Some time in the late 90s, Miss Bates saw a film she hasn’t forgotten, much as she’d like to. It was bleak, depressing, definitely anti-romance. In it, the heroine had opportunities to save herself, to achieve an HEA. She was so passive, so unable to accept help from the people she encountered that she perished needlessly. The film is Amos Kollek’s Sue: Lost In Manhattan (it’s available, in its entirety, on YouTube, if you’re so inclined). What does this bleak portrait, in the centre of which is an anti-heroine with a strangely compelling passivity, have to do with Molly O’Keefe’s Indecent Proposal? Miss Bates couldn’t help but recall the film as she read O’Keefe’s final book in her Boys of Bishop series. Kollek’s Sue is unemployed, evicted, and meanders through Manhattan looking ethereally, cadaverously beautiful. She worked as a temp and has a degree in psychology. She’s friendless and without family. She cleans up well and is intelligent and soft-spoken. Sue carries a defeated look, her eyes say “I’ve lost even before I’ve begun.” She meets a wonderful friend (actually, she’s a bartender!) and a beautiful man: the friend wants to help her, the man to care for her. She doesn’t reject them: she’s so tired of life she doesn’t call on them.
O’Keefe’s heroine, Ryan Kaminski, could have easily been Sue: a high-school drop-out, a divorcée who survived a shiftless and violent man, a 15-minutes-of-fame teen-age model who makes ends meet by working as a bartender in a Manhattan hotel. Ryan lives in a tenement and buys used psychology books because that’s what she’d like to study if she ever goes back to school. She’s 32, too old, she feels, to call it opportunity. The connections between Sue and Ryan are compelling. Miss Bates couldn’t help but think of these disparate texts because their juxtaposition spotlights what distinguishes the romance narrative. Same girl, same narrative, same edge of hopelessness, same seediness, cheap clothes and worn-out beauty … what does the romance narrative do with the same stuff, the same material, but imbues it with hope in place of despair? (As a side-note, she loved O’Keefe’s Indecent Proposal: marriage-of-convenience, a heroine who gains in strength and love, a Hubbell-hero humbled. What’s not to love?)
Ryan Kaminski meets “Ken Doll” Harrison Montgomery in the hotel bar which she tends. He’s handsome and virile and tensely sad, and they share an intense conversation about family ties, sibling love and protectiveness. Ryan can’t help but respond to his voice “laced with traces of the South, pecans and sweet tea.” Words aren’t the only thing they share: a potent attraction awakens in Ryan: “Inside, deep inside, a penny dropped and the complicated mechanism of her desire – of her elusive and rarely seen want – was engaged.” If Miss Bates hadn’t “met” Harrison in O’Keefe’s Never Been Kissed and known him for the heroine’s politician-brother who raises heaven and hell to rescue her from Somali pirates, she’d have balked at Ryan’s willingness to follow a stranger into his hotel room. To Harrison, Ryan is “the most beautiful woman” he’d “ever seen.” She’s gentle, funny, and kind: she listened to his fears for his sister and comforted and reassured him. He wanted her and he took what she offered, the gift of herself, and left her the next morning with a lovely note of apology and the understated but clear message that their affair can go no further than this bed.
Weeks later, Harrison and Ryan are still haunted by the visceral experience of that night’s love-making: “What had happened in that room destroyed him. It wasn’t just the incredible sex, but the honesty. The honesty had been addictive and erotic and rare. So rare he hadn’t realized what a kingdom of lies and half-truths he ruled, until meeting her. And ironically, he’d lied to her.” Harrison is in the political fight of his life: trying to redeem his father’s scandal- and corruption-ridden career in the state of Georgia. “Love, lust, and lucre,” said P. D. James’ Dalgliesh, are alone or in combination the reasons for any crime and Harrison’s father indulged in all three. Harrison’s life has to be pristine if he’s to make his way to the House of Representatives: “Harrison’s role, his mission, was to be without weakness. To give no rumors the chance to find foothold, no reporter trying to make his name even the slightest whiff of scandal … his night with Ryan to the outside eye was nothing but scandalous. That night was an anomaly. Best forgotten.” Until Ryan’s brother, Wes, as overprotective of his sister as Harrison of his, informs him she’s pregnant with a punch to the jaw. Scandal has come knocking. Harrison returns to NYC to salvage his political campaign by confronting Ryan and what he assumes is her attempt at blackmail. He confronts a Ryan furious with her brother for telling him and with Harrison for showing up. She doesn’t want anything from him, money, family, or status. She’s going to take care of herself and her baby on her own.
These charged scenes, when Ryan and Harrison see each other again, are why romance trumps Sue-Bleakness. Ryan lost her job after her manager saw her walking out of Harrison’s hotel room. Her association with Harrison brought the press to her door and her building super wants her out. She’s debilitatingly-ill pregnant. We begin, always, with the chin:
“Why are you here, Harrison Montgomery?”
“Your brother came to see me … He says you’re pregnant.”
She lifted her chin against his icy gaze. Her heart hammering at her rib cage. “So I am.”
“Your brother seems to think it’s mine.”
The muscles in his jaw flexed as if he were making gravel out of his teeth. That night they’d shared, the way he’d grabbed her hand like a lifeline … The sweetness. The kindness. The mutual respect. That small slip into infatuation. It was all gone … she felt as if she were shaking apart. “I don’t want a single thing from you. Not money. Not anything.”
Miss Bates loved Ryan’s defiance and defense against Harrison’s self-serving coldness. Her chin lifts and, signal romance-reader, this lady’s going to win. His jaw “flexes” and Miss Bates loved that line about “making gravel out of his teeth.” Ryan behaves honorably and honestly. Her strength and moral stance foil Harrison’s mercenary motivations. Miss Bates also loved the contrast between hands holding “like a lifeline,” bespeaking need and desire and connection, and Ryan’s realization of what her “Harry” of their one-night-stand really is: a man who uses others in the service of his political ambitions and dreams of redeeming his family name. Harrison is too obsessed with this idea to understand that his guilt doesn’t lie in his “lechery,” but in his cruelty: dredging up Ryan’s abusive husband, her lack of education, wrong-side-of-tracks family, poor apartment, and pathetic ambitions, to belittle her so that she does what he wants. He proposes marriage to salvage his campaign and offers, in exchange, a bloodless, intimacy-less union-of-convenience. She’s broke and pregnant and sick: stick with his “indecent proposal”, play the politician’s wife for two years and he’ll offer divorce and financial security beyond that. He pulls all the Hubbell stops (you remember Hubbell from Robert Redford’s Golden-Boy portrait in The Way We Were): his family, education, money, status … and she doesn’t cave. She rejects him and everything he represents. He lets his offer stand and returns to Georgia where his dissipated dad and cold-as-ice mother-living-her-ambitions-through-her-son await.
Ryan’s situation worsens. She feels like crap and her savings dwindle. She hires a lawyer, calls Harrison, goes to Georgia and hammers out a deal with him on her terms. She doesn’t let herself be taken over by her situation, or intimidated by Harrison’s cool reception, and colder mother. He chafes, but signs the dotted line. Now he has to turn Miss Broken-Flip-Flops into a politician’s wife. Harrison behaved like an ass, but he must have had enough smarts to see that Ryan is intelligent, kind, and well-spoken, poised, and dignified. She may need him to buy the wardrobe, but she can do the rest herself. Miss Bates isn’t sure whether Ryan’s easing into her politician’s-wife role is totally believable. The novel’s power, on the other hand, is sure and steady. Miss Bates was sucked right in and it was largely thanks to Ryan. Miss B. went to work on a few hours of sleep for a few days just to reach the end of this wonderful book. It pushed all her possibility and hope buttons: Ryan was her anti-Sue; Sue was exorcised by Ryan. Ryan took what she could from life, saved herself, her baby … and managed to humanize “Ken Doll” “Hubbell” Harrison Montgomery with her empathy. But Ryan’s chin held high and tongue stayed sharp.
Harrison’s cool melted under Ryan and he showed what he too was capable of: care, humour, consideration, thoughtfulness. Or, at least initially, and then more so, he was guilt-ridden. Miss Bates loved his tentative gestures towards Ryan: especially his attempts to provide her breakfast, a glass of water and an apple (she can’t keep much down). Miss Bates loved that he considers cutting the apple into wedges, ritualistically places them near where she breakfasts. He graduates too, to a scrambled egg, the water, the morning-sickness pill. Miss Bates can’t say she loved Ken Doll Harrison. Wasn’t sure about Ryan’s estranged family and their return into her life and insinuation into the narrative at the end. These are minor quibbles: Ryan and Harrison’s journey to the HEA is engrossing, life-affirming, and hopeful. Whatever humbling Harrison receives in his political career is naught to what he learns from being with Ryan. When he’s humbled and trussed by love, he’s finally free of his family neuroses. And Ryan gets to choose him all over again. Miss Bates is grateful that Sue’s Manhattan-wanderings can be put to rest. In Molly O’Keefe’s Indecent Proposal, Miss Bates found that “no charm [I’m looking at you, Harrison-Hubbell] is equal to tenderness of heart [that’d be K-K-K-Katy and Ryan]” and thanks to Austen’s Emma.
Molly O’Keefe’s Indecent Proposal has been available from Bantam Books (Random House) since September 30th of 2014 and may be found at your favourite vendors still. Miss Bates received an e-ARC of Indecent Proposal from Bantam Books, via Netgalley.