I’m continuing my way through the pile of 1990s romance novels I bought at a thrift store a few weeks ago, and I’m starting to notice a pattern: depictions of sex and sexuality from the 1990s feel really, really dated. Sexually active non-heroines have toxic portrayals. I mentally associate more coerced or pressured sex between the protagonists with older books, but it was much more alive, well, and mainstream in the 1990s than I noticed at the time.
My Steadfast Heart by Jo Goodman
(Available digitally and in used paper/hardback editions)
Picked because: It’s Jo Goodman!
Verdict: A buried DIK!!!! Colin Thorne, workhouse boy made good as a ship owner, wins a wager with the awful Earl of Weybourne, making Colin the new owner of Weybourne Park. However, the Earl intends to every method at his disposal to avoid paying up, including forcing his niece, Mercedes, to try to seduce Colin.I’d be lying if I said this book is completely unproblematic. It definitely has issues with consent between Mercedes and Colin, especially when Colin leans on her to be his mistress. However, I’ll ‘fess up that sometimes, angsty and vaguely problematic angry sex works for me. Once the Earl goes missing (or dies?) Colin and Mercedes are locked in a power struggle to establish authority at Weybourne Park. It would have felt unnatural for them not to bring that dynamic into their sex lives. Also, Colin is hot. Sue me.
There’s kind of a wild whirlwind of events in the last third of the book, as a multitude of crimes, past and present are unravelled, and every now and then I was even confused by who had done what and in what decade. People confess and unconfess to things, accusations are made and retracted, and I wish it had been slightly less convoluted – maybe one fewer subplot? On the other hand, I was enjoying this book so much I stayed up too late to finish it, and at least some of the confusion probably came from it being two hours past my bedtime. (read our review here)
A Warrior’s Bride by Margaret Moore
Picked because: I’ve enjoyed another medieval by Moore in this series (A Warrior’s Passion).
(Available digitally and in used paperback editions)
This book really started off promisingly. The heroine, Aileas Dugall, is an illiterate warrior raised among soldiers in a castle that makes Sparta look lush. The hero, Sir George de Gramercie, is a talented fighter, but also a knight who enjoys luxuries like, say, a bed that isn’t just ropes, and having rugs on his stone floors. In a genre often marked by heroines “making over” the wild, barren estate of their men, I was hoping for a hero who helped Aileas learn to find a comfortable middle ground for herself. Something like “she would always prefer riding to sewing, but she had to admit, there was something to be said for warm bathwater.”
Instead, we get a foppy hero who is utterly clueless that his estate managers (highly respected by Aileas’s father) are robbing him blind, and who completely ignores Aileas’s suspicions. That’s bad. What’s worse? We learn that Sir George is uncomfortable expressing anger because as a young man he lost his temper, slid into a fugue state, and MURDERED A PUPPY. I’m NOT KIDDING. This book features a puppy murderer and HE IS THE HERO.
I think it’s safe to say that the camel’s back was already broken here, but let’s not just pile on straws, let’s set them on fire. Aileas’s lady’s maid was in league with the embezzling managers, because one of them sexually assaulted her and she decided that at the very least, she deserved some of their ill-gotten gains as compensation. You know what? Fair enough. How does this story end for her? At the climax, the maid is trying to run away near where Sir George is fighting his agent, and Aileas, the infallible archer, ACCIDENTALLY MURDERS HER. She and George turn to each other and find comfort in the fact that now both of them realize how easy it is to unintentionally kill innocents. Then they waltz off for their happy ending.
I hope they both caught the plague.
Dark Fire by Elizabeth Lowell
Picked because: I have never in my life seen a mustache as off-putting as the one on this hero. (Clearly, they thought better of re-publishing the old cover in subsequent editions! – Ed.)
(Available digitally and in used paper/hardback editions.)
Verdict: Well, you know what you’re getting into with an Elizabeth Lowell, whose heroes put the “alph” in “alphole.” Trace Rawlings is a guide in the Ecuadorian cloud forest, where Cindy Ryan has come in search of a friend who, unbeknownst to Cindy, has holed up in a love nest with a local coffee baron. Cindy’s father has hired Trace to guide Cindy, by which he actually means “knock Cindy up,” because this man wants grandchildren with a passion on the wrong side of complete and utter derangement. For some reason this makes Trace totally contemptuous of Cindy.
They hike around the cloud forest, Trace is a douche to her, they bone anyway, etc. And oh, the boning. Some of the scenes are annoyingly dated, of the forced-kiss, “Cindy fought against both Trace’s superior strength and her own wild desires, but resisting was futile” variety (yes, that’s the quote). And the vaguely porny, giggle-inducing goofiness of the cover turns out to be accurately representative of this book, which has two of the most laugh-out-loud unsexy sex scene moments I’ve ever read.
“Her palms slicked across his wet shoulders and down his arms to his fingertips, then back up again until her fingers curled into the fine hair beneath his arms. She made a murmuring sound of pleasure and stroked gently, savoring the unexpected softness concealed on such a hard masculine body.”
Yes, that’s right. The heroine is getting turned on by fondling the hero’s armpit hair.
In the second scene, chapters later, Trace sticks an orchid in Cindy’s belly button and fellates it. Maybe it’s his way of perfuming the mustache, I don’t know.
I definitely have some guilty pleasure Elizabeth Lowells on my keeper shelves, but Dark Fire isn’t going to be one of them.
What have you observed about sex and consent in books from different decades? How are we doing as a genre in moving forward?
~ Caroline Russomanno