I’m currently at page 216 of a book that I had to talk about to someone. I first tried to talk with my husband about it, but he doesn’t read romances and can’t really get into a conversation about the merits (or lack there of) of one. So I emailed Candy and Sarah to see if they’d read it. Neither of them has, but Sarah thought that my take on it might be of interest, so here we are.
The book is Devil’s Embrace, by Catherine Coulter. According to the back of the book, it was originally published in 1982. Also, according to the back cover, Coulter “updated it stylistically, edited it, trimmed it just a bit, and the art department designed a splendid new cover that magically includes some of the original artwork.”
I will say now that I’ve never read the original, so I don’t know how much of what I have to say only pertains to this reissued version. I also want to firmly establish the fact that I like Coulter’s writing a great deal and own several of her books at this very moment. If it wasn’t for the fact that I like her books so much, I wouldn’t have succumbed to the lure of this book, sitting in the grocery store, all shiny and inexpensive, whispering “You know you don’t have anything new to read at home right now” when a saner voice was trying to remind me that first books from favorite authors, especially from the early 1980s, are often a bit of a disappointment.
I wish that “a bit of a disappointment” were the extent of this book’s problems.
I know that the whole captor-captive rape fantasy was a big part of the romances in the 1980s. And, hey, I can get behind a rape fantasy or two. I didn’t mind the Johanna Lindsey one with the pirate and the platinum blond too much and I distinctly remember liking me some sheikh/captive books back in the day. For that matter, Suzanne Forster’s Blush (1996) and her Innocence (1997) played with the whole captor-captive theme and those books were hot enough to scorch your fingers.
But this book…wow.
It starts out with this guy, Edward, coming home from the Army because he has to assume the title. He’s a Viscount. There’s a girl, Cassandra, aka Cassie, and she’s loved him and planned to marry him since she was about 8 years old. They’ve been exchanging letters, secretly, since she was 15 and he first went away. (Well, it wasn’t a secret from her brother, just from her governess/companion.) Cassie likes to sail her own little sailboat, fish in the ocean, and swim in the ocean (with no chaperone and in a shift, of course, because so many well-bred women of her time did). When Edward comes home finally, his first sight of her is her coming out of the ocean, with her shift all wet and transparent. Before he finds out that it’s Cassie, he’s thinking that he wants a piece of that. *cue ominous music* Well, after he finds out, he still wants a piece of that but since she’s a lady and he’s planning to marry her, he can’t have any of that until they’re legally wedded. So, she flat out tells him that since he’s home now and she’s 18, they’re getting married. He’s onboard with that and asks her brother, who’s thrilled. The only person not happy about is the woman who’s been like a mother to her, Cassie’s governess/companion, who dislikes the Viscount intensely for no obvious reason. *cue more ominous music, only with more strings—probably cellos* She’s been like a mother to Cassie because Cassie’s mother died in childbirth. (The dad kicked off, too, but it’s not very clear about when that happened.)
So, things are going well. Cassie’s happy to be marrying the man she loves and she’s pretty interested in the whole sexual vibe between them. Edward’s happy to marrying the woman he loves and he’s pretty interested in the whole sexual vibe between them. The brother is happy that his sister is happy. Only governess/companion is unhappy and trying to talk Cassie into delaying the whole thing.
This is the first 35-40 pages of the book.
Then, the day before Cassie’s wedding, the governess/companion suggests Cassie get some fresh air. She takes her little boat out to do just that when she sees a much larger yacht named The Cassandra (Hello? Clue?? Anyone??). When said yacht nearly swamps her little boat and then captures it, she’s sure she’s about to be taken by white slavers. But who should jump aboard her ship from The Cassandra? Why, it’s the kindly gentleman who was a friend of the family for as long as she can remember, Anthony Welles, Earl of Claire. Hurray! He isn’t a white slaver! He’s the man who aided her brother when their father died. He’s the man she’s always considered an “indulgent uncle”. Apparently, he’s also the man who was desperately in lust with her mother even though she was about 6 years older than him and when he went to find her again, found her very married and very pregnant (and then she had the discourtesy as to die, apparently). He’s the man who, when he saw Cassie at 14 and saw that she was the “image of her mother”, he was “drawn” to her. When she was 17, he decided he had to have her for himself. He’s the man who has apparently been paying the governess/companion to rear Cassie to his specifications (he’s half Italian and she’s been taught Italian, etc.) and to help him kidnap her. He’s the man that forces her onto his yacht and then destroys her boat on the rocks so everyone will think she is dead. To sum up, he’s a crazy, obsessed, stalker who couldn’t get the mother so he’s transferred his crazy, obsessed stalker-y to the daughter. He’s the pseudo-uncle, so he’s crazy, obsessed, stalker-y pseudo-incest guy! He’s 34; she’s 18! When he first decided that Cassie was his, he was 30 years old and she was 14!! He’s crazy, obsessed, stalker-y, pseudo-incest-y, pedophile guy!! He tells her that he’s taking her to Italy and they are getting married, despite any objections she might have to the whole scenario and that’s that. After all, she’ll “come to understand”.
She says repeatedly that she hates him and that she wants him dead when she’s not trying to fight him off physically and he basically thinks it’s cute. She says that she loves Edward, has always loved Edward, and won’t ever feel anything but hate for this guy and he tells her that “her turbulent girl’s infatuation for” the Viscount would not have lasted. If he were the villain, I could live with this, but this guy is the hero?? Then he rapes her because “to allow [her] to continue in [her] virgin state would be the height of foolishness, for it would encourage [her] to nourish unfounded hopes” and we’re supposed to think he’s a good guy because he used some sort of lubricant! And then….then he lets her steer his yacht. You know, because she loves to sail and because, of course, Edward would never let her sail once they’re married (not that he ever said that, mind you, we’re just supposed to take Lord Creepy Uncle’s word for it). And of course, she starts to relax her guard some—the day after he raped her—because he let her steer the boat! And then he rapes her again that night and she can’t help but come all over himâ€”because passion is a mighty force that cannot be denied between some people (per Lord Creepy Uncle).
The last straw for me was when she woke up the third morning, feeling guilty for betraying Edward by responding to Lord Creepy Uncle and ponders whether she was ever really sexually attracted to Edward or if she’d just been “curious”. Okay, in all honesty, that was only the first of the “last straws” for me because I keep getting sucked back in to see if it is going to get worse. Then I hit another “last straw”, put it down for a couple of days, and come back. Which is why I’m stalled at page 216.
One of the major problems is the characterization. Cassie is plot-dumb and it drives me crazy when a character is stupid and incurious whenever the plot necessitates her to be stupid and incurious. For example, Lord Creepy Uncle is the one to tell her, all smugly and prideful, when she’s pregnant! (Because how else could we yet again affirm that Cassie is all that is innocence and light if she actually figured out for herself, “Hmmmmmm, I’m throwing up constantly for no obvious reason but I feel fine in the afternoon. He only lets me wear my nightgown when I’m on my period and I haven’t worn one in forever! We’ve had sex every day, sometimes several times a day, and the governess/companion did have that embarrassing sex talk with me before I was kidnapped, and I was raised in the country” If the girl got hit any harder with the Clue Bat, she’d be concussed!)
Even more maddening, Cassie doesn’t once go—“How did he know I was going to be out today? How does he know about the letters I was secretly exchanging with Edward while he was away in the Army? How did he know what size I wear to fill the closets with all of these sumptuous clothes? The governess/companion insisted I learn Italian—what a coincidence I was captured by a man who is half Italian and plans to take me to Italy! The governess/companion sent me out for “fresh air” the day before the wedding to a man that she hates for no reason and look who shows up!” Mind you, she remarks on all of this whenever yet another glaringly obvious clue smacks her in the face but she is seemingly incapable of following up on these questions, even in her own head, before she is—OH LOOK! SHINY!
Also, it just irritates the hell out of me that I’m supposed to believe the rapacious Earl as a hero and all of this as so very romantic. Are you kidding me?? He is one of the most unlikable “heroes” I’ve ever encountered! It’s not just his actions, it’s his attitude and what he says and whenever he’s on the page, I just wish that someone with more brains (and maybe more balls) would smash his face in! And it often appears that Coulter realized that he wasn’t likable and that it was very easy to draw unwanted comparisons to the Arabic pirate/slaver villain in the book because even dumb-as-a-post Cassie notices this. That would at least explain the random scene at the dinner party where Cassie sits in on a business meeting between Anthony and one of his shipping partners. The partner feels that they can recoup some losses by shipping and selling slaves in the Colonies. Cassie makes some mighty smart-mouthed remarks (because it’s necessary to prove that she’s as spirited/feisty/yadda yadda yadda as the hero often states that she is) and then offers a brilliant solution for recouping some of those losses without shipping/selling slaves (because it’s time to show she’s actually as intelligent as the hero often states she is – and what better way than having an 18-year old who thinks being in trade is beneath someone of their class and who has never been exposed to anything to do with trade, in general, and shipping, specifically, be some sort of genius with the perfect idea of what to do?).
When the business partner concedes that this is, indeed, a brilliant solution that he himself never even considered (because he has to be plot-stupid, too, if this scene is going to work) but that it won’t make as much money as slaving would, Good Ole Lord Creepy Uncle says that they will leave the slaving to “other, less scrupulous” men. See! He’s really a Good Guy! He’s not like that pirate/slaver with the Arabic name and the harem slave girls! He won’t trade slaves – just stalk and kidnap girls! And only this one girl! And he’s only letting the people who love her think she’s dead for a while – just until she agrees to marry him and settles into her new life! If he were the villain and I knew that he was going to die some horrible death like, maybe, she shoots him in the head, feeds him to sharks and steers his yacht off into the sunset, it wouldn’t bother me nearly as much. In fact, she does shoot him once. She wounds him while trying to escape, even though she desperately doesn’t want to, because he’s not such a bad man! (For an asshole?) But when he jumps into the ocean after her, he begins to flounder because she wounded him and she is so overwhelmed by guilt and concern that the stupid twit rescues him! And then she nurses him back to health!
Perhaps you’ve thought, “Okay, maybe his crew is blindly loyal to him and they wouldn’t help her, despite how they all instantly lurvvvve her and admire her and call her “Madonna” (because she’s so completely and instantly captivating by all who see her, except for anyone that might actually want to help her). But the girl speaks Italian! Why wouldn’t she tell someone, like her maid (who lurvvvveeesss her) or the housekeeper (who is nasty to her because she thinks Cassie is a dirty whore for cohabitating without marriage with the Lord)? Because the plot says she doesn’t!
And perhaps you noticed when I was talking about the business meeting that Cassie was at a dinner party, presumably with other highborn people who might be appalled that Lord Creepy Uncle kidnapped and repeatedly raped her, a Lady? How did that work, you might say? Well, he gave her a new boat to make up for the one he smashed. It’s on a small lake, so she can’t actually go anywhere, but he gave her a boat. And she gushed and mewled because, you know, it’s a boat! And she loves to sail and fish! Because that’s just the kind of plucky girl she is! All she has to do to keep the boat is to not say anything about this situation (and, because she’s still refusing to marry him, allow everyone to think that she’s his mistress that he’s moved in)! And she does! Because the plot requires it!
Oh, and we’re supposed to believe that Edward, her Viscount fiance, is a bad man (at least not hero material) because he might object to her sailing by herself? Also, he ogled her when he saw her from a distance in a wet, nearly-transparent shift and thought she was just some girl from town and he slept with another woman a week before he went home to see Cassie again. Of course, we’re never actually shown any reason why this man isn’t the man for her or why she should forget him or even why the Earl is a better match for her. Edward slept with someone else!
Apparently, the fact that he can even consider sex with someone else besides Cassie is the Big Sign that he’s not the True and Everlasting Love. Nevermind that Lord Anthony has his own mistress – excuse me, former mistress – just waiting back home to be mean to his “bride.” Oh, and of course, the former mistress is having villain-sex with the Earl’s half-brother because we must establish firmly that she wasn’t just promiscuous enough to voluntarily sleep with the Earl, she’s such a slut, she will sex up the brother too. Because she’s BAD! Bad and evil! Because all beautiful, sexy, sexual, confident, independently wealthy, widowed women are bad. Those traits, after all, are sure signs of her vast insecurities, insecurities that will no doubt lead to bitter jealousy, various vile acts, and probably death.
When I told my husband about this book and about how much I hated the hero, he said that maybe Edward does come to the rescue in the end. I told him that the back cover indicates that this is the Couple—and besides, Lord Creepy Uncle got her virginity and, by canon, he who get-eth the virginity get-eth the hero status. Candy reminded me that the true clincher was that Cassie came all over the Earl the second time he raped her because he who makes her come, gets the prize. She’s right – Anthony deflowered Cassie and made her come, so she’s pretty much done for. Because the heroine must never have good sex with anyone other than her One True and Everlasting Love. It’s the “tell.” She can have truly horrifying sexual experiences that leave her emotionally and psychologically scarred and she can have sex that is so lackluster as to be nearly inconsequential (with previous husbands in historicals or previous boyfriends in contemporaries) but orgasms only happen with True and Everlasting guy.
Despite my ranting above, for a first book, the story pacing isn’t too bad and the prose only hits the occasional shades of lavender. The dialogue clunks a bit here and there, but again, first book. Stylistically, it wouldn’t bother me too much and if I were to give it a grade just based on that, I’d probably give it a C. However, in terms of content, this is one of the worst romances I’ve ever read—or maybe it’s worse for me because I generally really like her stuff and this is such a disappointment. I don’t know. I do know that the heroine is stupid and the hero should be fed to sharks.