Desert Isle Keeper
Anne Stuart’s Banish Misfortune is a classic. Winner of the Golden Medallion (now known as the RITA) for Best Single Title Romance of 1985, it remains impressive nearly two decades later. I first read it in 2000, and while it was dated, with certain elements that make it more of an historical than a contemporary for the 21st century romance reader, it was also riveting and dramatic in a way many of today’s contemporaries – including those by Stuart herself – aren’t. How good is it? It contains a number of plot elements that normally do not work for me at all, starting with a brittle heroine who makes other so-called tormented heroines look like fakers, as well as the use of the dreaded secret baby. That alone would be enough to me to pass on it. Good thing I didn’t. I loved every word of it.
Jessica Hansen is a very tormented heroine: neurotic, anorexic, and more than a little fatalistic. She moves through life without bothering to take care of herself, disconnected from the world and her emotions due to an incident in her past. She’s managed to hide this behind a façade of cool professionalism, which has helped her climb the corporate ladder in a relatively short amount of time. Only the telltale scars on her wrists show just how tortured she is inside.
She cares so little about herself that when a major business deal depends on her sleeping with a partner in an upcoming merger, she agrees. But when the moment comes, she can’t go through with it. It is Springer McDowall who comes to her rescue. Springer, a former Princeton basketball star, is also the estranged son of one of Jessica’s closest friends, the flamboyantly gay author of men’s adventure books all featuring the same protagonist, Matt Decker. Excerpts from Decker’s fictional adventures are included throughout the book and his stories come to play a part in Jessica’s life. It’s a nice touch for anyone who likes stories-within-stories.
A cynical and wounded man himself, Springer sees through her to the pain and fear she’s hidden from everyone else. Don’t think he’s some beta hero just waiting to hug her pain away; this is, after all, a book authored by Anne Stuart. While there are some very tender moments when she’s at her most vulnerable, his approach is more aggressive, exhibiting a lack of coddling. He infuriates her even as she can’t stay away from him. When she discovers that she’s pregnant, she leaves New York for Vermont to start a new life for herself. But keeping Springer out of her life will not be as easy as she hopes.
Banish Misfortune is a romance, but that’s only one part of the story. Springer is out of the picture for several large sections of the book and there are long stretches when the main characters are apart. It’s more a story of this woman slowly reaching a point where she is able to confront, then overcome her past. That’s why the title is so fitting. There’s a very real sense of growth to the character, so that the brittle woman on the first page is not the more happy, fulfilled one we leave on the last. There’s also a sweet secondary romance between Jessica’s neighbor in Vermont, a single mother of two, and the Scotsman with whom she shares a bickering relationship.
What really cemented how much I loved this book the first time I read it was the secret baby element, which should have aggravated me far more than it did. Not only does she not tell Springer about the baby, when he asks her flat out, more than once, if he is the father, she outright lies and tells him no. Normally that would be enough to send the book flying right then and there. What’s curious is that Stuart never reveals what is going on in Jessica’s mind at these moments. He asks, her immediate answer is no. The reason it works is the payoff, when Springer finally pushes too far and forces her, in a scene crackling with tension, to reveal what happened to her.
Finally, her torment comes out in an explosion of rage and pain. The reader already has a good idea what happened to her, but that doesn’t make the revelatory scene any less devastating. In some ways their relationship reminds me of the main one in A Rose at Midnight, and any reader who wanted Ghislaine to throw everything that was done to her in the face of that mean, condescending, jerk of a hero who did nothing but bait and belittle her throughout the book will find one here as it all comes out in one angry speech. Springer is nowhere near as aggravating as Blackthorne, but Jessica still takes his assumptions and throws them right back in his face.
“Do you like hearing about it, Springer? Does it turn you on to hear just what a victim your son has for a mother?”
Melodramatic? Sure, but it’s also one of those scenes that rocks you back on your heels and makes you go, “Whoa.” With one monologue, everything clicks in to place, the motivations for her actions, how much she loves him, and how much it’s tearing her up inside. While hardly rational, her actions are at least understandable from her state of mind. It’s a powerful scene, not only in what she says, but with his reaction to it. Perfect.
Banish Misfortune was the fifth of five single-titles sold as Harlequin American Romance Premier Editions, so it might be found in the series romance section of a used bookstore. It is not a series romance, though. In terms of its length, style and subject matter, it is definitely a single-title, the only one of Stuart’s single-title contemporaries that isn’t a romantic suspense, and one to make you wish that wasn’t the case. There are stories that aim for the heart and ones that go right for the gut. This one manages to do both, and boy does it succeed.