Once upon a time this kind of romance was common on the market. It thronged on the shelves in bookstores and malls, competing with others of its kind. That voracious predator, the romance reader, would prey upon it, whether severely dog-eared or in mint condition, and consume it in one sitting, before heading out to hunt for more.
That was then and this is now. In the 14 years since its first publication, romance readers have been weaned from abusive rapist “heroes,” bird-witted heroines half their age and enough unhappiness to fill up a women’s shelter. In Ms. Rice’s prologue she describes the couple of Moonlight Mistress: “I wanted a hero more tormented than Rochester and sexier than Rhett, and a heroine who would fight like the devil to keep her man, whatever the circumstances.”
Her summary is excellent – unfortunately, the book isn’t when compared to its modern peers.
Aelvina Fairfax has lost everything and rather than being forced to become a common whore, she gives herself to Sir Philippe St Aubryn for his exclusive use, in exchange for protection. Aelvina and Philippe are separated by the machinations of Philippe’s wife, and a pregnant Aelvina finds herself in the care of a hateful old witch. When the baby is born, the witch steals him and leaves Aelvina to die. Of course, Philippe shows up and agrees to take her back as his mistress. Only, he assumes she must have run from his service before, so she deserves to be treated with all due harshness while he has his way with her again and again. Over time Philippe realizes that Aelvina is more than an orphaned serf, and that her background could hold clues to allow him to dissolve his unhappy marriage and let him and Aelvina to live happily ever after with their children.
Philippe sees little problem in raping his mistress repeatedly, especially since she quickly wilts and begins to moan. That he is married with a child is no moral obstacle to his having a live-in mistress. Philippe is a man of war – the strong, silent type whose actions betray his emotions. Apparently, most of his emotions are either violent or carnal, although he does has his soft spots.
Aelvina is loyal to the point where not even repeated rapes, verbal abuse, two pregnancies and being sent away a semi-prisoner in the hands of horny mercenaries can budge her love for Philippe. She is also gorgeous with silvery blonde hair and a dainty figure, and a penchant for arguing. And she knows how to belly dance men to quivering fools, since her mother had been captured by the Infidels during the Crusade.
The relationship between Aelvina and Philippe is characterized by arguments, domestic violence and distrust. When I was told they loved each other, I had to leaf back to see if I could find that moment of epiphany in which hate becomes love. Suffice to say, I was unable to locate such a moment. Above all, they argue but do not communicate.
The secondary characters are sketchy and tend more to be black-and-white than actually colorful. The same characteristic applies to the setting – if King Henry II hadn’t been introduced, there would have been a span of about 200 years in which to place the story.
How could I tolerate Moonlight Mistress, given that I’ve chewed this poor book up one side and down the other? Believe it or not, I actually enjoyed this read in a very special way. I’ve a soft spot for the old technicolor movies of the ’50s, especially epic historicals and the quasi-musicals where people burst into song at the drop of a hat. Moonlight Mistress is the romance equivalent of such movies, and as long as you don’t take it seriously it is fairly acceptable.