I started reading Heather Boyd’s Chills because of its title, which seemed unusual for an historical romance. Well, the title turned out to be most apropos. I was chilled through by this long-drawn-out description of manipulation and abuse masquerading as romance, and I hope never to read anything like it again.
The story begins with Constance Grange discovering that her mother’s gambling has left them deeply in debt. Constance’s former guardian Jack is the extremely wealthy Marquess of Ettington, but because Constance finds him arrogant and bossy, she doesn’t want to appeal to him for help. Plus, she’s twenty-one, so she decides to find someone rich to marry.
Then she gets a letter from Jack’s widowed sister Virginia, inviting her to London. Virginia has always been kind to Constance, sending her expensive gifts each Christmas. So Constance joins her in London, only to find Jack determined that she won’t wed without his approval, and he doesn’t approve of any men for her.
Where to start with Jack? In a nutshell: he’s been writing to Constance for some time but signing the letters with his sister’s name; he sent the expensive gifts under his sister’s name, and he spies on Constance when she’s talking to people. He hates it when she befriends another man, and the mere thought of her marrying someone else drives him into a rage.
Fury, unlike anything he’d known before, had lashed at him. He had held back from throttling her by the skin of his teeth.
He doesn’t want to marry her himself because his sister’s husband beat her during their marriage. I’m not sure which he’s afraid he’ll become, the abuser or the victim, if he marries. Either way, though, he practically breaks out in hives at the prospect of having a wife, but this doesn’t stop him from invading Constance’s personal space, frightening her, touching her in public every chance he gets, and shaking her in private.
He tortured her for a moment longer before practically throwing her from him. She staggered to find her balance, wrapped her arms across her aching chest, and stared at the floor.
In this story, men show they are in love by bullying, grabbing and pawing women. Actually, wait, in this story, men show they are men by bullying, grabbing and pawing women. Jack’s friend Lord Daventry, the hero of the next book in the series, tells Constance he’d like to give her the spanking she deserves for being so obtuse she doesn’t realize Jack is in love with her. In lieu of a spanking, he shoves her against a wall. Virginia’s admirer Lord Hallam – who had a first-hand view of what she went through during her marriage – makes sexually suggestive remarks to her, considers getting her drunk so she’ll loosen up, and squeezes her backside while they’re dancing. Remembering what her husband did to her, Virginia faints. So Hallam carries her upstairs, gives her a strong drink, and undresses her for bed.
Her mind screamed in fear, but thanks to her consumption of spirits, her body refused to listen.
Of course Hallam is another hero, so her mind had better get used to screaming in silence. On one occasion, Virginia even becomes a punching bag for Constance, because when Virginia wears an ugly orange gown in the hopes of dissuading Hallam, Constance rips it off.
She grabbed two handfuls of dress high at the back, and tugged hard. As she suspected, it was an old dress. The stitching was no match for her determination… Ignoring Virginia’s strangled “no,” she pulled on the ties that bound her.
This is the first time I’ve read a romance where a woman’s dress was literally torn off her by another woman. Virginia later confides that her abusive husband used to forcibly strip her this way. Does Constance apologize? No, why should she? She only tore her dearest friend’s clothes off for the best of motives, to make Virginia put on a pretty dress instead so she can please Hallam and have yet another abusive husband!
The writing is no better. The author seems to be trying to avoid using characters’ names too frequently, so Constance sometimes thinks of Jack as “the fair-haired marquess”, “the stiff-backed marquess” and “the long-legged man” (if, God forbid, he has children, will he be Daddy-Long-Legs?). Constance’s nickname is Pixie, and in any scene from Jack’s point of view, the narrative constantly refers to her as Pixie. Though Jack varies it by thinking of her as “the little woman”, “the pint-sized woman” and “the tiny woman”, so I nicknamed her the Incredible Shrinking Woman.
With its helpless heroines who need to be carried to bed after falls and faints, and heroes who smash through doors if said heroines are being abused by men who aren’t the heroes, there is nothing good I can say about Chills. The blurb should include a warning about the sheer quantity of aggression towards women, but since it doesn’t, consider this review a red alert. I only give F grades for books that are offensive, and in this case, I wish there was an even lower one.