I really loved The Lass Wore Black by Karen Ranney, like I-should-be-working-but-I’m-gonna-read liked it. I found myself stealing whatever snippets of time I could to finish the novel. To top it off, it’s a Beauty and the Beast story, my favorite fairy tale trope.
Now, I like my historical romances meaty (insert joke here) and filled with character-driven conflict. Ever since I read Pride and Prejudice as a teen, I’ve loved romances where the hero and/or heroine need to overcome some character flaw in order to find HEA with each other. Give me change, dammit!
The Lass Wore Black has this in spades. In fact, at first I wasn’t even sure I would like the book, because I sure as hell didn’t like the heroine in the beginning.
Catriona Cameron is a remarkably beautiful woman, and she uses her beauty to her advantage. In the past she’s lived as the mistress of wealthy men, but now her sister has married an earl, and she’s using the elevation in her family’s standing to try and snag a duke. She’s at a party with said duke when she sees a former lover, and she flees rather than face potential scandal. On her way home, her carriage turns over, gravely injuring Catriona and killing her maid.
Six months later, Catriona is living in Edinburgh with her Aunt Dina. The carriage accident injured Catriona’s arm and leg, and also seriously disfigured her face. Grieving for the loss of her beauty, she locks herself away in a darkened room and refuses to admit anyone. She wears a dark veil to hide her face even when alone.
Catriona really isn’t eating, and Aunt Dina is concerned that she’s starving herself to death. Catriona has thus far driven away all the doctors her aunt has called, and so Dina tries a more unconventional approach. Dina knows Dr. Mark Thorburn from charity work they both do in Old Town (a poverty stricken section of Edinburgh). Mark agrees to see Catriona under the pretense that he is a footman charged with making sure she eats. He knows she’ll dismiss a doctor, but believes she might be more tolerant of a servant.
From the moment Mark and Catriona meet, sparks fly and ignite a battle of wills. Mark refuses to be cowed by Catriona’s venomous personality, which initially shocks and enrages her. Mark explains that Dina has given him permission to be impertinent with Catriona in order to get to her to eat, a fact that she finds incredibly frustrating. Even locked away, she lives a life of luxury and doesn’t have to deal with anyone she doesn’t want to. Each day they meet, sniping at each other until Catriona finally begins to crack and eats something. As time goes by Catriona finds herself longing for Mark’s company, and, as she softens, Mark becomes intrigued by the intelligent, unconventional woman that Catriona is.
At first I was irritated as shit with Catriona’s attitude. Sure, she’s scarred, but she’s still living a pretty sweet life all things considered. As more of Catriona’s back story was revealed, I began to sympathize with her more. Catriona’s father was a physician. When his wife was dying of cancer, he administered a fatal dose of painkiller to ease her suffering and was sent to the gallows for murder. Catriona and her sister were left orphaned and alone, tainted by scandal, and they nearly starved as a result. The girls found work as maids, but Catriona soon learned to live by her beauty. She discovered that she was able to entice and manipulate men, and she used this to gain security. Catriona’s beauty isn’t only an advantage, it’s the asset she’s been using to survive. When she loses her looks she loses her identity, and the quality that has given her a foothold in an otherwise indifferent or cruel world.
Mark also has his share of backstory angst. He comes from a wealthy aristocratic family but was inspired to become a doctor by Catriona’s father. His own family is pretty shitty about his decision to practice medicine, and even more shitty about him treating the poor in Old Town. Rather than admiring his charity, his family is repulsed by it, making him feel like an outcast. I was never totally sure if Mark craved his family's approval or craved a family that was wasn't quite so douchey. Regardless, he comes across as aloof and cool with people, even with his patients.
In the intimacy of her shadowed rooms, Catriona and Mark find a connection in their mutual feelings of being outcasts. Their longing for each other is palpable, and Catriona is no novice when it comes to the pleasures of sex:
She grieved for the girl she had been, unwise and improvident. Had she somehow realized that she quickly needed to taste all that life had to offer, because it would one day be cut short? She would never be a lover again. She would never be a wife…
“Could you leave now?” she said, her voice raspy from unshed tears. (Ranney 90).
Catriona’s desire for human connection, for touch, is almost painful to read:
“She forced herself to look at him. He was standing and coming around the table.
Please do not touch me. Don’t let your hand linger on the sleeve of my dress so that I can feel the warmth of you. Please do not say anything kind or gentle, because I will begin to weep.” (Ranney 91).
Oh. My. God. I’m having all the feelings.
As Mark begins to coax Catriona from her rooms and into the world my heart started to melt for both of them. Then Ranney hit me with more angsty-sauce.
Finally overcome by the need to be near another person, Catriona buckles and, still thinking Mark is a footman, offers him money if he will bed her. She is shamed by the request, feeling like the older men who used to buy her company, but desperately needs touch all the same. She demands that she be allowed to keep her veil on so she can hide he face from Mark. Mark is conflicted, but ultimately can’t resist her:
“She was his. Catriona Cameron, beauty, termagant, spoiled, willful, surprising, ever-changing, was his, if only for tonight.” (Ranney 112).
The sex scene in this book was beautiful and heartbreaking, and it stood out for me as the moment when both Catriona and Mark began to look past their own private demons and to each other. I think part of my mad love for this book was the fact that it didn’t so much contain unresolved sexual tension as it did unresolved longing for intimacy. These characters don’t just want sex, they want companionship, understanding, and absolutely love. I felt like Catriona turned to sex because she knew it, was familiar with it, but it was Mark's tenderness and acceptance of her body that ultimately brought her the satisfaction she was yearning for.
As Catriona spends more time with Mark she reflects on the woman she was, a woman she no longer likes. Like the Beast from the fairy tale, Catriona's facial scarring is a reflection of her inner ugliness. She reveled in being the most beautiful, in putting other women down. Quite frankly, even as a girl, she was kind of a bitch.
“…she’d been popular. At Ballindair, she’d genuinely enjoyed the company of the other maids. She’d laughed with them, and gossiped, and told tales that weren’t kind. She also been silly, unwise, and even mean at times.”(Ranney 289).
Eventually Catriona discovers that Mark is a doctor, not a footman, and she views his deception as a betrayal of her trust. Humiliated and hurt, she tries to pull away from him, but Mark doesn’t let her. He takes her with him to Old Town, to see the true ugliness of the world, to make her understand real suffering. Shocked by the harshness of his lesson, Catriona effectively banishes Mark from her life.
Catriona isn’t the only one who has to change to find love. Mark is still bitter and conflicted about his family’s disapproval of his life and career. He continues to practice medicine, but hangs on to them with one hand, never really allowing himself to be free to experience happiness. He knows that his relationship with Catriona will be met with disapproval, and his family has more or less selected a nice young woman for him to marry. Pursuing Catriona in earnest means rejecting their approval of him entirely.
Along with all this emotional drama is some pretty solid external conflict too. One of Catriona’s ex lovers, furious at being spurned by her, is plotting to kill her. It was a fairly important plot point, but I only mention it in passing because the book didn’t need any would-be murderers to move along. Catriona and Mark had so much forward momentum as a couple that I felt like they practically wrote the book themselves; I didn't hear Ranney's voice so much as Mark and Catriona's, telling their story.
Obviously I thought The Lass Wore Black was amaze-balls. I loved it so much I wanted to spoon it and call it pet names. That said, it fits very cleanly into what I crave in a romance novel. If you need happy, perky, virginal heroines, I don't recommend this book. If you don’t dig the angst, don’t pick this up either because it's full of it. If, like me, you crave the drama, then add it to your collection; it just hurts so, so good.