A Memory of Love
When I started this book, I thought I had never before read anything by Bertrice Small. But with each new plot development I became convinced that many years ago I had read one. That book, I believe, was A Love For All Time, third in the Skye O’Malley series. I remember it so clearly because its plot was extremely similar to that of A Memory of Love.
Rhonwyn is the love child of the Prince of Wales (who was not, at that time, the heir to the king of England but a political leader in his own right). When Rhonwyn’s mother dies, her neglectful father gives her to a group of soldiers in a border fortress to raise. When she is fifteen he returns and is astonished to discover that she’s not a proper young lady at all, but a spitfire who rides, talks, and fights like a boy.
The prince has betrothed Rhonwyn to an English lord as part of a treaty, and needs her to be a proper lady. He takes Rhonwyn to his aunt, an abbess, who – in six months! – teaches her to read and calculate, to sew and weave and spin, to keep a household, and, most amazingly, to speak Norman French without accent (her only language has been Welsh). Rhonwyn is married to Edward de Beaulieu, who is a gentle husband. The two fall in love, but in spite of Edward’s earnest attempts, Rhonwyn remains sexually unawakened.
Edward goes on Crusade, and Rhonwyn, a warrior in spirit, eagerly accompanies him. In Carthage the camp is attacked by Saracens. Rhonwyn flings herself into the battle and is captured and taken to the Islamic kingdom of Cinnebar. Her beauty captivates the caliph, who puts her in his harem. He teaches Rhonwyn limitless passion, but still she loves Edward.
Now, I’m not saying that this book is exactly the same as Love For All Time. The time period, setting, and circumstances are all different. But how many books can you read in one lifetime about a married woman who is kidnapped and put into a harem, where she is forced to have lots and lots of mind-boggling sex while her heart remains true to her husband? Judging by the summaries of her books at amazon.com, the harem fantasy is one that Small uses again and again.
To my surprise, the guy Rhonwyn ends up with is not Edward, nor the caliph, but someone else altogether. To me this third love-interest came out of nowhere and I was disconcerted when she and the, uh, “hero” began declaring their undying love for one another. None of the men in this book is at all memorable; their chief characteristic is that they lustfully adore Rhonwyn.
This book sprawls all over the place and there are lots of plot holes, the most important one being that Rhonwyn is drawn on an inhumanly epic scale. Not only is she “easily the most beautiful woman in the world,” as one character mentions, but her skills are limitless. She learns to speak fluent Arabic even more quickly than she learns French. She can outride, outshoot, and outfight any of her husbands. Small waits too long to explain Rhonwyn’s inability to respond sexually to Edward, and her refusal to accommodate her gentle husband struck me as arrogant stubbornness more than anything. Still, even though she’s basically a comic-book character, she’s a fairly likable one, who usually thinks before she acts.
By the way, I’ve heard complaints from readers about the kinky sex in some of Small’s works. Rhonwyn is not Ms. Missionary Position, but while A Memory of Love is an extremely sexual and sensual novel, things never get too wild here. The only really icky scene for me was on the very first page, in which the five-year-old Rhonwyn witnesses her parents making love. Okay, it was a one-room cottage in the thirteenth century, but I’m a twentieth-century woman and to me that’s gross.
In spite of my skepticism, I definitely found some guilty pleasure in reading this book. Rhonwyn’s adventures among all these men who worship her are quite entertaining. The numerous love scenes are as purple as all get-out, but they’re also sexy. I admit I enjoyed Small’s highly detailed descriptions of Rhonwyn’s clothes and jewelry, too.
This is a sprawling, old-fashioned romantic epic, and many readers who will find it enjoyable. Personally, I prefer writers whose books aren’t all variations on the same theme, and I do not imagine that a harem was at all a nice place to be. But while A Memory of Love may be nonsense, it’s fun nonsense. I think that fans of Small will be pleased with her latest effort. I’ve read worse books, myself.