Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Flame and the Flower by Katherine Woodiwiss

Skeptic scale: ♥♥ 
The Queen of Bodice Rippers
It's hard to talk about this book without mentioning its context in the history of the genre. Especially since it was the book that actually helped define the genre. It must have been so thrilling/shocking to have picked this book up in 1972. Imagine being a young Skeptic, having never before read an explicit sex scene in a romance novel, picking this little piece of goodness up and being faced with a rather full-on rape scene in the first 40 pages! 

It's stupid to try and "judge" the material in today's context, but let me just say this thing reads ... interestingly... this second time around, after having read all the generations of historical romance that have been written since. It's hyperbolic (sex scene: stars, heaven, bursting, shattering), and expansive (poor orphan, horrible abuse at the hands of men, journey across the high seas, introduction to an untamed new world) and if it wasn't the Classic it is, it's a pretty horrendous read.

I don't mean any disrespect to the Duenna of the grand tradition of the historical romance as we know it, so I'll doff my hat and drop a curtsy to her right now before I begin outlining the wtfs that had me rolling my eyes in my journey.

1) The Hero and heroine were tres idiotique and never, ever COMMUNICATE like adults: Granted that the heroine was 18 when they meet, but having been 18 myself, I would have bloody well said something like, hey dude - I'm not a prostitute, I'm actually just lost, so you should probably not try to have sex with me. And I get that he's horny and not thinking clearly, but surely he had the company of his right hand for all those months at sea, and unlike a lion or a horse or a wombat who couldn't possibly take care of matters by themselves, this dude could have behaved a little less like a ravening beast and more like a dude who just wanted a little female company. 

And worse than the actual rape (ACK!) was the hero's rather amused reaction when he realizes his mistake. I mean, what the WHAT THE WHAT???? I get that times may have been "rougher" then, but surely he might have spared a moment's regret at having basically hurt and ruined this chick! What a dummy.

2) Fake tension: After the weird rape scene, there is about 80% of the book where the hero behaves like a chaste little choirboy. A moody, irritable little sh!t in other words. God, that guy was the WORST. He's mean and silly and seems unable to communicate like an adult man. And then, when they eventually DO get it on after this torturous almost-year of frustrated chastity, he's kinda nice. So all the aggression and black humor was just a case of extreme sexual frustration?? Again, something that could have been solved in about 100 seconds of him getting cozy with his hand. C'mon bro.

I wonder if their not sleeping together while she is pregnant had more to do with some sort of squeamishness from the audience at the time than something the author necessarily wanted to show? These days, romances seem to have gone the opposite direction with couples going at it like bunnies while she's preggers. Which I don't know if I'm totally into either...

3) The heroine has zero personality: Unless you call being young and hot a personality. She's a scaredy puss in her every interaction with "danger" or intimidation. Fine, she's young. She shows the occasional flash of temper but then it subsides at the first sign of conflict. Ok, she's young and has had a hard life that have left her gun shy. She doesn't seem to have any interests (except taking baths - there are like 25 bath scenes in this book - I appreciate the nod to cleanliness, but c'mon.) People either hate or like her because of her beauty. Her husband basically falls for her because of her ravishing figure and pretty face. But apart from the beauty thing and the youth thing, there doesn't seem to be much going for her.

Maybe this is a way to make the heroine's character more of a "vessel" into which the reader can pour in her own personality and feel all the events with more sympathy? I dunno. I just thought she was lame.

4) Two-dimensional characters: The baddies are BAD. And there are SO MANY BADDIES. Her abusive aunt. Her aunt's lecherous brother. The rapey villain. The hero's jealous lover. The hero for most of the book. The hero's horse was kinda of a d!ck too, come to think of it. I'd have enjoyed a 3rd dimension on some of this stuff.

Anyway, I'll stop there. Would I read this book again? Never. Should you read it? Obvi, sisters. Obvi. It's part of the canon. And when you read a romance novel with the passion that many of us do, you need to know where the genre has come from. Think of it like reading Othello or Moby Dick or some other tedious read that you somehow convince yourself is "art" and clever and enriching.

Skeptic's last word: My recommendation would be to read it aloud, in the company of other Skeptics. In fact, I wish I had read this aloud with my husband and watched his reactions. It would have been a great experience to be able to explain my way through some of the riduculosity that was going on. Ooh. Maybe I WILL read it again, after all!

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