Tuesday, March 30, 2010

TBR Tuesday: The Rashomon Effect in Reading Romances

It's TBR Tuesday, which means I've read another book from my TBR pile.  And there's a funny story about this one.

I've been reading a lot of contemporaries and near-contemporaries.  (I say "near-contemporaries" because with the folks at AAR asking if the 20th century is now long enough ago to be historical -- so that the Edwardian era, WWI, the Roaring Twenties, the Depression, and WWII can become grist for the historical romance author's mill -- and my reading 40 year old Harlequins, I predict we're going to have a rumble in the Eisenhower Era between rival gangs: the Contempos and the Histies!)  So, for today's TBR, I thought I would read a solidly 19th century romance: Jo Beverley's Dangerous Joy.  That's the next in the Rogue series for me.

Well, I'd started it before -- it's the one that involves the juvenile delinquent high spirited Irish ward -- I stalled about 40 pages in.  But how bad can it be; it's a Jo Beverley.  So I started up again, and again I was about 40 pages in when my friend Janet called.

Janet has put me onto a lot of great books, including Jo Beverleys that I've adored, so when I said I was starting Dangerous Joy again and she agreed it was a bit of a slog, I paid attention.  "It's a shame you don't have Forbidden Magic," she raved.  "Such a lovely book.  He seduces her with words.  She's innocent but not naive, and she's got these wonderfully embroidered undergarments.  I mean, she has magic but really he has the magic . . ."

With some careful questions, I was able to learn the following about Forbidden Magic: It's a stand-alone novel, so not part of the Rogue series.  It's delightful and definitely one of Janet's favorites.  (I learned later that she's read it more than once.)

As it happened, I had it right on top of a pile of Jo Beverleys.  Yippee!  I dived right in, certain I was going to have a lovely reading experience.

Here's what I'd extrapolated from Janet's glowing recommendation.  I figured it was going to be one of those "experienced hero and innocent heroine come to terms in the bedroom and out" books.  With embroidered undergarments.  Oh, and magic, but I could have deduced that from the title.  [Beverley isn't too allegorical with her titles; Dangerous Joy = Joy (Felicity's nom de guerre when she and Miles first encounter each other) + his attraction to her while still being her guardian (i.e., Dangerous).]

Here's what I actually got from Forbidden Magic (and if you've never read this book, and want all the delight of discovering this stuff on your own, then, sure There Be Some Spoilers Ahead.  But really?  Read this -- it will help keep the book from annoying you as much as it annoyed me):

Meg has two distinguishing features when we meet her:  Desperate Straits and Magical Powers.  If she doesn't use the Magical Powers before New Year's Eve, their Evil Landlord (who was the Old Family Friend but is now the Local Sexual Pervert) will claim Meg's beautiful 15 year-old sister as his sexual plaything.  Now, I rather assumed that Sir Arthur was a catalyst: not really part of the action, but necessary for the next step.  I assumed that also about the Dragon, the hero's maternal grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Daingerfield (you can call her Rodney; she gets no respect).  I was wrong, but you'll see in a moment why it wasn't an unreasonable assumption.

Okay, so Meg needs to use her Magic Powers to get her and her siblings out of the Desperate Straits.  That power involves having an orgasm (oh, yes, it so does -- this isn't even subtle imagery; frankly the secret embroidery gets less exposition than the Magical Orgasm does) while holding a sexually explicit female form called a sheelagh-ma-gig.  I finally decided that the sheelagh was a stone carving halfway between a mini-blow up doll, and an anatomically correct Barbie Doll with issues.  (We're assured in the author's notes that a sheelagh is A Real Thing.)

Now, Meg knows that the powers of the sheelagh always come with a "yes, but" clause; a sting in the tail, as she calls it.  So she wishes very carefully:  "I wish, that within the week, we shall all be provided for as befits our station, with honor and happiness."  Frankly, that's the last smart thing this woman thinks of.  After that, she's pretty close to Too Stupid to Live.

Meanwhile, our hero, the Earl of Saxonhurst, has to marry someone by the end of the week or the Dragon will pick someone for him.  He knows who, too -- Daphne, a second cousin who wears the ancestral betrothal ring from his family even though they are related on the distaff side; according to the Dragon, Sax has to marry Daphne because he stole her virtue when they were in their respective prams.  (Don't ask; thankfully this accusation isn't explained further.)  Not unreasonably with the Dragon as his only remaining family, Sax has anger issues.  He likes to break things to relieve stress and tension, so his servants ensure a ready supply of ugly stuff close to hand for the purpose.  Hey, presto, one of the maids knows of this genteel/shabby family in Desperate Straits, so she's sent off to propose marriage to Meg on Sax's behalf.

And here's where the book still seems okay.  They marry, he does just as Janet had said he would: seduces Meg with words.  There are glimmers of sexual tension.  There's even a hint of the embroidered undergarments.  (Hey, I like embroidery.  The illustration at left is one of the prettiest ever in any children's book:  "No More Twist" from Beatrix Potter's The Tailor of Gloucester.  I wish I could stitch -- or draw -- that well!)  But Meg screws it up, royally.  She leaves the sheelagh behind in the house they were renting, the house owned by our skeevy landlord, Sir Arthur.  Girlfriend, what were you thinking?

I won't even attempt to explain why she's that bone-headed.  But it's a mistake that leads to the whole rest of the book, including Meg's being accused of murder, the real murderer revealed (and receiving his just desserts), more sexual perversion, more insanity, more misunderstandings, and a screwdriver.  The screwdriver is a nice touch, but the rest is Throw This Book At The Wall-worthy.

Yes, they finally have sex, but even that is obscured by covers and is more distracting than pleasant because it occurs a) in a cold house, and b) while Meg is Suspect Number One for a murder.  After that, the rest of the book was a teeter-totter of Danger! Meg!! signs and Sax is Sexy moments.  It was a relief to finish it.

I called Janet to complain -- how could she recommend a book with sexual perversion (of which we see more than we do the embroidered undergarments -- yes, I'm obsessed with the embroidery.  I was promised embroidery, and I wanted to enjoy the embroidery.  It, at least, is pretty), murders (lots of murders), actually scary stuff (new rule: when Meg being incarcerated in The Tower is presented as the rosy scenario, the book's too scary), and not enough good stuff.  (Because -- even if you don't share my interest in the needle-arts, there wasn't enough kissing, cuddling, touching, etc., etc. -- or at least not enough by people with healthy libidos!)

Janet seemed shocked that all that gross stuff was in the book, despite having read it several times.  I accused her of having taken an X-Acto knife to her copy and making a perfectly pleasant (if incoherent) slender volume out of the nice bits.  But I know what happened.  She read it on a sunny day and only saw the sunny bits -- the bits where Sax is nibbling on Meg's neck or buying her a Portuguese cap or dallying with her on the bed.  And sure, that book is in there.

But I read a completely different book.  I read a book with a panicky heroine with deeply flawed judgment (leaving the sheelagh behind was idiotic; telling Sax she won't sleep with him unless and until he patches things up with his grandmother is wrong from every single angle: none of her business, misplaced loyalty, insufficient information, etc.).  Meg also prefers to deal with monsters rather than trust any of the people disposed to help her, and is dimmer than dryer lint at many crucial points in the book.  Guess what: my version of Forbidden Magic is in there too.

Anyone else read this book?  If so, which one did you read?


  1. Janet here :) Well, now when I answer your question about the Perfect Book, it will be a book where I remember EVERYTHING! Like perhaps His Lordship's Mistress ... or Friday's Child. Seriously, I was shocked, shocked I tell you that you so dwelt on the bits of unpleasantness when there was so much lovely embroidery! LoL!

  2. I've read it, I own it, but I can't remember it very well. Honestly, pretty much everything you said, including what Janet said - is not in my memory banks. I do remember the sheelagh-ma-gig. I don't think I hated it, but it wasn't my favourite Jo Beverley, that's for sure.

    I don't know that Dangerous Joy was a favourite of the Company of Rogues series either - I ended up liking it but it's not a re-read I don't think. I reckon it's better than Forbidden Magic anyway!!

  3. It was one of the first couple of Beverley novels I read, and I honestly can't even remember the embroidery!

  4. I think the only books I've read by Jo Beverley are a couple of Medieval romances. I must give her other books a go.


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