … but his attraction to Cassie draws him back, repels him from that world all the more, while she attracts him uncontrollably. He simultaneously seeks separation and connection.

Jake hates the idea of losing his hard-won control, especially in that image of being in the “grip” of something: caught, trapped, inescapable. Cassie will blow him out of the water, even as he will, once again, shift sand beneath her feet. However, for both protagonists, the draw of the past, because it contains two kisses as seeds to the possibility of love, creates tension between past and present, desire and uncertainty “now”:

That kiss … The memory of it shimmered between them, so vividly that for one jangling moment it was as if they were kissing again, as if his fingers were still twined in her hair, her lips still parting as she melted into him, that wicked excitement still tumbling along her veins.

Miss Bates loved the images of light, “shimmered” and sound, “jangling” and movement, “tumbling,” that meld the memory of physicality and present desire.

To return to Regis, a romance novel falls, or rises at the moment of what Regis calls “declaration/realization.” This is usually the moment when the heroine, if the novel is heroine-centric, realizes that she loves the hero, a secret she guards close to her heart (because reasons, barriers). In a romance that brings together childhood lovers, sweethearts, or even antagonists as in this case, the moment has particular poignancy. In Hart’s case, she establishes it beautifully by making physicality the fulcrum of Cassie’s realization:

Lost in his own thoughts, he [Jake] was broodingly turning a fork on the tablecloth, his own head bent and the dark, stormy eyes hidden. She could see the angular planes of his face, the jut of his nose, the set of his mouth, and all at once it was as if she had never seen him before.

There was a solidity and a control to him, she realized, disconcerted to realize that she could imagine living with him …

Miss Bates loved that recognition/not recognition that Cassie experiences: Jake is the wild, bad boy she knew, but he’s also not. He’s the man he’s become: he’s other and familiar. The one quality that he still possesses is that he’s still an “anchor”: in their first kisses, a physical one; now, the possibility of Jake as an emotional berth.

Jake is less conscious of his feelings for Cassie; he doesn’t articulate them as explicitly as she. That is in keeping with his character’s need for control above all and fear he will lapse into his youthful follies. Rather than the declarative realizations that she employs for Cassie, Hart uses some lovely metaphors to construct Jake’s feelings for her:

She was like a crisp autumn breeze, swirling into the stultifying grand lobby, freshening the air and sharpening his senses. For a moment there Jake had forgotten whether he was supposed to be breathing in or breathing out.

While Jake’s appeal is couched in references to solidity, Cassie’s appeal is established with images of freedom, of release from Jake’s boxed-in existence. Her appeal is refreshing, revivifying, associated as it is with being in the country, in nature: but also makes Jake “forget” how far he’s come, where he is now, as opposed to that boy who kissed her ten years ago one autumn on the balcony of Portrevick Hall.

Miss Bates loved how Hart used images of constriction and release to point to Jake’s feelings for Cassie. Because Jake is such a controlled character, his responses to Cassie must remain bodily, in the organ that we most associate with love, the heart. Note his reaction when he hands her a ring for a “pretend” engagement (read the novel, there be good reasons):

Cassie raised her eyes from the ring to look directly into his, and Jake felt as if a great fist was squeezing his heart.

… [Later when he’s forced to converse with an ex who left him] … suddenly there she [Cassie] was anyway, almost as if she’d sensed that he needed her, touching his rigid back, tucking her hand into his arm. Jake felt something unlock inside his chest.

Cassie’s response to a kiss they share at the party:

The memory of Jake’s mouth – the feel of it, the taste of it – uncoiled like a serpent inside her, shivering along her veins and stirring up her blood.

As Cassie and Jake’s attraction intensifies, their physical response to each other is visceral, described in primal terms. Miss Bates particularly enjoyed the echo of something “uncoiling” in Cassie (echoing as it does her response to Jake ten years ago) and in Jake’s heart doing all manner of tightening and releasing. 😉

The elemental figures in the “close-door” or “fade-to-black” quality of the unfairly designated “sweet” romance. Acts may not be explicitly described, but the metaphoric language is powerful in the hands of a writer such as Hart. We arrive at the point where Cassie and Jake consummate their rediscovered desire, which moves them closer to love and commitment. Firstly, Hart uses the natural world of the ocean and wind to reflect the intensity of her protagonists’ desire and emotional connection, their compulsion and danger, compelled to seek bonding and frightened of the loss of self:

Cassie was intensely aware of the dull boom of the waves crashing into the shallows, of the familiar tang of salt on the air, and the screech of a lone gull circling overhead.

Later, in the scene before the bedroom door closes, similar images of the ocean’s sweep and swell and need for anchoring echo:

Cassie grabbed his shirt, holding on to it for dear life; suppressed excitement was unleashed by the touch of his lips and rocketed through her so powerfully that she could have sworn she felt her feet leave the ground … he felt wonderful, so hard, so strong, so gloriously, solidly male. She slid her arms around him to pull him tighter, her pulse roaring in her ears …

Cassie’s memory of their love-making, in its aftermath, while Jake sleeps with his arms around her, uses language that, like the best of explicit romance, breaks down in its ability to describe the unconscious physicality of the experience of love-making:

Cassie felt giddy just thinking about that heady blur of sensation. They had lost all sense of time, of place. Nothing had existed except touch – there … there … yes, there … yes, yes – need so powerful that it hurt, and excitement that spun like a dervish, faster and faster, terrifyingly faster, until they lost control of it and it shattered in a burst of heart-stopping glory.

Miss Bates loved the dervish metaphor! Cassie’s response to their love-making is to seek a deeper connection and commitment. But Jake’s is very different, much more terrifying to him emotionally; if Cassie has ridden the wave, Jake’s in the undertow:

He felt as if he were walking along the edge of a cliff, knowing that a false step would send him tumbling out of control. Jake wasn’t sure how he had got himself there, but he couldn’t turn round and go back now. He had to keep going and not look down to see how far it was to fall.

As a man with a “careful, ordered life,” Jake does what anyone would do in this position: he bolts and then, because he’s a hero, not a coward, a good guy, honest and loving, he falls. Fast and hard … the final reconciling, unifying scene returns Cassie and Jake to a windy day on a Cornish beach with the same wild ocean currents and, in a contrasting parallel of the original scene where Jake roars out of Cassie’s life, he roars back in … to stay. Cassie is shaken and the metaphor describing her feelings is Miss Bates’s sentimental favourite, ” … all her certainties were being shaken around like flakes in a snow globe.” As certainties are wont to do … when life takes a cosmic shift. Romance fiction is about the anchoring of love and hope, which is why we call it an HEA, which is why we read it in a world of uncertain ocean currents. As for fade-to-black romance, there’s really no such thing: you just have to read your metaphors right 😉

What are your thoughts, ideas, responses to the fade-to-black romance and its use of language to portray physicality?

(Miss Bates’ subtitle wanted to mirror a similar post she wrote about Heyer’s portrayal of the body in Devil’s Cub.)

 

15 thoughts on “Wendy Superlibrarian TBR Challenge: Jessica Hart’s UNDER THE BOSS’S MISTLETOE, Taking the Sweet Out of Sweet Romance, Or From Heyer to Hart

  1. My first ever read by Jessica Hart – this brings back memories 🙂 I remember finding this book at a time when I was mired in a bit of a slump and was so overjoyed to find a romance featuring “normal people” who actually “talked to each other.” I also loved that they had to decorate the hall for a Christmas photo shoot in the the middle of autumn.

    I read romance within the entire spectrum of sensuality content. From BDSM to Inspirational. And generally speaking, I really enjoy “fade to black” moments. The only time it tends to not work for me is when one (or both) of the characters have “sexual hang-ups.” Basically I want to be able see those love scenes to illustrate that they’re able to move on from whatever their sexual baggage may be. But when you have a skilled writer (like Hart is), I hardly ever miss an open door love scene. I just don’t. There’s enough on the page to keep my romantic heart more than content.

    Glad you enjoyed this one! I’m always so tempted to go on a Hart reading binge, but hold myself back for fear of running out of books. She’s one of my “break glass in case of emergency” authors.

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    • I just LOVED that image of “break glass in case of emergency” … with a Hart novel in it, sappy cover and all, ludicrous title too. And Miss B. (who stands about 4,10) wielding a great big axe of Bad Day Desperation.

      Like you, I like to read a gamut of ember to flame, though I’m too squeamish for BDSM (I took a course where I had to read the Marquis de Sade and that cured me of that reading itch forEVAH) … but whatever heat level, trope, convention, etc. a romance well-written, and by that I mean not one so darn CONSCIOUS of look-at-me-how-clever-I-am-and-cool, like Hart’s are, yes! She writes with ease, confidence, humour, but great sensitivity to characterization and sensuality too. So, yes, I lift a glass of wedding champagne to your and mine and Hart’s “romantic heart.”

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  2. Okay, I’ve got it in the TBR and am going to pull it out! Novellas and category-length novels are about all I can handle right now in the midst of pre-holiday chaos, so thank you for this timely review.

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      • Happy holidays to you and Mama B! I’ve read 4 novellas you might like–2 by Jo Beverley and 2 by Balogh. The former are available digitally, and the latter aren’t . . . but I’m sure they will be in time. And two charming short stories by Ros Clarke. I’ll try to start the Hart tonight.

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          • The Beverleys are *A Mummers’ Play *(available in e-format) and *Twelfth Night *(only in print). I liked the former better because it had an unusual premise and an ending that was more HFN than HEA. I haven’t read it yet, but Beverley has a free Christmas story on her website here: http://www.jobev.com/xmasnup.html. The Baloghs are *The Surprise Party* and *The Best Christmas Ever*, and both of them featured long-separated lovers, which did my *Persuasion*-admiring heart good. Let me know what you think of the Clarkes!

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            • Also two Edith Layton novellas that were good: The Rake’s Christmas and The Dark Man. My comment with the Beverley and Balogh titles in it contains a link, so I hope that doesn’t keep it from going through.

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            • I read a chunk of Under the Boss’s Mistletoe last night, and it’s as good as you’ve said. The writing is smooth and lovely, and I’m glad that I have several more of her titles in the TBR. The Devil’s Bargain is also in the TBR, so I’ll make that my first Layton novel. Her prose is a bit mannered, but once I got used to it, I could see how her books would be just as reliable for me as Balogh’s or Duran’s. Thanks again for the recommendations!

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            • Any time: you’re most welcome. I’m so glad you’re enjoying it; love to hear your thoughts on Devil’s Bargain whenever you’re done. I know holiday season is busy!

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  3. Ah memories…I’ve read and adored this one, too!

    Like Wendy, I read all over the sensuality spectrum and I find that as with anything “fade to black” romance works well in the hands of a good writer. Jessica Hart does it well, and there are others who can create fantastic tension while leaving the actual sex scenes offscreen. Susanna Kearsley is another who comes to mind, and if you read inspy at all, there are some good authors there who write really romantic romance without much physical “action.”

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    • Susanna Kearsley, of course! I read The Winter Sea this year and absolutely adored the slow-moving, and so moving romances, both of them, historical and contemporary. Just a lovely lovely book from a … hmmm … graceful, understated writer.

      I do read inspy and, as a matter of fact, my last inspy review, a category, Karen Kirst’s Married By Christmas, was wonderful and sensual and quite nicely written, not Hart level, but she can wield a sentence and the descriptive writing was lovely too.

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