Vittorio Ralfino, the Count of Cazlevara, needs an heir. His mother has long schemed to get his title and estate for Vittorio’s younger brother, and Vittorio is determined never to let that happen. To get an heir, he needs a wife, and who better than Anamaria Viale, the “loyal, healthy” daughter of a neighboring landowner? So what if he hasn’t seen her in 16 years? He’s sure he can persuade her that a marriage of convenience uniting their vineyards is just what they both need. (Remember the book’s title? He’s not looking to marry for love, because his mama rejected him and he never wants to be hurt like that again). So he hops into his
carriage and heads for the ball Porsche and heads for the wine-tasting. Yes, despite the premise, this book isn’t set in the 19th century but in contemporary Italy, or at least the Harlequin Presents fantasy version of it.
The Man Who Could Never Love
That should be two strikes against this novel: a premise that strains my suspension of disbelief, and a melodramatic backstory to account for the hero’s fear of love. Third strike? The heroine is plain (the hero initially mistakes her for a man, baby) and lacks self-confidence, while the hero is gorgeous. Despite all these elements that usually annoy me, I really liked this book.
I’ve mentioned before
that I like Presents best when they’re funny, and this one has some great moments. There’s a game of stecca
(billiards), for instance, that’s funny, hot, and revealing of character: Ana, who doesn’t like feeling inferior to Vittorio, is determined to win; her challenge helps Vittorio realize that Ana is feminine and desirable.
What really sold me, though, is Ana. She may be a virgin convinced she’s unlovable because some guy in college rejected her (get over your pasts already, people), but she isn’t a classic Presents doormat. She loves running the winery, she’s good at it, and she’s worked hard to prove herself in a mostly male industry. Like many real women I know, she’s insecure in some ways and confident in others. She felt like a real person. Vittorio is more a standard-issue Presents alpha hero, but he can’t sustain the cruel anger for more than ten minutes at a time, so comes across as a real person as well. It turns out, of course, that Vittorio can love, Ana can be sexually awakened, and they can live happily ever after. And I wanted them to, because Hewitt made me care about them.
Reading The Man Who Could Never Love
made me think about how far I’ve come as a romance reader. Until a couple of years ago, I’d read just a handful of Harlequin Presents found on B&B or vacation rental shelves. I think that if I’d read Hewitt’s book with that experience for context, I’d have dismissed it as formulaic. Presents do
follow a kind of formula, or rather, they conform to certain conventions
, like sonnets. A sonnet isn’t a crazy comparison: Presents are short (50,000 words) and the writer has to develop characters and fit a believable romance arc into that space for the book to satisfy. To do that, she relies on some conventions of plot/character as a kind of shorthand that allows her to do more in the limited space, because experienced readers won’t need the conventional elements explained or justified. Some of the more melodramatic, less believable elements here (like the backstories that make the characters reluctant to risk love) are those kinds of conventions. They’re exaggerated versions or cartoon outlines of real life, in a sense symbols of more complex experiences. I enjoyed this book more because I’ve become familiar with some of the strategies Hewitt uses.
I also enjoyed the way Hewitt tweaks the formula. She’s an experienced Presents writer, and clearly comfortable enough with the conventions to stretch and play with them. My favorite example of this is the make-over scene (Hewitt’s written about that
for the Presents blog). In many Presents, the hero takes the heroine shopping, or just eye-balls her and has a perfectly-fitting designer dress sent over. Vittorio takes Ana to a boutique in Venice, but Ana tells him “I’m not going to be your Cinderella project” and goes to dinner in her usual “manly” outfit. Even though she lacks confidence in her looks, she wants to be loved for herself. This scene forces Vittorio to recognize that Ana isn’t easy to understand and he can’t manipulate her as he has other women (and as many Presents heroes do their heroines). Ana does get her fantasy Cinderella moment, but on her own terms.
Ana’s “unfeminine” side is also what draws Vittorio to her, much to his own surprise. After she beats him at stecca, he notices that Ana smells
of sunshine and soil, of the vineyard he’d seen her stride through only days ago, as if she owned the world, or at least all of it that mattered.
It was not a smell he normally associated with a woman.
It’s a lovely image, as is Ana’s father’s description of marriage as “two rocks rubbing along together in the river of life.”
You don’t seek to change each other, but it is hoped that you will affect one another, shape and smooth each other’s rough edges.
That picture of marriage will stay with me. I learned from Kate Hewitt’s bio
that her husband is an Anglican minister. My Dad is too, and this sounds like the kind of thing he’d say. Moments like these raised the story well above formulaic fluff.