marriage without love, Penny Jordan (1981)
This is probably only the second Harlequin Romance I've read, and I'm reminded of a behind the scenes special about the writers of the hit TV show 24 who took pride in the criticism leveled against a nighttime soap they wrote decades before called Knott's Landing. They quoted the critic as having written, “Dumb but never dull.” That sums up this novel.
Enter Briony, a bitter but beautiful young secretary dumped by a reporter named Kieron, who, we’re given to understand through a series of flashbacks, had briefly dated and slept with Briony in order to acquire a scoop from her about Briony’s roommate's brother (a wanted criminal in hiding). Kieron then left Briony, presumably without calling, leaving a note or a forwarding address. When his story hits the paper, Briony is indignant. Understandably, she’s convinced Kieron merely used her. Briony’s roommate’s brother is arrested; furious, Briony’s roommate kicks her out of the apartment.
Unbeknownst to Kieron, one of their illicit nights together produced a son, Nicky. Three years later, Kieron returns when he's offered the position of boss at a newspaper where Briony works. Once there, Kieron treats Briony horribly. He’s overbearing and cruel. Briony in turn feels trapped. Unsuccessful finding employment elsewhere, she resolves to remain at the newspaper and make the best of it. But Kieron relentlessly insinuates himself into her life until he discovers that she produced a child and that the boy is his son.
Kieron demands Briony marry him for the sake of the child. Briony, hating Kieron for bailing on her after he got his scoop, seeks alternative measures. (I don't know where the court's sympathies were in Great Britain for single mothers in 1981, but Briony is convinced that if she challenges Kieron in court, Kieron would win custody of her son and that she might never see her boy again.) And so reluctantly but convinced she's out of options, Briony marries Kieron who, as far as the reader is concerned, is a despicable excuse for a man.
Up to this point in the story, I was incredulous as to whether women care for this sort of romance. Granted, the man is tall, dark and handsome, and he's certainly got an inexhaustible supply of testosterone, but his cruel and threatening approach toward Briony is contemptible and sometimes shocking. He occasionally manhandles her in ways best described as battery. Granted, this was published in 1981, when male chauvinism in the workplace got a pass or at least didn't face the same consequences it presumably does today. And, admittedly, one of the reasons I kept reading this supposed romance was to determine whether this is really, deep down, what women enjoy reading. Briony herself appears both repelled and aroused by Kieron's behavior toward her. I've got to assume some readers are either not as bothered by his behavior as I am or that they believe his well-chiseled features trump charm.
But can a man, despite his physical attributes, actually appeal to a woman when he demonstrates such a dangerous temper? A few years ago, I would've said no, but I've since met such a woman, and apart from causing me to lose faith in the fairer sex, it's conditioned me to find the relationship between Briony and Kieron, sadly, more credible. I guess, naively, I never thought such women read.
At any rate, my fascination kept me turning the pages. I had to find out whether this miserable relationship would find resolution or whether the story would end with Briony despondent, if not, strangely, concurrently aroused by her husband and his brutish ways.
Toward the end of the story we learn via Kieron's godmother that Kieron hadn't exactly bailed on Briony three years ago after all. Instead, Kieron had been abruptly required to fly to Angola to cover some violent outbreak there, leaving Briony a note she never got but Kieron assumed she had. (Briony, confronted with this revelation, considers the note to have been intercepted by her roommate out of revenge for the information Briony unwittingly provided Kieron about her roommate's fugitive brother). In addition to the note, Kieron had mailed Briony a letter she never received. Shortly thereafter Kieron had been captured by that country's aggressors, nearly died, lost the will to live (since he assumed Briony had ignored his letter), and ultimately, when accepting the post as boss at the paper she worked for three years later, was shocked to discover not only that Briony worked there but that she wanted nothing to do with him. For the purposes of plot, this secret was never discussed at any point throughout the novel until the penultimate scene so that the reader could, presumably, enjoy the reconciliation sex.
Prior to this revelation, however, watching these two figuratively go at each other's throats, I couldn't stop turning the pages. Serviceable writing, indignant characters, cheeky dialogue, sex scenes that today would qualify as rape, and sexual tension that, while I suspect was meant to be provocative, actually stunned me. If that's not an endorsement for a novel, despite my better judgement, I don't know what qualifies. Three out of five stars. R