Most of the time, when Miss Bates reads a romance, her response to it is consistent. The love-hate-or-meh feelings set in with the first sentence … and first-sentence-mini-review-to-self rarely steers her wrong. In Caitlin Crews’ At the Count’s Bidding, Miss B. ran a gamut of responses. Crews’ romance doesn’t deviate from the HP reader’s expectations, but the narrative exhibits abrupt shifts. At the same time, players and plot are typical of the category. Count Giancarlo Alessi, budding actor, and Paige Fielding, young dancer, met and loved ten years ago on a film set. Paige destroyed their young love when she took money from a tabloid in exchange for their nude photos. Paige had shameful obligations she was too embarrassed to share with Giancarlo. Ten years later, Giancarlo, now running his deceased father’s Tuscan estate, still hurt and angry over Paige’s betrayal, confronts her at his mother’s Bel Air mansion. Paige works as his mother’s personal assistant, fetching, carrying, and indulging the famous actress’s, Violet Sutherlin’s, whims. Paige, without family, or friends, clings to Violet as the only person who knows and loves her. Giancarlo is shocked to see her ensconced as his mother’s right-hand and assumes she insinuated herself into the job. It’s an opportunity to finally exact his revenge. He strikes a deal: Paige will cater to his sexual whims while he’ll allow her to remain as Violet’s PA. Paige won’t leave the woman who means so much to her and allowing Giancarlo to hurt her will assuage her guilt over their break-up.
Miss Bates’ response to Crews’ romance takes three forms. The first third was awful; the second, wonderful; the final, puzzling.
Miss Bates backtracks to Crews’ characterization of Giancarlo and Paige. It’s based on their struggles with less-than-ideal mothers. What is it with the romance genre’s obsession to vilify the mother … alternately, to “saintify” her? (A question for another post, maybe?) Paige got the doozy. Her mother, a promiscuous drug addict, willing to prostitute her daughter for her next fix, was nevertheless someone Paige loved. When Paige sold the pictures, she was desperately trying to save her mother from the mob. In typical “Big Mis” fashion, she never told Giancarlo about her situation or, later, reasons for betraying him. (All in vain; Paige is orphaned.) The romance narrative, though making use of betrayal as key to keeping protagonists apart, cannot sustain a mercenary heroine. Her reasons must be saintly and forgivable. As Paige’s are.
Giancarlo’s characterization is also based on understanding his relationship with his glamorous, “larger-than-life” mother. Violet, though loving, is a mother of benign neglect. Her first and foremost focus, even when Giancarlo was a child, was her career. She sought/seeks publicity, exploiting every opportunity to put herself in the public eye. Including, her cherubic son. When Giancarlo was a child, her penchant for indulging the paparazzi frightened and traumatized him when she staged a bulb-flashing frenzy. Giancarlo still resents Violet’s betrayal of his innocent, child-self, even while he loves her deeply. In light of this incident, it is then even more obvious why Giancarlo found Paige’s public betrayal of their intimacies abhorrent.
Crews’ background to her characters is rich and compelling; however, her decision in having Giancarlo make Paige “pay for her sins” by exacting sexual favors make the set-up to her narrative unsavory:
“I mean do as I tell you, full stop.” He indulged himself then, and touched her. He traced the remarkable line of her jaw, letting the sharp delight of it charge through his bones, then held her chin there, right where he could stare her down with all the ruthlessness he carried within him. “You will work for me, Paige. On your back. On your knees. At your desk. Whatever I want, whenever I want, however I want.”
He could feel her shaking and he exulted in it.
Miss Bates’ dislike of the set-up lies with the hero’s ruthlessness and heroine’s acquiescence. Paige is so guilt-ridden over the ten-year-old picture thing that she declares she deserves whatever Giancarlo wishes to dish out … and what he’s dishing out is revenge served cold, but bedroom-hot. Miss Bates supposes one could argue Crews’ narrative is edgy-romantic, sado-masochistic-lite. There aren’t any scenes of bondage, no one is physically hurt, nothing is kinky: but, for Miss B., the idea of the heroine’s humiliation was not to her taste, or sensibility. (On the other hand, the hero’s chin-worship holds within it the promise of the heroine’s eventual defiance, the rejection of the hero’s ethos.)
What happens in Tuscany (Giancarlo has Paige and Violet travel back to Italy with him) that turned the narrative toward the sun for Miss Bates? The romance narrative relies on the writer’s ability to create an “apostrophe,” a “turning away,” or reversal, or several (the more apostrophes, the more complex the romance narrative, or the more disastrous, see Old Skool romance) wherein the direction of the narrative is changed. If she can pull this off, this baby might work. In Crews’ case, it did … and like her hero’s feelings towards his heroine, what was abhorrent turned to delight, humiliation took on triumph:
She’d been so lost in her guilt, her shame, her own anger at everything that had happened and Giancarlo too, that she’d forgotten one very important fact about this thing between them … She stood there … debasing herself before the only man she’d ever loved, and Paige felt better than she had in years. Powerful. Right, somehow … She walked toward him, reveling in the way her blood pounded through her and her skin seemed to shrink a size, too tight across her bones. Because he could call this revenge. He could talk about hatred and penance. But it was the still the same thick madness that felt like a rope around her neck. It was still the same inexorable pull. It was still them.
Miss Bates liked the imaginary rope, the hint of BDSM that isn’t. It was clever to couple it with a moment of recognition when the heroine takes her power back. This dance of back-and-forth power and surrender is played under Giancarlo’s Tuscan sun. It works because Giancarlo is left in the dark, with an imaginary, in the reader’s and heroine’s mind, blindfold over his feelings. He’s already surrendered to his love for the heroine: he simply doesn’t know it yet. Their Tuscan love affair is halcyon, with beautifully rendered prose and zippy dialogue. Giancarlo’s feelings for Paige turn to love, care, affection; he considers what happened ten years ago as evidence of her youth and his prejudice. He gains in understanding and sympathy; it suits his heroic self.
All goes to weirdness when, after having unprotected sex once, Paige and Giancarlo realize Paige is pregnant (it’s in the blurb, folks, Miss B. isn’t spoiling). His accusations of betrayal-number-two don’t make sense – Paige declared he’d been her only lover EVER, keeping herself “thus” in memory of their love – are a failed turn in the narrative towards the hero’s betrayal of the heroine. Except he’s already been a dick. And she’s already eaten her humble pie. And his accusations are abrupt and illogical. And his “my baby” machismo should have at least demanded a cold marriage-of-convenience … but it didn’t. (That’s a whole other binding narrative trope and this romance is a succinct category.) The heroine trots off defiantly and Giancarlo grovels big time; Paige makes him dance a merry dance with her “chin” aloft.
Despite its skewed narrative, Miss Bates found At the Count’s Bidding strangely compelling and stayed up several nights, during a busy work week, to finish it. There’s something to be said for that … and Miss Austen, who always has the last word, deems At the Count’s Bidding “almost pretty,” Northanger Abbey.
Caitlin Crews’ At the Count’s Bidding, published by Harlequin, available in “e” and paper since February 17th, may be found at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates is grateful to Harlequin for an e-ARC via Netgalley.