I've always liked Whitney, My Love. But recently, it has become a very guilty pleasure - kind of like buying a pint of Ben and Jerry's and eating it in one sitting. In the years that I have been on line, I have seen it discussed countless times, and it comes up every so often on AAR's own message boards. Usually the comments are very mixed. Some people love it and consider it a classic, others just can't see what all the fuss is about. A recent poster to the board mentioned that she liked several other books by McNaught but really didn't care for Whitney. Several others replied that they didn't like the book either. When I read their posts, I started to wonder why I liked it! After all, I agreed with many of their statements. Clayton is, in fact, an arrogant jerk. Whitney is indeed childish. The book is rife with stupid misunderstandings. In the original version of the book, Clayton hits Whitney with a riding crop to punish her, and even rapes her later on.
Since many of these aspects of Whitney are things I complain about in other books, I started to wonder if I was talking out of both sides of my mouth. Did I even remember the book correctly? After all, I had only read the book in its entirety once, though I frequently glance at my favorite scenes. So when I approached the new edition of the book, I decided to analyze it in a much more systematic way; I wanted to find out if I still liked Whitney in spite of its flaws, or perhaps even because of them.
I came away feeling that yes, Clayton is an arrogant jerk (who does some really stupid things) and Whitney is definitely a childish hoyden (who does equally stupid things). So who wants to read the love story of an arrogant jerk and a childish hoyden who continually misunderstand each other? As it turns out - me. Here's why:
When you look up " hoyden" in the dictionary, you almost expect to see Whitney's picture. She's spunky, impulsive, and mouthy. She's rude and immature, especially at the beginning of the book. However, McNaught explores Whitney's character with all its ramifications. Lots of heroines are spunky, but their personality is only taken so far. McNaught takes Whitney all the way, and then some. The riding crop scene is a perfect example. Though it is changed in the second edition, it starts out the same way: Whitney throws a riding crop, intending to hit Clayton. Instead she hits and injures a horse who happens to display very aggressive behavior when he even looks at a riding crop. There are no two ways about it - it's a stupid thing to do, and Whitney realizes it immediately. Whitney goes on to do many other stupid things, but she repeats the pattern of learning from her mistakes. By the end of the book she is less of a girl, and more of a grown-up.
Similarly, Clayton's arrogance is taken to its logical extreme, and he is much slower to learn than Whitney. Twice he leaps to incredibly silly conclusions about her, and in both cases his actions are disastrous. First he believes the malicious gossip of a woman who hates Whitney, and rapes Whitney as a result. Then after they are reconciled and happily married he finds a note Whitney wrote during their estrangement. The note seems to provide damning evidence that Whitney was pregnant with another man's child when she came to profess her love for him. Does anyone besides me wonder why Whitney didn't throw that stupid note in the fire instead of saving it? Did she think she might need it later? Anyway, this time Clayton's assumptions about Whitney's character are all the more reprehensible, because he has been married to her for months and should really know better. Whitney forgives him, but many readers find that they can't be so generous.
Even the first time I read through this final misunderstanding, I was pretty impatient. This second time through I still wanted to shake Clayton and scream, "Come on, you idiot!" But annoying as the characters' actions get, they always ring true. McNaught makes them seem human, with all the stupidity and wonder this implies. The first time, and this time, I was willing to go along for the ride. A powerful scene like the following goes a long way toward explaining why so many people enjoy Whitney and Clayton's love story and find the attraction between them so compelling:
Swearing savagely, he grabbed her arms and started to pull them down from his neck. "Clayton, don't!" she cried out brokenly, locking her fingers tightly behind his nape. "Oh please, please don't!" Tears slipped down her cheeks as she ignored his painful grip on her arm and kissed this angry unyielding man, this powerful, dynamic man, who had endured her hostility and outbursts with patience and humor....until now, when she had hurt him.
His hands went to her waist to shove her away, but Whitney pressed closer. Timidly, she touched her tongue to his lips, hoping he would like it if she kissed him that way. He went rigid. Every muscle in his body drew taut, hardening against her. Her tongue slid between his barely parted lips, encountered his, recoiled in wild alarm - and then crept back for more sweet, forbidden touch. An her world exploded with the violence of his response.
Clayton is a sophisticated worldly man courting a woman who has spirit, but is in many ways still a girl. To me, lovers like these are reminiscent of some of my other favorites, including Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara, Mr. Rochester and Jane Eyre, and Jane Austen's Emma and her Mr. Knightley. Oddly enough, all these lovers are victims of stupid misunderstandings themselves.
So even if you enjoy Whitney as I do, is the new version worth your time? In my opinion, yes. Both the riding crop scene and the rape scene are changed in significant ways that make them more palatable. The longer ending is a little more debatable. Much of it presents information about Clayton's brother Stephen, kind of as a lead in to his book, Until You. These scenes are illuminating but more necessary to Stephen's story than Whitney's and Clay's. However, there is a positively delightful ending scene which recalls the characters from A Kingdom of Dreams. This poignant scene adds much to the ending, and fans of Whitney, My Love in its original form will not want to miss it.
In the end, many reactions to books are emotional rather than logical. Either Whitney and Clayton captivate you and excite your imagination, or they don't. I don't think Whitney, My Love is a perfect book, but then neither is Jane Eyre. Just as current romances have too many Big Misunderstandings, nineteenth century ones are rife with Astounding and Unlikely Coincidences. But what are a few misunderstandings or coincidences between two people who love each other so passionately? Especially since in the end, love conquers all. If you've been afraid to try Whitney, My Love, I encourage you to do so. You too may be captivated by the childish hoyden who becomes a woman, and the proud, stubborn man who loves her. And if you're not entranced by them, perhaps you can relate more to the characters from McNaught's Perfect, which is the book I don't get!
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