As you may have noticed from my Brigade Mondaine reviews, I've wondered for ages who the people are that write trash novels. Yesterday, I was on the train from Cornwall to London and got talking to the charming elderly lady sitting opposite. She turned out to be the author of this Harlequin romance, which I've just ordered from Abebooks.
Well, I must say that my opinion of trash novelists has taken a giant step upwards. Daphne, if I may presume to use her first name, was breathtakingly intelligent and well-read - I felt suitably humbled by the fact that, at age around 80, she was brushing up her Latin so as to be able to re-read Horace and Livy in the original. We bonded on our common admiration for the plays of Jean Anouilh, many of which she'd seen on the stage in Paris when they originally came out. She'd written regularly for Punch
during the 60s. She was wondering if she should buy a Kindle, and asked for my advice. When I'm her age, if I ever get that far, I'll be happy if I'm even half as smart and with it.
I'll update this review when her book arrives and I've read it.
The book finally arrived, and I read it in a little more than a day. I've never read a Harlequin before, and I did my best to put aside my negative preconceptions. It certainly helped that I'd met the author. If someone as smart, cool and together as Daphne had written it, then surely it couldn't be all bad.
Okay: to my surprise, I liked it. As I said, I've never read anything before that belonged to this particular genre, but I'm familiar with genre fiction in general. I found it helpful to compare with the erotic thriller, a genre I know a lot more about. Of course, 95% of all erotic thrillers are crap - but, as Theodore Sturgeon memorably said, 95% of everything is crap. Of course they're formulaic, and the quality of the writing is often not that great. But a good erotic thriller is by no means impossible, and if you don't insist on reading them literally you can find they have worthwhile things to say.
Take, for example, Doctor No
, a book I rather like. I have never fought an insane megalomaniac to the death inside a nuclear reactor, with the fate of the world at stake, and been rewarded by having rapturous sex with Ursula Andress. But, with a few moderately unimportant details changed, I have had similar experiences. Guys often end up fighting other guys over things they think are important. When they do so successfully, and demonstrate strength, courage and ingenuity, women often find that a turn-on. And why ever not? Ladies, wouldn't you prefer a strong, brave, smart guy to a wimp? I hasten to say that I am not James Bond more than a tiny proportion of the time. But I have had my occasional James Bond moment, and I hope most guys reading this have too.
So, back to Daphne's book. The title, as she told me on the train, is taken from a proverb used on the island of Gozo, where the action takes place. "If you want to know whether I love you, don't look at my face, look at my heart". Let me try and heed her advice. If I look at this book's face, I see all sorts of things I don't much like. I find the Harlequin house style, so memorably parodied by Sylvie Krin in Private Eye
, rather grating. The surface plot is absurd and revoltingly sexist. Even though the guy is tall, dark and devilishly handsome, he shouldn't have locked Carol up in a tower against her will and then forced her to marry him. She shouldn't have found that, despite this treatment, she was unable to prevent herself falling in love with him. And they shouldn't have been able to sort out all their differences at the end inside ten minutes, so that they then lived happily ever after. Duh.
But, if I may presume to try and look at the book's heart, I think it's actually telling us something far more interesting and relevant: that our pride can create terrible misunderstandings and make us refuse to acknowledge how much we love the people who truly matter to us, but that these misunderstandings can often be resolved surprisingly easily. It's just saying that in a very stylised way. And, you know, it's really not such a bad message.