Desert Isle Keeper
Silk and Secrets
The romance genre is a funny thing. It is the only genre that I know of whereby, of the three narrative components (plot, setting, and character), reader expectations limit and predicate two: Plot and character. The plot limitation is, of course, the Happily-Ever-After. But the character limitation is more personal – I defy any romance reader to read a romance novel and enjoy it fully when they cannot identify with the heroine. Hence, heroes get away with promiscuity and moral ambiguity, while most heroines (poor ducks) languish in various states of Normal Perfection: A difficult line to tread, to make a heroine interesting enough to read about, but human enough to relate to. But then along comes a book like Silk and Secrets, which makes me realize that there are compensations for us peons: if we do not embody the heights of female perfection, neither do we crash spectacularly when we fall.
Juliet Cameron and Ross Carlisle met twelve years ago in England, she the daughter of a British diplomat, he a younger nobleman’s son of academic bent. Her extensive travels and his intellectual curiosity, as well as a common passion for the Orient, strengthened their mutual passion, and desperately in love, they married. But six months later Juliet ran away suddenly, leaving a note saying only that she could not stay in England. Twelve years later they are still legally married and Ross still remains ignorant of both her reasons for leaving and her whereabouts. He has traveled widely and published several books about his adventures. And he thinks of Juliet every day of his life. Now, Ross is on his way to present-day Afghanistan, searching for a missing, and presumed dead, government agent – and incidentally, Juliet’s brother. Before long he is attacked by brigands and saved by the intervention of an unknown band that takes him to their leader. This leader is none other than Juliet, who has been living in Persia and building an autonomous community. Apprised of Ross’s mission, she joins him on his journey.
The first half of the book, which covers their voyage through the desert to their destination, is sheer brilliance. Its historical vibrancy and vitality bring to mind Dorothy Dunnett with a dash of Indiana Jones. Ms. Putney’s descriptions convey both the romanticism and the harshness of the dunes and their nomads. Traveling with a desert caravan, Ross and Juliet talk and fight and laugh, sometimes as the only way out of a tight spot, and I loved every word of it. I also loved Ross, a Lawrence of Arabia (oh heavens, Peter O’Toole) sans homosexuality crossed with Francis Crawford sans self-destructiveness – a true gentleman, and super, super hot. And Juliet was such a vital, complex woman – proud but not blinkered, hot-tempered but not TSTL, and humorous to boot – that damned if I didn’t wish she were a) my friend, b) running for president.
And then halfway through the book I found out what happened twelve years ago, and I was appalled. I found it impossible to sympathize (not to mention empathize) with Juliet’s reasons for running away, despite thorough cognitive understanding on my part, and Juliet’s subsequent actions (including twelve years of self-exile and self-flagellation) were to me so extreme that I read the next fifty pages half in shock.
However, at the end are two of the most powerful and realistic – and hopeful – pages I have ever read, as Ross forgives Juliet and she finally forgives herself. I had previously thought Ross too lenient; I was wrong. If Juliet had been in front of me I would have asked her forgiveness for presuming judgment where it was not mine to give. I never fully understood, until I read those last pages, the difference in understanding between the cognitive and the visceral. And that makes all the difference in the world.
Undoubtedly there are readers who had different reactions to Juliet and to this book, or consider my own reaction to Juliet extreme. (Or who think this review has been too much about me. Count the “I”s – I did.) But to paraphrase Roger Ebert, in defense of criticism that his film reviews are too subjective, a critic is, ipso facto, subjective, and Silk and Secrets affected me so strongly that I wanted to share my thought processes with you.
When I wrote this review, I was reminded of Marianne Stillings’s DIK review of Gabriel’s Woman by Robin Schone. The former AAR reviewer wrote: “I did not love it …. I found it neither erotic nor romantic in the least …. [and] I found the characters and plot difficult to like, let alone love to the point of veneration. So, why the high grade? I gave Gabriel’s Woman an A- simply because there was no other grade that would do.”
Sometimes, a romance novel cannot be evaluated by our reactions to it, nor should it be pigeon-holed by our needs. If I had picked up Silk and Secrets in the bookstore’s Fiction section, perhaps as a trade paperback with subdued fonts and understated coloring, I know (even if it shames me to admit it) that I would not have experienced the same vacillation between anger, frustration and disdain, and admiration, respect and awe for Juliet, because she would have been a “normal” person, status sanctified by the absence of a romance label. But with my romance reader’s requirement of a “safe” heroine (i.e. the Normal Perfect kind), I judged Juliet for being different – and for being human in a way that heroines rarely are – and I hope that is as close to bigotry as I ever get. I could not identify with her at first, which meant an incomplete enjoyment of the book, and I’ve since reread it in a more mature frame of mind.
Anyway, things that are good for you are often unqualified joys (enter jogging and Chinese bitter melons), and this book challenged me to think about myself in a way that ultimately made me a better person. And so, I thank Mary Jo Putney for widening my personal experience of romance novel heroines, and I give Silk and Secrets an A- because if I ever get marooned on a desert island, I will want this book as a reminder to look beyond the expected, and expect beyond the normal.