A longtime romance aficionado and frequent commenter to SBTB, Lisa is a queer Latine critic with a sharp tongue and lots of opinions. She frequently reviews at All About Romance and Women Write About Comics, where she’s on staff, and you can catch her @thatbouviergirl on Twitter. There, she shares good reviews, bracing industry opinions and thoughtful commentary when she’s not on her grind looking for the next good freelance job. This is her third review with Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.
CW/TW: Rape and sex with consent issues, explicitly explained death by childbirth.
I made a classic quarantine mistake the other week. I was alone, my TBR pile threadbare, waiting for the latest sweet infusion of books from my library’s lending program. So I cleaned my shelf out, searching for things to donate.
That brought me back in touch with Catherine Coulter’s 1990 release Night Storm. Rereading it was like taking a protracted vacation with my thirteen year old romance reading self – one I wish I’d stayed home from.
Every romance reader has a novel they love to hate. It might be because of an outlandish plot twist. Or a character that sucks. Or because the main couple’s relationship is icky. A rare book will feature all those issues. Readers, meet Night Storm, which contains all three. After thirty years – thanks to its wasted potential and its horrendous main pairing – it’s still my least-favorite romance novel of all time.
Meet Alec Carrick, the Fifth Baron of Sherod. Alec Carrick is blond, rich and arrogant. He is high-handed, obnoxious, and self-centered. He claims to love his five-year-old daughter, Hallie, whom he spoils and allows to dress up in dungarees and sailor suits (even though it’s 1819 and dungarees won’t be invented until 1853) and roam his ship and play with toy sailboats. His treatment of Hallie, when you compare it to what he does to the heroine, whose interests parallel Hallie’s, is incredibly insulting.
But be patient, we’ll get there. For now: whenever you read the name “Alec” or “Carrick” or “Alec Carrick” in this review, picture me doing exactly what Debbie Jellinsky is doing in this Addams Family Values gif.
If you’ve read the previous novels in the Night trilogy, you remember that Alec had a wife, Nesta, with whom he was happy (so happy that their loud and active sex accidentally introduced Arielle, heroine of Night Fire, to the concept of consensual sex. This will sadly be ironic eventually).
The story tries to build sympathy for Alec by opening with Nesta’s death scene. She has hemorrhaged, Hallie is all that is left for him, and he wails and gnashes his teeth about this. If this version of Alec had been the hero and center of the story, he would have been enjoyable. Instead, Alec decides to leave his steward to manage his estate and move to America with Hallie to build ships and Heal His Soul.
This section of the story ends with a tender scene of Alec learning to care for his daughter. Why wasn’t this man – callow, sure, but willing to learn and absorbed by his grief – the center of the book? Sadly, Alec’s true character soon reveals itself, and because this Alec conveniently disappears when he meets the heroine, this review is a rant.
Five years pass by before Alec meets the heroine, allowing him time to tragically establish the other side of his personality: Alec, the thoughtless cad who is haughty and controlling. In all of that time he’s failed to secure a second wife for himself, mostly due to his fear of losing another bride in childbirth. He does consult an Arabian surgeon who teaches him how to handle breech births.
This is a preview of how controlling Alec’s behavior here will be: he will cross an ocean to learn how to handle his prospective bride’s physical trauma, but not care about the emotional well being of his beloved. He’s one of Those Heroes.
Alec has a tendency to overshare about his emotional state to Hallie, and Hallie – who has a tendency to eavesdrop on his romantic encounters and embarrass him by regurgitating things he or his lovers have said to one another – overshares right back. Instead of bewildering or disgusting his (AGAIN. FIVE YEAR OLD) daughter with his worries about finding a suitable second wife, Hallie says things like:
“No, you’re not old, Papa. I agree with Miss Blanchard. You’re beautiful.”
No five year old sounds like this. Hallie continues to act like a miniature adult, extolling her father’s virtues to an uncomfortable extent, except when it’s necessary for her to be small and pitiful and grab Our Heroine by the heart. It’s a shame, because the idea of Hallie is amusing: she has the potential to, like Sinjun from the Sherbrooke Brides series, be an amusing roughhouser, but Hallie is just tragically insipid.
Speaking of Our Heroine: Eugenia “Genny” Paxton is a Maryland shipbuilder who’s been spending her days dressed in slacks and jackets at her father’s lot, posing both on the yard and in letters to Alec as her father’s “son,” Eugene. She arranges for them to meet and discuss a possible merger, saying that since the war their shipping business has become untenable due to high tariffs demanded from New England customers. But in reality, the firm only builds boats, and Genny has deliberately exaggerated the business to try to make this deal work.
Genny is introduced as a strong, smart, commanding woman, someone who’s been running the business while her father dies slowly of a heart ailment. She hopes to maintain controlling interest and continue to run the company as she sees fit, even though the majority of her employees hate and don’t respect her – except for Snugger, an old salt who sees her worth as a builder and a sailor.
She is a familiar Coulter historical heroine: a brainy but slightly plain woman who doesn’t know how to Act Like a Lady. Alas, before she meets Alec, Genny is also one of Coulter’s best heroines.
But Genny’s spirit and gumption doesn’t get her far with Alec, who uses every excuse to belittle and humiliate her – cutting her down to size, so he can maintain the balance of power within the relationship. Within minutes of meeting Genny in the guise of Eugene, Alec embarrasses her by speaking frankly about sex and how he values the “power of a woman” – and by power he means a woman’s sexual power, which is rewarded by the man with jewels and fancy dresses.
This transactional way of seeing his romantic and sexual relationships is odd in light of the fact that he understands how romantic love works thanks to his teasing-but-fond-in-the-previous-books relationship with Nesta. The book seems to erase his emotional awareness , replacing it with “women-smart-man-smarter” thinking. He immediately recognizes that Eugene is Genny, and can’t resist the opportunity to insult both characters. He talks about Genny’s plainness or ponders aloud awkward Eugene’s future as a rake. There is no reason why Alec couldn’t simply accept the Eugene ruse at face value, or accept that Genny might want to be Eugene, or just shut up and let her split her time between building boats and being wooed by him.
But instead he has to tear down Genny brick by brick, humiliation by humiliation, until she is a more biddable shadow of her former self.
And to start the process, Alec decides that he must “(Take) you someplace that will force you to give up this charade.” He brings Genny/Eugene to a brothel, has her smoke and drink and pays for the two of them to watch a live sex act until she – “horrified” and “repelled,” bolts from the room to vomit in an alley outside of the brothel.
Alec decides to then “cure” Genny’s desire to be Eugene and to run the shipyard by forcing more sex on her, which will turn her into the dress-wearing, motherly woman he wants her to be. As you do.
Thus begins the slap-slap-kiss-kiss relationship. Genny is, at least, fighting back at this point even as he plies her with booze, but his insults are personal: she’s “tedious,” she’s “long in the tooth.” He is “odious” and “can go to the devil” but she can’t get too personal because he’s ~so~ perfect.
When Genny’s father sees them bantering together, he takes it as a sign that Alec can “handle” her and he offers him the run of the shipyard in trade for marrying Genny, who is understandably heartbroken and outraged by that turn of events.
Alec’s reaction to this is to complain about Genny’s independence and her “cocksure attitude.” Yet Genny’s the one who makes concessions – she shows up at a ball to present herself to Baltimore’s high society, albeit in an unfashionable dress covered with bows. The outfit was provided by a Miss Ambercrombie – apparently not the “smart” one who sews for fashionable rich ladies but a nice old woman who has little talent. Genny is naturally too kind to turn down the dress, though she knows it’s hideous; instead of considering the effort she’s undertaken, complimenting her kindness, or trying to make her look better to her compatriots, Alec mocks the shade of blue she’s wearing as well as her business acumen. This after every woman there has already snottily ostracized her for being unfashionable. She complains to her father about seeing Alec with a whiner named Laura Salmon, who begins angling for an engagement from him. Genny’s unhelpful father considers their bickering great entertainment.
This is one of the biggest reasons why Night Storm is such a painful and frustrating read for me. The only person who’s wholly on Genny’s side is Snugger, with everyone from her father to Alec to Hallie to even Laura Salmon mocking her efforts at making a living or grasping social relevance. The Genny from the beginning of the book would be perfectly happy to sail around the world in her trousers, going from town to town building ships, but instead the narrative forces traditional gender roles and societal expectations upon her in the form of Alec’s belittling cruelty.
The narrative sluggishly moves along. They challenge each other to a boat race from Nassau and back. He buys her clothing, because money equals love, and she must be a pretty and fashionably dressed person who presents as a woman. Meanwhile, of course Hallie is allowed to continue to be a tomboy because of Alec’s indulgences.
Alec and Genny’s first sexual encounter can only (and predictably) be described as flat-out rape, with Genny giving several clear no’s, him tying her to the bedpost and her being immobilized with a twisted ankle (which she incurred after falling from a tree she’d climbed to witness him fool around with Laura Salmon). The only reason his “giving her pleasure” (IE performing undesired cunnilingus on her) doesn’t proceed to full intercourse is because they’re interrupted by Genny’s father’s death.
Then it’s revealed that Genny’s father made a new will five days before his death which requires Genny to either marry Alec (at which point he will assume full ownership of the shipyard) or sell it with the proceeds going to Genny. A smart person would sell the yard, go somewhere else under an assumed identity and start over again, but because Old Skool Abhors a Virgin, she and Alec have sex the night after the will reading, which involves him “touching her womb” with his prodigious dinglehopper (RIP to Genny’s cervix as well) and the era-requisite painful sex. Hallie arrives the morning after and they have an awkward bed-in among Genny’s bloody post-virginity loss sheets and nightgown (barf. So much barf) with Alec describing his “seed” and Genny’s blood being all over her thighs and nightgown at the time (BARF!).
The rest of the novel involves Genny and Alec, post-marriage, embarking on that race to Nassau, with Genny’s crew suddenly behind her now that she’s a married woman. Snugger continues to be a badass who “never tires of bellowing out what she has to say” (Genny/Snugger OTP). Genny and Alec foolishly agree to race one another in the middle of November and on the east coast; they endure a storm which cracks Genny’s ship’s foremast. Alec’s micromanaging possessiveness, for once, works against him, and he takes the falling beam right in the noggin after jumping aboard to check on her.
Tragically, the story does not go full In The Heart of the Sea on us, as they make it safely to Nassau, but Alec loses his memory, making him a lousier father but a more considerate husband (apparently orgasms are great for concussions). They head to England so Alec can recover at his estate. There, Alec becomes obsessed with knocking Genny up with his heir, Genny meets Arielle and Burke from Night Fire, and Alec reverts to type as his memory returns, threatening Genny with incarceration the second she declares she’ll leave him for refusing to sign the shipyard back over to her (“I determine what’s fair,” he says when she demands her due). In the last 150 pages a mystery plot is introduced for absolutely no reason whatsoever.
As to whether or not Genny finally gets to experience those doctoring skills Alec got for himself – well, I suppose I don’t have to tell you how that turns out.
Alec Carrick is the sort of hero that makes me wish for a nice, deserted island, with cool breezes, wonderful food, and absolutely no one like Alec in sight. I want to buy Genny a fleet of clipper ships so she can sail far, far away from him. The only good thing he does is act as a doting father for his daughter, but he speaks to her far too frankly about matters she couldn’t understand and she ends up sounding like a tiny therapist half the time. Every time he inches closer to an awakening about how the world treats Genny, he baits and belittles her instead, just to get a rise out of her or to “save her.” He never manages to give Genny what she actually needs aside from a few orgasms.
Genny starts out strong, but eventually I feel pity for her, as she has to contend with the BS Alec brings into her life. She may be confused about whether or not she can balance romance and ambition, but she’s not nearly as desperate to control the world as Alec is.
The gender elements in Night Storm’s plot are as fascinating as they are repulsive. While Alec abhors that Genny might want to act as a man for business purposes and might have ambitions that don’t involve swallowing his semen or squirting out children, he allows his daughter to romp around in pants, as long as she protects her complexion to avoid getting wrinkles. Alec, of course, is not evolved enough to realize that what he celebrates in his daughter he reviles in his lover. When Genny points this out, he fumes over the revelation.
And Hallie – whom the book admits doesn’t sound like a five year old due to her relationship with her father’s adult world – mainly acts as her father’s confessor and veers uncomfortably between being overly precocious and innocent. It doesn’t work well, and the space where Alec should have a friend to tell him off yawns in abeyance. Since Alec has no other male friends in the book besides Burke (and no wonder), the situation is untenable and uncomfortable in its weirdness.
Also of note: many of the other characters are either cockney or racist stereotypes. There is just one Black character in the narrative: the Paxton’s butler, a slave named Moses, who possesses “great dignity” but has no role in the narrative. He has a Bill Robinson and Shirley Temple-like relationship with Hallie, who calls his hair “springy and stiff like a pepper” and he lets her touch it (again. Yes. Really). He is given manumission when Genny’s dad croaks but chooses to stay with the family. The book does not endeavor to ask hard questions of the Paxtons, who refuse to participate in the slave trade but also enslave people.