Janet W (@JanetNorCal on Twitter), an adventurous romance-reader with access to some great used bookstores, generously sent me a package of books that included Charlotte Lamb’s Frustration, an “old skool” Harlequin Presents novel published in 1979.
I looked forward to broadening my romance education by reading this, but “broadening my education” is exactly how I thought of it–an exercise in literary historical curiousity. It’ll be a doormat heroine; cruel, obsessed, domineering alpha hero; yadda yadda, not my thing, I figured. Ahem. I really liked Frustration.
Maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised. I had a feeling of déja vu–or is it déja lu?–as I read the opening chapter, and remembered that Tumperkin (aka author Joanna Chambers) wrote a great (spoilery) review of Frustration, as well as a post on Lamb; Sunita mentioned it admiringly in a reflection on the “allure of old skool HPs”. Some of the most thoughtful romance readers I know loved this book. While to some extent the book is exactly what I expected, and I think it would have seemed rather dated even in 1979, it does its thing so well that I enjoyed it even though it isn’t usually my thing.
The opening chapter sucked me in because it sets up a highly dramatic conflict. Widow Natalie Buchan loses her wedding ring on what should have been her second anniversary (her husband, Angus, was killed in an accident just before their first). A friend persuades her to come to a party in an attempt to cheer her up. There Natalie sees a man who looks just like Angus–well, the back of his head does. They dance. He takes her home. They go to bed. And just as things are about to get really hot and heavy, she calls him Angus, and he leaves in a rage (and under the impression that her husband is still alive). Natalie, ashamed, hopes never to see him again. But when she gets to work the next day she finds that he’s the star TV presenter whose scripts she’s been typing. Of course he is.
Jake, humiliated and angry, sets out to punish her. He “enjoy[s] being cruel to [her].” He pulls her hair, grabs her neck and arms, gives her punishing kisses, seduces her and leaves her unfulfilled. So yes, the hero is pretty much an asshat, and the heroine feels shame and humiliation for a lot of the book, but she falls in love with him anyway. Why didn’t this bother me as much as it normally would?
- Natalie isn’t a doormat. She’s shy and reserved, but she protects herself by projecting a cool, competent front. She’s ashamed of her behavior and of the way people at work gossip about her at work, and she’s often humiliated by Jake, but she gets angry, she tries not to show her feelings, and she finds ways to fight the gossip.
- The angst-filled and in some ways childish personal relationship between Natalie and Jake is balanced by the fact that they respect each other’s work. Jake’s initial response to her may be lust (and he still feels it at the end), but he notices and admires the way she becomes “the lynch-pin” of the work team, listening to everyone’s troubles and keeping things running smoothly.
- Thus, while Jake may humiliate the heroine, the narrative really doesn’t. Lamb doesn’t punish her. I’d contrast this to the way someone like Susan Elizabeth Phillips sometimes treats her heroines. I found Call Me Irresistable painful and almost unreadable because all the characters and the narrative shamed the heroine for no good reason.
- The style is restrained and straighforward. That helped me read Jake’s cruelty as symbolic rather than literal. This is one of those short romances that is like silent film or kabuki theatre, where the action and emotions are exaggerated because the story arc is compressed into a short space. If such a story is told in a purple, exaggerated style, it’s just too over the top for me and the emotions feel false; it doesn’t touch me. This did. Jake says to Natalie that she’s “lifeless,” and his anger and cruelty are partly a way of waking her up. She does need waking up, needs to move past mourning Angus and learn to live again (her sister says so too, nearly as bluntly and cruelly as Jake). So I didn’t see his cruelty as meant to be a literal representation of a desirable trait in a man, but–like her desire for him–as a catalyst to a change Natalie needs to make. Thanks to Jake, “She had been irritated, disturbed, angry . . . but she had not been sad.”
- Even though the narrative doesn’t include Jake’s point of view, it’s obvious to the reader, if not to Natalie, that his cruelty comes from anger, jealousy, and hurt. He fell hard for Natalie, and she rejected him. He wanted her desperately; she wanted her dead husband. His acting out might make him immature, but he’s sympathetic in a way too.
- The book has a touch of humor, which again helps to balance the angst. Like the scene with Natalie’s vomiting nephew. Or when Natalie tells a jealous office-mate that she’s going out with Robert Redford, who is “terribly shy under all that machismo, but I’m working on it.”
I liked Frustration so much that I thought about keeping it, but decided instead to pay Janet’s gift forward. If you’d like to win a used, 1979 paperback of Frustration, enter by commenting below before 5pm (PDT) on Saturday, March 18. (ETA: Can you tell this is my first giveaway? I should have said, winner will be a random commenter chosen by Random.org). I’ll send it anywhere in the world. And thanks, Janet!
Update: The winner is Ros! But if you still want to read it, there seem to be a lot of reasonably-priced used copies on-line.