If you’re literal-minded, or a prig, or easily titillated, the stand-out elements of Victoria Dahl’s Flirting With the Disaster are explicit love scenes and the hero and heroine’s foul mouths. These may be good reasons to read Dahl’s contemporary romance, or reject it in outrage. Which is why Miss Bates wants to get the review part over with pronto. Because she has other things to say. The first quarter or so, the set-up, left Miss Bates dubious: like taking that first bite of a new dish. The uncertainty: “Do I like this? What’s that strange flavour?” By the time the heroine’s combination of vulnerability and independent spirit were established, she was a fan. The hero had to work harder to win her. By the time things were heart-wrenching, she was a goner. If you don’t want to read how Dahl’s romance about U. S. marshal hero, Tom Duncan, and hermit-artist heroine, Isabelle West, got Miss Bates thinking about genre conventions, don’t read on. Read the novel (consider yourself warned about its rawness; she’ll let its tenderness take you by surprise). Then come back, tell her what you think about what follows. Or not. As long as you read it.
Dahl’s Flirting With Disaster has the familiar marks of romantic suspense. Isabelle West, 36, is an anatomical artist in the Wyoming countryside outside Jackson, a loner with a cat named Bear and secrets. She lives on “Spinster Row” with her black chef lesbian neighbour-friend (say it aloud, it sounds really cool), Jill Washington, who is, along with all the secondary characters, beautifully drawn. Deputy Marshal Tom Duncan, 42, is in town from Cheyenne to protect Judge Anthony Chandler, threatened by a fugitive nut-ball survivalist. Tom meets Isabelle when he and his team patrol her woods and environs. Miss Bates noted their ages because it was refreshing, after her recent foray into NA romance, to read an adult hero and heroine who know their minds and bodies.
Isabelle intrigues Tom and he’s sexy as heck to her: but they have reasons to stay away from each other. Isabelle lives under an assumed identity. Fourteen years ago, her cop father, embroiled in police department corruption, killed a fellow officer. Isabelle, a pre-med student at the time, was engaged to his superior’s son. Once her father abandoned the family and ran from justice, Isabelle’s life imploded: her father implicated her; her fiancé, an aspiring DA, dumped her; and the police “family” she thought would protect her turned on her. She has reasons to be suspicious of law enforcement and hence, her initial hostility towards Tom. Nevertheless, she can’t resist their sexual sizzling. Isabelle is a woman who knows what she likes and wants. She’s made a good life for herself and is fearless about reaching out for pleasure when it beckons. She’s had less love and care than most.
Tom is a dedicated and intelligent officer, honouring his profession’s values. He’s a good guy, but he behaves badly. There’s something about Isabelle that doesn’t sit right. Tom is a guy who can’t resist the lure of helping someone, especially a damsel in distress. There’s everything right in her body, laughter, and smarts and he wants it all. While they flirt and trip the mating dance, he snoops into her background. His actions are invasive, but he’s got the true cop’s itch to uncover truth and bring justice where there wasn’t. Isabelle and Tom become lovers, passionate, affectionate, mature, give-and-take lovers: their love scenes are not tossed into the narrative as industry standards; they’re purposeful and red-hot. Each scene, rife with raw sexuality, reflects their developping relationship.
When a romance narrative is great, as Dahl’s, genre conventions are upheld and surpassed, affirmed and subverted. In a recent Book Riot post, Jessica Tripler (of Read React Review) identified ten terms she learned from romance, one of them “the grovel,” which she defines as what happens “when the romance hero has done something Very Bad to the heroine and needs to make up for it.” Miss Bates’ interest lies in the “Very Bad,” which she argues is often some form of betrayal (except for the one betrayal that most romance readers deem unacceptable, infidelity). The Grovel is dependent on The Betrayal. The depth of the betrayal is dependent on how well the romance writer has developped the hero and heroine’s relationship. The depth of the relationship is established on the premise of “forsaking all others,” not that this constitutes a marriage (though it may be part of the HEA), but the establishment of exclusivity between hero and heroine. Dahl’s succinct romance narrative is a near-perfect illustration of all this.
Miss Bates is fascinated by the ways romance writers construct the hero and heroine’s attraction. Their initial physical awareness of each other is shorthand to the ways they eventually love each other. For example, Isabelle recalls her first impression of Tom: “He’d been tall. Lean. With short, dark hair just turning a bit gray at the temples … he’d had a pretty great face. A strong nose and dark eyebrows over intense green eyes. And lips that looked soft to the touch against all that masculinity.” Note the “bit gray”: a mature man, suggesting experience, maybe even a hint of suffering. The nose is “strong;” the eyes, intense green; the lips, soft: a desirable combination standing in for the personality the heroine will learn, strength, intensity, and soft “spots.” Tom’s first impression of Isabelle is cautious, but he’s intrigued: ” … he still wasn’t sure he had a read on Isabelle West yet. He wouldn’t say she was mean, exactly. But as for feral … well, there was something a little wild about her. Something unfiltered. She said what she meant and wasn’t coy about her moods.” While Isabelle seems to note things about Tom that will make her feel safe, a potential harbour, Tom’s impression is of Isabelle as unknown territory. He has more questions than answers, but her mystery fascinates him. His police work bespeaks a man who takes on wild, unknown, dangerous things. Tom is a cautious man, meticulous and exacting, superb at his job, but he is “filtered.” He’s drawn by opposing qualities in his heroine. His qualities, as noted by Isabelle, are what are required to take on her mystery. We, the readers, now have the romance narrative Rubik’s cube and are starting to twist and turn the sides to reach completion/HEA.
The furthering of the couple’s romance occurs through individuation, as initial attraction is accompanied by conversation and internal observations (which is maybe why readers are dissatisfied when any one of these elements tips to too much, or too little; suffice to say romance writing is as complex as any writing). Dahl creates a gem of a scene in the following:
… she wiped the bottle over her brow. Her nipples tightened. He watched, despite that his brain was screaming at him to look away. Look away! God, they were … perfect.
“Are you staring at my breasts, Marshal Duncan?”
He jumped as if he’d been touched with a live wire. He couldn’t deny it, and he couldn’t excuse it. “Shit. Um. I’m sorry.”
She shrugged again, and to his complete shock, she smiled. “It’s all right. If you were standing there in workout shorts, I’d stare at your ass. I guarantee it. Your thighs, too.”
The scene is crude and funny. It’s also honest and cultivates character beautifully. It builds on initial impressions: Tom’s fascination is cracked open by Isabelle’s honesty, her “unfiltered” wildness. He plays blushing straight man to her wit. Later, Isabelle’s introspection builds on her attraction to Tom; he takes shape in her mind, not only as a body, but a unique person who takes on meaning: “Something about him drew her in … even though she didn’t trust cops anymore, even though she wanted nothing to do with any of them … She’d spent her whole life around cops. She knew how they moved and spoke and thought. She loved the wariness in his eyes each time he entered a darkened room. The way his hand went to his gun when he was on alert. The way he studied her face when she spoke, trying to figure her out.” Tom could be Isabelle’s nemesis: all his categories are what she doesn’t want, but his uniqueness overrides her stay-safe instincts. This is essential to creating the Very Bad (that Jessica spoke of), the betrayal romance appropriates as its dark night of the couple-soul. Tom too goes beyond Isabelle’s “breasts” to what makes her unique, the only woman for him, “… the easy way she moved through the house in the woods that was hers alone … She was his opposite in every way. Pale and soft and curved. Amused by everything. Unconcerned by things she couldn’t control. Happy to take what she wanted, whether it was him or a glass of wine or a moment to dance around the living room.” Tom’s attraction to Isabelle is rooted in the physical, as hers for Tom; in both their cases, however, in the uniquely physical, key to cementing fidelity. It also moves to her attitude towards life, pleasure, how she chooses to live it. That is what Tom cannot find in anyone else. The mystery of the Other that says, “You. Only you.”
Once individuation is incarnated, hero and heroine begin the process of healing each other. They’ve come to the narrative wounded, diminished, or incomplete: the relationship they share, volatile, or tender, is built on the bedrock of connection, recognition, and exclusivity (even if, and this makes for a failed romance narrative, it’s solely physical). It’s also formed in taking each others’ woundedness and shaping wholeness, completion, and hope. Here, for example, is such a moment for Tom: ” … he needed someone just like her, and there was already too much between them … His knees shook a little. His heart shook a lot … She’d made him vulnerable again, but this time it was good, as if she were kissing all of him at once.” Tom’s cracks are solitude, exactitude, and emotional reticence; Isabelle takes those away, breaks him open and makes him whole. He serves a similar function for her: ” … Isabelle had reached her limit of socializing for the week. She needed time to not speak to anyone for a while. Except Tom. That she could handle … ” Isabelle’s hermetic, introverted existence has rendered her feral, solitary, like an animal in a lair. Tom breaks that open for her and brings in the light of communication and understanding.
The reader, romance writer, and narrative are bound tight now and, if the narrative is “working” its mystery, we are invested in it. Which is when the writer has to smash it to bits with the “Very Bad,” the Betrayal. This is how the romance narrative remakes the world into a better one and where its value lies (value it’s rarely afforded). In Dahl’s masterful handling of this moment, she pits the hero’s professional ethics against the woman he loves. (This Very Bad moment may come earlier in the relationship and create a conflict when the hero and heroine re-encounter one another: it is a thorn in their relationship side and tugging and pulling at it will set it bleeding. This works beautifully in Jeannie Lin’s Jade Temptress and St. James’ The Other Side of Midnight. In rarer cases, this theme of ethical compromise may be reversed and the heroine may be responsible for betraying the hero. Her work may be implicated, such as Molly O’Keefe’s terrific Crazy Thing Called Love. It’s interesting that O’Keefe, who can’t write a bad romance narrative if her life depended on it, has the hero’s betrayal in the background to this reunited husband-and-wife tale.) [SPOILER-ISH AHEAD … DUCK!] When Isabelle’s past shows up in the form of an FBI agent, Tom must “bring her in”. The scene where Tom cuffs Isabelle is viscerally powerful because of the tight warp and weft of attraction, affection, and exclusivity Dahl built to between them and that we trusted, even when we know THIS is coming:
He blocked her knee with his thigh and twisted her arms around until she was facing away from him.
“Stop,” he said close to her ear, his arms wrapped around her in a parody of intimacy. She screamed and struggled, but she knew it was hopeless. All those muscles she’d admired so much weren’t just for show, and she was just a stupid, useless artist who couldn’t fight or hide or protect herself. Her screams turned to sobs.
“Isabelle. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I didn’t know how to tell you.”
“How long have you known?” she managed to say past her thick throat. Her voice sounded like a stranger’s.
“Shit,” he muttered, and she knew. He’d known from the start.
“You knew before. Before you even got here.” … She slumped, giving up fighting. She’d given herself away, just as she’d feared, and now it was all over. “Just take me in,” she rasped. “I don’t want to talk to you anymore. Ever.”
“She knew”: two monosyllabic words and the romance narrative collapses in on itself. “I’m sorry” and the work of atonement (Miss Bates sticks it to anti-romance Ian McEwan) is incipient in it. Miss Bates loved the phrase “in a parody of intimacy”. Tom becomes Isabelle’s nemesis: the romance narrative is made more powerful when hero, or heroine transforms from lover to enemy, from hero to villain. The clash between the “real” world, the public arena of law, or war, or politics, and the possibility of hearth, often but not necessarily represented by the heroine (in O’Keefe’s narrative, the hero suddenly finds himself father to siblings, has to go “domestic” instead of rogue and the heroine to make her way to him/them from her professional world) must reach a point when all is lost, when interests and values are irreconcilable. The romance’s darkest moment: when the curtain of the possible is rent, when altars are smashed and darkness descends. Tom must now take up the burden of rebuilding as after a great storm when everything lies in ruins. The hero’s “grovel,” so eloquently described by Jessica, is part and parcel of his task. He must repair/rebind/cement the lost connection. Tom has to make amends, step by step and action by action, avowal by avowal. How he does so is part of the magic of this romance Miss Bates wouldn’t want to spoil. What is Isabelle’s/the heroine’s role? She must find it in herself to trust in the hero again, to accept the gift, to believe in its genuineness, as Isabelle/Dahl so beautifully puts it, to believe in “sticky, scary love.”
Miss Bates is indebted to the work of the Gospel writers, Northrop Frye, and Pamela Regis for inspiring this post. If you’ve stuck with it, dear reader, you too deserve her gratitude, as does Victoria Dahl for writing a near-perfect romance (not that Miss Bates has many caveats, but only God is perfect, after all).
Miss Austen says of Dahl’s Flirting With Disaster “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Victoria Dahl’s Flirting With Disaster is published by HQN, Harlequin; it has been available in e and paper since January 27th and may be found at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates is eternally grateful to Harlequin books for an e-ARC, via Netgalley.
Well, dear reader, if you’ve stuck with Miss Bates thus far, hit her with your comments and especially favourite romance betrayals. The genre is rife with them: one of Miss Bates’ most memorable is the moment Jane Eyre learns of Rochester’s premeditated bigamy, foreshadowed by the razed tree under which they shared avowals of love. His atonement/amends require visible wounds/stigmata of romantic love and only the wronged, compassionate, forgiving Jane can resurrect him.
Further thoughts: Another visceral and, in Miss Bates’ estimation, near-unbearable, near-breaking-of-the-romance-reader painfully protracted betrayal moment is Rachel’s humiliation at Sebastien’s hands in Patricia Gaffney’s To Have and To Hold. It’s romance’s “Grand Inquisitor” moment, with Rachel’s silent passivity and acceptance and Sebastien’s cold yet frenzied cruelty.
Miss Bates took at jab at Ian McEwan’s Atonement above and she’ll gladly take another one. Atonement is the ultimate anti-romance novel, lulling the reader into believing in the cross-class romance of Robbie and Cecilia. McEwan betrays the reader by building a romance narrative, complete with HEA, and then smashing it to bits in the epilogue. There aren’t any babies, Cecilia and Robbie don’t grow to comfortable old age in a comfie cottage, drinking tea and holding gnarled hands. Instead, we are handed an epilogue that says you cannot believe in the narrative, you can’t hold on to the promise or hope. McEwan achieves this brilliantly by indicting and simultaneously undoing the very act of writing the romance. It’s no wonder that Miss Bates threw this novel across the room when she reached the end.
How does the betrayal moment affect the reader?