When I devour an HP romance, I wonder, all over again, why I do? The plots are preposterous; the characters, ridiculously exaggerated; and the relentless theme of a moneyed, ruthless hero entrapping the heroine by a pitiless, self-serving scheme. Her innocence, yuck her virginity, turns his ruthlessness into helplessness and leads to the hero being a better man, the man lurking behind layers of survival and necessity over empathy. The hero is left bare, stripped of all his power in the face of his love for the heroine; he goes from tempered steel to marshmallow in a mere 150 pages. It never ceases to amaze me why I, and countless other women, enjoy them so darn much. Smart’s Billionaire’s Bride For Revenge is a perfect example. I think, I suspect, that the reason I and others enjoy them is that life’s petty, everyday, economic impediments are pushed aside by the hero’s wealth and we are left only, solely, with the emotional impediments that thwart hero and heroine from finding fulfillment and happiness in and with each other. The ways they manoeuve their way through these emotional barriers are sex, conversation, and internal, personal realization, acts of self-honesty.
The HP often begins with a revelatory new set of circumstances for the hero and especially the heroine, which is why the revenge plot works well at throwing the protagonists into acute, extraordinary circumstances. As the hero is the one with the power and wealth, he is the instigator and the heroine is drawn into his plot like a fish in a tight net. In Billionaire’s Bride‘s case, Benjamin Guillem lures prima ballerina Freya Clements into his revenge plot by claiming that her fiancé, Javier Casillas, one of his best friends, needs her.
The first indication of the hero’s power is how all things give way before him, like the basic necessity and increasingly fraught passage of crossing a border. Benjamin takes Freya from a party and to his private plane under the guise of delivering her to her supposedly needy fiancé: “As they drove into the remote airfield less than ten minutes later she suddenly straightened. ‘I haven’t got my passport on me.’ ‘You don’t need it.’ Benjamin’s own private plane was ready to board, his crew in place”. Of course, all impediments give way before his Moneyness and Powerfulness. Yet, we cannot sustain the dick-hero, the author must hint at his redemptive potential. Benjamin has qualms, a hint of guilt at the role he’s about to play: “He ignored another wave of guilt as she climbed the metal steps onto his jet, as trusting as a spring lamb.” If Freya is the lamb, then Benjamin, by definition, must yield the knife. But the genre will stay the hand that slays, as God does an Abraham wielding the knife over Isaac.
After political boundaries are erased, the heroine’s creature comforts are taken care of. The pesky business of political reality and necessity dismissed, the heroine will have her needs met, in this case, with a drink: “Benjamin summoned a member of his crew. ‘Get Mademoiselle Clements a drink, whatever she wants. I’ll have a glass of port.’ Soon their drinks had been served and Freya sipped at her gin and tonic.” I don’t know about you, dear reader, but is there anything better than a G&T well-served. I find Benjamin’s “port” a bit of a sissy drink, but that’s me. Maybe another indication of how he’s really a softie underneath. The heroine’s power is a subtler thing; it’s about the effect she has on the hero: “There was something about this woman he reacted to in a way he could not comprehend.” Nothing too helpless yet, but to the HP reader, this will hold her while his Dickness dominates, which it must, at least until his Marshmallow Grovel.
The heroine’s moral superiority is established well and early by giving her, for an HP, an amazingly happy childhood: “Freya had been raised by parents who were permanently on the breadline. They were the kindest, most loving parents a child could wish for and if she could live her life childhood again she wouldn’t swap them for anyone. Money was no substitute for love.” Ah, but dear reader, please note, Freya has EVERYTHING the hero doesn’t, except the hero has the thing that makes the economic reality of buying groceries go away. (Aside: the HP often makes me think of Marx’s second and less famous clause to “religion being the opiate of the people,” “the sigh of the oppressed creature.” The HP, therefore, is the ultimate fantasy where all economic needs are, like Maslow’s hierarchy, met first and quickly so that we can get to the good stuff.)
What form does Benjamin’s revenge take? Freya’s fiancé and his brother, says Benjamin, caught him at a weak moment (his mother dying of cancer, you have to have at least one per HP) and they had him invest money in their schemes. They, to date, repaid his loans, but have never given him what they owe him of return on his investment: ” ‘They owe me two hundred and twenty-five million euros.’ He had earmarked that money for a charity that helped traumatised children.” A few things are happening here: the hero’s power and determination are proven once more, but his means, revenge, is an uh-uh. Hence, he’s humanized and rendered sympathetic by the “charity” for the “traumatized children”.
What role will Freya play in his revenge? Javier will have to cough up the money, or Freya must marry Benjamin instead, thus publicly humiliating Javier. (The raised eyebrows at this premise, they were hairline soaring. But there you have it, this did not diminish my enjoyment.) Benjamin’s revenge objectifies Freya:“This was revenge in its purest form and she was his weapon of choice to gain it.” Ah, but the tables will turn: his soft underbelly, Benjamin’s twinges of guilt and charitable donations will be exploited until he gives up the centring of personal meaning in power and money and transfers his loyalty to the heroine and their children (a poppet always shows up by the end and Smart’s HP is no different). He doesn’t ever have to give up the money and power, but they can now serve the heroine and their family.
Initially, Benjamin, the hero, is a cold-hearted a-hole: “Her kidnapper stared at her without an ounce of pity, waiting for her response to his bombshell [the MOC]. She responded by using the only means she had at her disposal, her only weapon. Her body.” Ah, dear reader, now we arrive at the matter’s crux: sex, the great romance equalizer, for if the hero is helpless in the face of his desire, the heroine is no less. The sex is spectacular yes, more importantly, it is singular. It’s the best sex, actually for Freya, the only sex, but so good, the only one she’ll ever need, or want. While the heroine, Freya included, is a virgin in body and the HP is about her sexual awakening at and in the hero’s hands, the hero is an emotional virgin. (The conflict, impediments, dark moment, are manifestations of the couple’s growing pains as a unity.)
The hero, which is why hes the heroine’s and our vindication fantasy, must suffer at the heroine’s more adept emotional hands: “He shifted in his seat, unsettled but momentarily trapped in a gaze that seemed to have the ability to reach inside him and touch his soul … He blinked the unexpected and wholly ridiculous thought away and flashed his teeth at her.” Flash away, pretty boy, you’re about to be hoisted on your own heartless petard. The heroine is then put through torments by the hero: the heroine becomes the hero’s expiatory vehicle. There’s a terrific scene where Freya’s feet are injured when she tries to escape Benjamin. Sins are heaped on the heroine: “The marriage agreement she had willingly signed giving herself to two separate men proved that. Freya was a gold-digger in it purest form.” Benjamin defines Freya according to the only terms he understands, monetary ones.
One of the HP’s most vindication-rich heroine moments, at least in Smart’s smart telling, is when the heroine’s gaze is turned on the hero as an object. While she’s been an object of his revenge, rendered precious and singular in the act of loving-making, he becomes the object of her physical desire (remember, sexual awakening with the emotionally satisfying pleasures of exclusivity): “Her suddenly greedy eyes soaked in everything about him, from the way his long, muscular legs filled the black jeans he wore and the way his muscles bunched beneath his black T-shirt … she could see how untamed his thick black hair had become and the shadow on his jaw hinting at black stubble about to break free … ” I adored this description for the way the heroine has tamed the hero’s wildness. His prowess and power, for which his powerful, huge body, hair’s thickness, about-to-break-outness quality of hirsuteness (tongue-in-cheek ciphers of his mate-worthiness, as well as ability to protect and succour, in his physicality, wealth, and power) will be at the heroine’s and her children’s disposal.
Because Smart is a great HP practitioner, I loved how she makes Benjamin pout over his objectification by Freya: “His wife wanted him for two things. Money for her family and sex for herself. As a husband he was surplus to requirements … ” This is where the review part kicks in. I didn’t really love either of these two, but I was fascinated by how many ideas this HP elicited. That is due to what Smart can do with it: unravel the hero’s accretions of money and power (which, note, is never political, au contraire, always apolitical) as purposeless until he can put them to good purpose in building a life with the heroine. They diminish as determinants to his self-identity, so that the heroine can have everything: in this case, a career, a baby, a faithful, loving hunk in her bed, and a chateau in Province, among other things. And what does the hero get out of it: a purposeful life, a meaningful life: ” … thanking all the deities in the skies for giving him the second chance to be a better man with this woman who completed him.” He can be a better man, the decency leached out of him by “making it” in the capitalistic world can be rediscovered, repurposed, and reinvented.
If nothing else, I hope you read Smart’s Billionaire’s Bride For Revenge to tell me I’ve over-read things. There’s a whole discussion we can have about how Freya can’t dance once she and Benjamin have spectacular, singular sex. There’s a whole conversation possible over how the hero now has possession of her body as a cipher for how he possesses her heart … With Miss Austen, who didn’t appreciate my mountain out of a molehill, Billionaire’s Bride For Revenge merits “real comfort,” Emma.
Michelle Smart’s Billionaire’s Bride For Revenge is published by Harlequin Books. It was released on May 22nd and may be found at your preferred vendor. I received an e-ARC from Harlequin Books, via Netgalley.