Desert Isle Keeper
Joan Wolf is a major comfort read for me. I’ve read more of her books than just about any other romance author. And while all of her books have not been A’s for me, I have yet to encounter one that was terrible and several times she has approached near perfection. Beloved Stranger, a short category romance she wrote back in 1984, is an example of the best of her backlist.
On her way home from vacation, Susan Morgan plows her car into a snowdrift and must brave a blizzard to find help. She winds up on the doorstep of Ricardo Montoya, New York Yankees superstar, and, after she thaws out, they enjoy a night of passion. It is entirely out of character for her, and when it’s over, she can hardly believe that it even happened. Except that one thing prevents her from ever forgetting: she’s pregnant.
Though Ricardo is a gentleman and leaves her his name and address, Susan doesn’t feel like she can ask him for help. What would he do? He’s a baseball celebrity, and she’s a college senior. She decides to give her baby up for adoption. But fate intervenes, and when she’s seven months pregnant, she runs into him again. And against all of her predictions, Ricardo does want to get involved in her problem. He wants to become extremely involved. He wants to marry her. Because Susan wants to keep the baby and give it a father, she agrees. But marriage to Ricardo is harder and easier than she ever expected it would be. Will their convenient arrangement ever turn into anything more?
Wolf writes in a spare, lovely prose style that is marred only by occasional errors in point of view. It’s difficult to explain how Wolf manages to pack in so much emotion and sexual tension into just a few paragraphs, but, over and over she does. The sensuality is warm bordering on the subtle, but it’s still very nicely done.
One of the things I liked about this book was its innate traditionalism. While romance novels are often bashed for being too conservative, I find that many romance heroines are uber-emancipated, even when it’s anachronistic. But not every woman was a Wollstonecraft or Friedan enthusiast. Wolf is almost always conservative about everything except sex. Susan is smart and Susan has her own goals, but Susan is not a career woman, and she values her family and her role in it. She is more than just her work. She is a writer, a wife, a mother, a daughter. She has multiple dimensions.
It’s quite amazing the feat Wolf pulls off here in characterization. This is a short category romance, only 182 pages, but both Ricardo and Susan have unusual depth. Susan is my favorite Wolf heroine, and not just because I so strongly identify with her. The majority of Wolf’s females are poised, unruffled, graceful, and horse-mad. Susan is none of these. She’s quiet, introspective, occasionally impatient, slightly reclusive, and sometimes quite insecure. She reacts to Ricardo the way most women would react if they found themselves in a relationship with a celebrity of almost mythical proportions. She worries about her appeal; she questions his feelings for her. But though she is not an especially assertive woman, she does manage to stand up to Ricardo when it’s necessary, as it often is.
For Ricardo is a chauvinist. He’s gorgeous, multi-talented, thoughtful, generous, charismatic, and brilliant, but he’s also pretty sexist. Born to wealthy Colombian parents, he absorbed their worldview, and looks at gender roles in a most traditional way. To him, women are “for sex, for motherhood, for ministering to a man’s other appetites and needs.” He marries Susan because he feels it is the honorable thing to do and because he doesn’t want his son to be raised by strangers. And clearly he feels a responsibility to her – to protect her and to provide for her financially. But Susan wonders constantly if he feels anything but duty for her. She is left to wonder because he never shares his deeper feelings with her.
I found Ricardo to be most interesting. He is admirable in so many ways, but his attitude towards women and its resulting behavior to Susan left something to be desired. He would be difficult for most modern American women to tolerate. It would have been easy for Wolf to condemn him, to force him to change in order for the romance to work. But she doesn’t. Instead she paints a portrait of a very complex individual; a person with obvious, permanent flaws. His relationship with Susan was fascinating. In so many ways they are opposites, but their chemistry is so profound. For all his reticence, clearly Ricardo feels possessive about Susan. And despite what Susan thinks she should feel, she likes being possessed by him. When the book reaches its happy ending, it’s all that much more effective because Ricardo has been difficult to know and understand. The changes he makes may seem small, but they are, in fact, profound. He learns to value Susan not for what she is – his wife – but for who she is.
The first time I read Beloved Stranger I liked it, but I didn’t love it. Still, something about it really stayed with me. About a year later, I picked it up again and liked it even more. I’ve just finished reading it for the third time in three years, and every time I read it, I find something new to savor. The emotional intensity and the rich characterization make this book a definite keeper. Though it is long out of print, Beloved Stranger is one of the more reasonably priced of Wolf’s backlist. This is because Signet reissued it in 1994 with another old Wolf category, Summer Storm. If you’re tired of perfect heroes or books in which the action or suspense overshadows the romance, be sure and track this one down. This is vintage Wolf and something a bit different from the norm.