May’s TBR Challenge theme is “backlist glom (author with more than one book in your TBR).” Wondering how I would fit a TBR read amid my demanding library pile, I chose Sarah Morgan’s Once a Ferrara Wife, a Harlequin Presents set in Sicily. I have read and enjoyed plenty of Morgan’s books in the past, and have plenty more TBR.
I’m going to start with something personal that affected my reading of the book. For a lot of people, romance reading is a comfort in hard times. For me right now, that is not the case. I have been dealing (or let’s be honest, not dealing) with depression for a long time now, and am finally recognizing that that’s part of why I went off romance novels. Emotional response is a big part of the romance-reading experience and I’m not having much. I read a book and think, “I see what you did there; whatever.” Then I feel worse because of my lack of feeling. [I’m not asking for sympathy or advice! I’ve made tackling my depression a priority for this summer and I’ve taken the first step.] I can’t do romance justice right now. I haven’t figured out whether I’ll take a break from this challenge, read non-romance from my TBR, or keep trying. But I’ve reached the point where I feel I can’t write any kind of romance review without acknowledging how my mental health is coloring my response. In general I am less able to/willing to pretend everything is fine. So there you go.
Once a Ferrara Wife–or any Harlequin Presents–was not a good choice for my current reading mood. Presents are all about big emotions and OTT tropes. Part of the fun of reading is seeing how the authors use these to explore real emotional conflicts in a highly dramatized way. But if you’re not going to be swept away by the feelings, the experience isn’t as rewarding.
Good Stuff: This is as second-chance-at-love story. Laurel and Cristiano are on the brink of divorce. They’ve been separated for two years; each is angry and blames the other for the break-up. (I don’t think it’s too spoilery to say that this revolved around how each responded to a miscarriage, though there turn out to be several extra layers that I won’t reveal). Now Laurel in back in Sicily for best friend/Cristiano’s sister Dani’s wedding, and sparks of all kinds fly.
The events that precipitate their break-up are a Harlequin staple, but Morgan puts a modern spin on them. Laurel, abandoned as a baby, is the emotionally closed off one who doesn’t want to trust or be vulnerable. Cristiano thinks he’s emotionally open and “progressive for a Sicilian male,” but he’s a workaholic who treats relationship issues as something to fix with a generic gift of jewelry. He takes his marriage for granted. Both have to learn to understand each other better and really listen to each other. It’s a good example of how everyday relationship issues are at the heart of the (melo)drama. I could see why some friends love this book.
Not so Good: The obscene wealth of Presents heroes–helicoptering around Sicily, showering your wife with diamonds, building luxury resorts in an impoverished and troubled region–is a fantasy I find less and less appealing these days. While the message was not that money would fix everything, it did enable a lot of the reparative gestures. I don’t blame Morgan for writing in the vein of this line, but maybe I’m done reading it. Same goes for the “Sicilian males are X” essentialism.
I had mixed feelings about the resolution of the fertility plot, which I won’t spoil but am happy to discuss in the comments. There were aspects of it I liked and ways it fell into the worst conventions of the genre.