TBR Challenge: All about the Hype

Wendy describes this month’s TBR Challenge theme as “a book or author that got everybody talking.” I looked through my TBR for something that I bought because lots of people were talking about it, but that I hadn’t read yet. I ended up selecting Temptation, by Charlotte Lamb.
Harlequin Presents book cover
Many romance readers/reviewers who have been reading romance longer than I have talk about Charlotte Lamb. Jane and Sunita from Dear Author have written about her, and so has Miss Bates. I’m pretty sure I bought this book because of a conversation on Twitter where I felt like everyone had read this author but me.

I can’t say that this book worked for me as a romance. It felt more like an endurance test; it’s only 188 pages, and it took me only one evening to read, but getting through it was rough. Let’s talk about why.

First, this is a 1979 Harlequin Presents, which means we will have big power imbalance (represented by money, age and/or social class). Yep, Joss White (actually Sir Joshua Wyatt) is a 39 year-old shipping magnate, with a fancy London townhouse, a lavish country estate, and lots of money to spend on cars, jewelry and travel. Linden Howard is not yet 18, the daughter of a painter, who lives in rural Yorkshire in a rented farmhouse. Joss crashes a vintage car near the farmhouse, and Linden and her father take him in while it’s being repaired. Linden has long blonde hair and looks like a “Pre-Raphaelite angel”; Joss is “dark” and “brooding” and “flinty.” (Yes, definitely a Presents!) Joss is amazed and intrigued by Linden’s innocence and quirkiness; he kisses her, dances with her, and eventually seduces her. Then he leaves.

Linden’s mother died when she was born, and her father is still heart-broken. He isn’t affectionate with Linden at all, since she looks like her mother. She spends most of the year away at school in a convent, and she expects that once she’s no longer a child, he will want her to leave. He’s a gifted painter whose work is very grim, and Linden isn’t sure that he actually loves her the way most fathers love their daughters. Having been without much affection, she responds strongly to Joss’s attention; she falls head over heels in love with him, even knowing that he is twice her age.

Linden asks Joss if he’s married or has children; he lies to her and says no. In fact, he is married, but his wife (who he didn’t love in the first place) is a “vegetable” due to a car accident. He also has a son, Daniel, who is just two years older than Linden. He falls in love with Linden, but after they have sex, he admits to her father that he actually is married and leaves. Linden is so upset that she contemplates suicide (high drama in Presents); her father comes after her, falls, and is seriously injured. She nurses him back to health and then they travel together for several months. Having almost lost her, he realizes that he loves his daughter. They develop a much stronger relationship. All of this takes less than 80 pages.

Linden decides to attend college and study art, even though she lacks her father’s genius. She makes friends but doesn’t date; she’s still in love with Joss, although she also hates him and fantasizes about killing him. One day she meets a young man driving the same kind of classic car that Joss wrecked when they met, and they get along so well that she agrees to date him. His name is Daniel Wyatt, and his father is Sir Joshua. His mother was an invalid who recently passed away. The reader figures it out pretty quickly, but Linden has no idea that she’s dating Joss’s son until she goes home with Daniel for Christmas. (Another 16 pages gone.)

This is a really ugly situation. Joss/Josh, tells Linden that he loves her, that he’s always loved, her, that he still wants her, that he knows he doesn’t deserve her, and that he’s sorry. Very sorry. She tells him that she loves him too, but also hates him, because he is selfish and put his needs before hers. She wants him to suffer and wishes she could kill him. Linden’s dramatic exit from Josh’s room is interrupted by Daniel. He figures out some things and gets them to tell him the rest. He then denounces them both and leaves.

We’re now about two-thirds through the book, and while it has been dramatic and angsty, I’m not really feeling it. I feel sorry for Linden, and really sorry for Daniel, and I think Joss is an asshole. I think that’s how I’m supposed to feel, because now Lamb sets out to make me feel sorry for Joss. I think.

In a move that I cannot understand, Linden agrees to marry Joss. Because she loves him, but also because she hates him and wants to make him suffer. She makes him promise not to touch her and warns him that she might fall in love with someone else someday; he says he deserves whatever happens and that he just wants to take care of her and make her happy. So he spends a lot of money on jewelry and clothes for her, and they get married. Her father tries to talk her out of it, warning her that this is not a good way to get revenge. Duh!

Here’s a passage of Linden’s thoughts, after she has agreed to the marriage:

Somehow she had defeated him. He loved her. For once in his triumphant life, Joss had been humbled, that proud dark head forced to the ground, and she ought to feel a thrill of victory as she looked at him, having won where so many others had lost.

But she didn’t. She felt only weary resignation. She was going to marry him, but she did not want to do it. She loved him and she accepted that he loved her, but his love was never going to be what she wanted or needed. She could not love a man she despised and pitied. He should have been strong, he should have been a fortress for her to shelter in — instead of which she knew herself to be stronger, herself to be the one with a core of steel. That steel had been forged in the fires of anguish he had lit around her. (p. 128)

At this point, I still didn’t like Joss/Josh, but I also really didn’t like Linden. I lost respect for her completely when she decided that rather that trying to make the best life she could for herself, she was going to be all about revenge and making him suffer. Seriously, who wants to live like that? Who values another person’s suffering more than their own happiness?

The last third of the book is mostly Linden making her husband suffer. She won’t have sex with him, but they share a bed. Sometimes she lets him kiss her, even partially undress her, before stopping him and reminding him that he promised not to touch her without her permission. She flirts with his colleagues and spends his money, but she also is a good hostess and plays the role of his wife well enough to fool everyone around them, including Dolly (his dead wife’s mother, to whom he’s still very close.) She gets no real joy out of his suffering, either. Gradually she realizes that she needs him, and she’s starting to have trouble turning him away. When he leaves on a business trip, she spends time with Dolly looking at family pictures and hearing about how Joss suffered in his marriage.

She had made her plans so coolly. Now she doubted her own ability to carry them out. Her revenge was sour. She was killing herself. Lin and Dolly had been right — she could not hurt Joss without hurting herself more. She had shut him up in living hell, but she was there with him, and she did not think she could take any more.

She wanted to belong to him. She wanted to know his lovemaking again. She wanted to bear him children, sons with his dark hair and grey eyes.

At this point, I was beyond caring. I guess these two deserved each other now, but I could not find it in me to celebrate that. Daniel also forgives everybody, so they’re going to be one happy family.(I was happy that Daniel’s life wasn’t ruined by falling for a woman who ended up as his stepmother.) Joss and Linden have a big wrenching scene of sex, confession and forgiveness, and I still didn’t care. It was honestly one of the most disappointed feelings I’ve ever had at the end of a romance novel.

Maybe it’s just this book, or maybe Lamb isn’t for me.