REVIEW: “Charlotte Lamb’s HOT BLOOD: Passion/Dispassion”

Miss Bates was fascinated by Lamb’s Hot Blood and all that it implied, but she didn’t love it. She couldn’t embrace it as one would a beloved stuffy, a comfort read, a well-worn volume on the keeper shelf. It is a cat, sleek, mysterious, interesting, but definitely not cuddly, or warm. It engaged her and made her think about what defines inspirational romance.

Miss Bates reads, reviews, and enjoys inspirational romance, but has been dissatisfied by its definition and parameters. Inspirational romance is denominationally defined. (The no sex, no alcohol rule is also found in many “sweet” romances. None of these things in the hands of a master writer will detract from the creation of a deeply moving, interesting romantic narrative.) What inspirational romance lacks is plurality.

After reading Hot Blood, Miss Bates would argue two things: first, that inspirational romance and its readers would benefit from an expansion of their delineations; two, romance novels in general, non “inspirational” ones, like Hot Blood, would benefit from being examined through the lens of their religious implications.

Hot Blood was the final volume in Lamb’s “Sins” series and a fascinating concept. Hot Blood, Miss Bates thought in the course of her reading, is inspirational romance, though niche publishers and readers of the genre as described above would not recognize it as such. There is no God talk, and none of its characters practice any religion. Yet, it emerges with a theologically correct position, for want of better words. The key to understanding and appreciating this is evident in Lamb’s characterization; what matters in looking at the novel through this lens is not who these people are, but how do their instinctive selves behave. What do their bodies do as they are overwhelmed by emotions? What makes Lamb’s novel a romance with religious implications is a turning away from the passions, the “hot blood” of the title, to a movement, for the characters, towards “dispassion.” In the romance novel as envisioned by Lamb, this is a movement away from eros and towards agape.

There isn’t much to the plot of this novel; yet, certain unusual elements drew Miss Bates to it. The hero and heroine are in their fifties and they’re sexy as hell. Kit Randall is divorced and a grandmother; her lover, Liam Keble is a widower and grandfather. They’ve been lovers for two years. When the novel opens, they are estranged because Kit wants to marry, but Liam is commitment-shy. There are secondary love interests, Joe Ingram and Cary Burnaby respectively, who exacerbate the main couple’s volatile relationship. Though there is no physical or verbal abuse in this novel, these two seethe with rage, hatred, and jealousy. Note some of the language and imagery Lamb used to describe her characters and build an argument which privileges dispassion over passion:

Kit’s eyes are, “wide, glittering and sharp like shards of broken green glass in sunlight.” (7)

When Kit sees Liam, “She looked at him with love and anger, wanting to smack him hard.” (32)

When Liam confronts Kit about being seen with Joe, “his tone [is] as cutting as a knife going through silk,” and “he bit out like someone snapping cotton between their teeth.” (35) (The grammatical error in that last one grates.)

In just a few pages, note how physical responses represent their extreme emotions: “Are you dating Joe Ingram to stick a knife in me?” and “His voice was angry” and “Face burning, she angrily said,” and “His mouth twisted cynically” and “She bristled, glaring at him” and “she asked in pain” and “His eyes flashed; she felt the violence seething behind his face and tensed” and “her face clenched in misery and anger.” (44 – 47)

As emotions reach feverish intensity, Lamb pens Miss Bates’s favourite little passage describing one of Kit and Liam’s many confrontations, “Across the table their eyes met, like the eyes of deadly enemies with drawn swords between them” (112). These characters are out of control, their passions, or “hot blood,” rule/rules them, so much that their arguments take on a force “as if they had been fighting physically instead of verbally.

One of the ways in which Lamb intensifies the tension between the protagonists is by making Liam’s actions and reactions a mystery to Kit. (Indeed, Miss Bates enjoys this also in Betty Neels’s romances.) The hero is a closed room to the heroine. By staying strictly in the heroine’s consciousness, without accessing the hero’s, the hero holds as much mystery to the reader as he does to the heroine. Note the following passage from Hot Blood: “Yet Liam was still mysterious to her, his responses and emotions as indecipherable as some ancient script scratched on a primitive artefact. You could sometimes make out a line here or there, but the meaning of the whole defeated you. In fact, she was sure that he did not want her to know too much about him” (42). Miss Bates thinks that this is what makes the alpha hero, a hero whose motivations remain mysterious. He remains mysterious, unknowable, other.

As our protagonists boil and seethe and clench their teeth and turn red, even “fuchsia” for poor Kit, as their tempers run rampant and burst out of them uncontrollably, Lamb places her novel squarely in the inspirational camp, establishing an argument for dispassion. Passion puts these characters in a hellish realm. Indeed, the character who speaks for dispassion is none other than Liam’s foil, Joe Ingram, a war photographer who has witnessed what the rule of the passions brings to humanity. He says to Kit, ” ‘I want to believe in things again — in innocence and goodness and kindness. And people. Most of all, I want to like people and believe in them, without getting laughed at for my gullibility. I wanted to get up in the morning without being afraid that before I went to bed again I’d see people being blown apart or tortured or raped’ ” (87). “Hot blood” is outside of the rational, outside of attaining Joe’s “innocence and goodness and kindness.”

Lamb puts sexual passion in that realm too when she writes about Liam and Kit’s reconciliation in their love-making as, “her blood had begun to run like wildfire through her veins” (156). When Liam finally reveals the reason he was reluctant to marry, even though he loved Kit and was eaten by jealousy over her friendship with Joe, it involves “hot blood,” a traumatic experience he lived through with his wife (trying to avoid a spoiler here). “Hot blood” makes a character weak because he/she is not in control of him/herself. Anger, jealousy, lust, these are the passions that beset our protagonists and only dispassion can set them free to love, to be good to each other, to be kind to each other. When Kit and Liam finally come to this loving point, Kit in particular does so as a rational being in full control of her will and heart; her love for Liam and his for her is genuine, freely chosen and given, and will lead to a shared life of loving equals, “it had come at last in a mood of warm contentment, a shared happiness, not in the hot blood of their lovemaking” (188). Agape over eros, dispassion over passion.

This is a provocative and interesting read. In rendering her judgement, Miss Bates must look to Miss Austen’s own propensity for dispassion in creating/critiquing her most pro-passion heroine, Emma, when she described her thus, “A mind lively and at ease.”

(If you’d like to read Hot Blood and Miss Bates recommends that you do, it is available digitally, or used at the usual places. It was published in 1996 by Harlequin. Miss Bates picked it up for pennies at a church bazaar because the hero and heroine on the cover are grey-haired and the coverlet on the bed is kitschy.)

REVIEW: Iris Johansen’s The Lady and the Unicorn: The Myth Of the Alpha

Iris Johansen’s The Lady and the Unicorn was published in 1983; it is available to readers via Loveswept’s digital reprints. This is a romance novel stamped with the flaws of its time and a reader must suspend certain sensibilities to enjoy it. Enjoy it Miss Bates did, however, even while gritting her teeth and squirming with embarrassment in places. No matter its failings, Johansen is a lovely writer and can paint a scene with beauty and subtlety. For that alone, it is worth reading.

The compelling opening to The Lady and the Unicorn puts it in the Brontë Camp of romance novels. For this reader, one of whose favourite novels is Jane Eyre, this is a sure way to hook and reel me in. An original scene opens the novel: Janna Cannon rappels into millionaire Rafe Santine’s fortress, his “Thornfield,” determined to convince him to donate prime development-bound real estate to her employer, a wild life reserve looking for a new home for its wards. The associations to Jane Eyre are immediate: a lowering citadel; a heroine named Janna, an orphaned innocent with an independent spirit and a moral and spiritual bent; a hero who is irascible, discontented, impatient, officious and, to quote the Bard, at a point in his life where “man delights not me, nor no woman neither.” Though brooding, petulant, and seemingly indifferent to her, he’s affected by Janna’s beauty and purity. Her conquest of his stronghold walls is a foreshadowing of her triumph over his emotional ones. (Even her last name, Cannon, is indicative of the power she’ll have over them.) Like Jane Eyre, Jenna is cared for, coddled, protected; she converses as an equal and roams the grounds, experiencing sublime natural surroundings.

Johansen’s writing is graceful, fluent and makes interesting use of natural and animal imagery. The romance is structured around these metaphors and they both elevate and damn it. On the damning side, Rafe strikes a deal with Jenna: he will donate the land and she, in turn, will spend two months isolated in his fortress as his “pet.” Jenna is the “gazelle” that arouses his “hunting instincts.” Metaphors of hunter and prey, pet and keeper necessitate the reader to suspend certain sensibilities regarding the novel. Rafe and Jenna work out their relationship on the basis of this uncomfortable premise, made worse by the fact that Jenna is part Native American. Jenna is stereotyped when Rafe calls her “my little earth mother,” “Pocahontas,” and “little doe.” Rafe holds her captive, manhandles her, and flies into jealous fits. He is always, as he tells Jenna, on the brink of “losing control.” Thus, Rafe is the beast and Jenna the dove who will tame him. He, in turn, will domesticate her and rein her desire for the open spaces and independence. A distasteful scenario of captivity and compulsion.

The Lady and the Unicorn comprises passages of beauty; the writing is consistently polished and flows with ease and grace. As I said above, the use of animal and natural imagery elevates the novel and makes it worth reading. The reader will appreciate and enjoy the lovely passage where Jenna tames Rafe’s vicious guard dogs, the descriptions of the wild and craggy lands that surround Rafe’s castle, whose beauty sustain Jenna’s spirit, and the comfort Jenna draws from the splendor of a sunset when she is sorrowful. Most importantly, the legend of the lady and the unicorn serves as an elucidation of Rafe’s volatile, capricious moods and meteoric personality. In the end, Janna is free to decide her role in the legend and the answer lies in love, compromise, and sacrifice for both characters.

There is much to love about The Lady and the Unicorn and much that one can deride too. It is undeniable that the descriptive writing is a cut above; it is true that Johansen deftly makes use of a charming mythical reference. In the end, it reminded me somewhat of Laura London’s Lightning That Lingers, with the animal and natural world coming to bear upon the romance. You won’t like everything about it, but you won’t easily forget the lady and her unicorn either.

Almost pretty.”  Northanger Abbey

This review is the result of a generous e-ARC from Random House/Loveswept via Netgalley.