Reading Karina Bliss’s A Prior Engagement was a long time coming for Miss Bates. She’s hoarded this romance novel since it came out in 2013. She read and loved the three previous titles in the Special Forces series, Here Comes the Groom, Stand-In Wife, and Bring Him Home. They’re about soldiers returning home from war in Afghanistan, after a horrific roadside attack, and the loved ones who waited for them. With this being the fourth title, and sensing that Bliss is thoughtful but not prolific, Miss Bates indulged in a title-hoard … you know, those romances you allow to linger in the Tottering TBR because “some day” you might have a bitch-day at work, or a fight with the BFF/partner, and YOU’LL NEED IT. Heck, Bliss’s romance novel, sublime as it is, has plenty of cringe-worthy scenes, they’re just not your cringe-worthy scenes and that makes the wait all the more worthwhile. Bliss’s New Zealand-set series is one of the best romance treatments of the effects of our recent wars that Miss Bates has read. As a Canadian, the news of Afghani roadside attacks were sadly familiar. Bliss’s series, however, describes what happens to the survivors, the soldiers, yes, but the family, friends, and lovers as well. Or, as Leonard Cohen sings in “Democracy,” “for the grace of God in the desert here and the desert far away.”
Bliss’s A Prior Engagement pulls out all the soap-opera stops and Miss Bates loved it for them. When the novel opens, Sergeant Lee Davis has been dead for near two years. The woman he loved, the one who rejected his proposal the morning of his deployment to Afghanistan, Juliet “Jules” Browne, has awoken in her lover’s bed with the thought, “Sex represented the last good-bye in a two-year journey of moving on – it was bound to raise Lee’s ghost.” Jules loved Lee. She rejected his proposal because they’d only known each other for six weeks. Lee and Jules’ courtship, as much of it as we learn through carefully constructed flashbacks, was a classic case of opposites-attract. Lee was the affable, charming, risk-taking, womanising, contemporary rake to Jules’ stiff, careful, controlled and rational lawyer-self. When Jules leaves her lover’s, Mark’s, bed to respond to myriad text messages, she learns Lee was found alive by American forces, victim of a Taliban taking. The text messages came from his three army buddies, all part of the same ambush that resulted in the loss of one to death and Lee to the Taliban. (The novel is also very much about the bonds forged among combatants and they are deep and strong. It is a story-thread that runs parallel to Lee and Jules’ reunion. It makes the novel all the more effective.)
The cautious, reasoned Jules is moved and elated by Lee’s survival, but she knows their relationship was over when he left and over now: ” … as though a six-week whirlwind romance easily withstood a year-and-a-half’s separation … where one of the parties had been presumed dead … and the other was boinking someone else.” Jules wasn’t then, isn’t now, prepared to take on Lee’s volatility; as she characterizes him, “He dropped into her world and blew normal to smithereens” Except there’s a complication. Lee has amnesia (cue the soap score); he’s back from the dead (cue intense soap score); to comfort his buddies and family after his funeral, Jules had accepted Lee’s engagement ring from them. As far as Lee will know, Jules accepted his proposal. Jules also forged a relationship with Lee’s father; indeed, their relationship was loving and close. She was with Lee’s father when he died. She became an integral part of his army buddies’ lives and their families. Her best friend, Claire, now married to one of them (widow to the one they lost, Ross, and heroine of Bring Him Back) says she’s part of their “tribe.” Lee’s amnesiac self assumes Jules is his faithful fiancée. How can she tell him the truth? He was beaten, tortured, traumatized … and now he’s going to be dumped? No way.
Jules is too decent a person and loves Lee too much to hurt him thus. On the other hand, she has to protect her heart and sanity. She decides to go along with the engagement, nurse and help Lee as much as she can, and release him into a new life, resurrected, renewed. Lee has very different ideas. He’s hurt, diminished, and angry, most of all at the woman who finagled her way into his father’s life, his family, his friends, the woman who inherited his estate and sports his rejected diamond. It turns out Lee is NOT suffering from amnesia, but will pretend doing so to seek revenge against Jules. How ridiculous does this sound? How unlikely? How absurd? How melodramatic? And yet, it works! Because Bliss writes with a masterful combination of irony and humour and yet never allows the pain and tragedy of her characters’ lives to ebb. She also creates a terrific pairing in Lee and Jules. Lee is broken, but so smart, he can fool anyone: but his post-hostage trauma is beyond him. He has to realize this. All he wants is to be the same man he was, but he won’t be. He’ll be as strong, but not the same.
Miss Bates loved how clever, angry, and peevish Lee was. Yet, his trauma was beyond what this charming, formerly-well-adjusted man could hide. His determination to punish Jules was paranoid and nasty, but understandable as well. It gave him a focus, so he didn’t have to think about what to do with himself, to decide what to do next with his life. He could, by hurting Jules, ignore his PTSD. In Jules, Bliss created his perfect foil. Jules is so clear-thinking: she never denies her love for him while she never lets him get away with his BS. She cares about and for him; she’s gentle and loving. But she’s smart, reasonable, and reads him well. She calls him on everything, but she never stops letting him know with words, touches, gestures, and actions (like maxing her credit card so he can buy clothes and feel like a well-dressed man again) how much she loves him. In the end, she also doesn’t let her own need for caution stop her from loving and committing to him.
Lee takes her on a merry ride. However, as we get to know him, we recognize that he deserves her. He has qualities: courage, integrity, and an ease in understanding and admitting his feelings that Jules can learn from. One of Miss Bates’ favourite moments occurs when Jules and Lee meet at the airport upon his return to New Zealand: “Stepping forward, she leaned her forehead against his jacket, gently, blindly. ‘I have to make you real.’ With a muffled oath, he released her elbows, his arms clamped around her shoulders and he bowed his head over hers. For long seconds they stood there.” While this scene precedes Lee’s amnesia-charade, it is a very cleverly orchestrated one. It is a moment of raw emotion and open-ness before two characters clam up and return to their hidey-holes of shame: Lee, to revenge, anger, and paranoia; Jules, to control and emotional distancing. It’s important to Bliss’s purpose that she establish this moment of tender love and honesty. It will have to hold us in good stead while Lee wreaks his havoc on his buddies, most of all, on Jules.
What Bliss accomplished in A Prior Engagement is to sustain irony for the first third of the novel. Romance is not a genre that does so with ease. The fact that it can only go so far is an indication of the genre’s optimistic perspective and Bliss’s talent. Lee’s fake amnesia (not a spoiler, we know of this in the first few chapters) and how he uses it to play games with Jules is one of the most compelling “sustained” openings to a romance novel Miss Bates has read. We know he’s faking his amnesia; we’re privy to his thoughts, and we’re aware of his effect on Jules. Here’s a perfect illustration of this:
“What’s your last memory of us?” she said.
Disappointment made him cruel. “Making love,” he said grimly. “Lying in each other’s arms afterward. You telling me you were happy.” All true of their final night together. Before his morning proposal. “What’s the last thing you remember?”
“The same,” she said and his bitterness dissolved every flickering regret he had. She was going to try to brazen this out. “But obviously,” she added, “I can’t hold you to any kind of commitment after what you’ve been through. I’ll return the ring.”
Yeah, you’d like this to be easy, wouldn’t you? “And what if I want there to be an ‘us,’ Jules?” he challenged.
Irony depends on the reader being privy to some vital information to which at least one of the characters isn’t. With Lee, we watch Jules flounder and lie. He knows she rejected his proposal; she knows she did, but is unwilling to hurt him in his present state. What’s doubly ironic is that Lee assumes she wants to squirm out of the engagement (he also accuses her of taking his inheritance). It’s all part of her vilification in Lee’s mind. But we, the readers, are also privy to Jules’ love for Lee, her fear of hurt and being out of control. Yet, she never stops caring for him and his family and friends, never hesitates to do everything she can to make his recovery happen. We also know that Lee, damaged and hurt as he is, will have to come to a point when he admits he still loves Jules and she’s not the villain he’s made her out to be. As the reader, we’re in the privileged position of pondering both the comedy of the set-up and its eventual dénouement in pathos, love, tears, admittance of hurt. And how sweet it is when it arrives; Lee ponders “Revenge wasn’t sweet, it was corrosive, and he needed to rebuild his life. These games had to end.” Romance cannot sustain irony: the truth of the heart will foil it every time. This breaking open of the self to the other happens in one of the rawest, most powerful scenes Miss Bates has read in the genre: really, it’s of the Molly-O’Keefe-variety of vulnerable. It’s terrific: it may not feel comfortable, but it feels right to the characters and the story Bliss wants to tell. Romance, like Portia’s caskets, has to open the secrets of the heart, lay character open, free character to live in communion with his feelings and others, in particular the beloved, who is both catalyst to, and recipient of, love.
(Take, for example, the most famous of revenge tragedies, Hamlet: what if Hamlet joined forces with Ophelia? What if, together, once the truth was offered and accepted, they evaded the world of realpolitik? What if the warrior culture, the code of Hamlet Sr., was supplanted by the code of romance?) As for irony and romance, hit Miss Bates with your thoughts. Can romance sustain the ironic mode throughout a narrative? Miss Bates thinks not. What say you, dear readers?
As for Karina Bliss’s Harlequin Super-Romance, A Prior Engagement, Miss Bates loved it; Miss Austen says “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.