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Cover - Savage PaganWhat was I expecting from a 1984 Harlequin called Savage Pagan? With a blurb about a woman marrying a wealthy businessman to save the family business? Not this horror.

Yes, it’s older, so one might expect some dated attitudes, and, I must admit, a few other books from that era have been awful. Melting Fire, for one, though that was 1979. And Surrender to Desire, from 1985, which I could not finish. Still, this set a new low.

Lisa is happy young woman, with a sports car, an apartment, a casual boyfriend, and a very successful modelling career. But her brother, married with two children, reveals that the family business is about to go under, unless he sells it – and Rick, the buyer, wants marriage to Lisa to be part of the deal.

The setup is okay. I’ve read and enjoyed similar setups in historicals, and it can work in contemporaries too. I’d expect Lisa to be shocked, reluctant, even repulsed. But then Rick would turn out to be interesting, or somehow heroic, and woo her to overcome her objections. He’d have at least one sympathetic flaw. Comedy or exaggeration would be used to keep things light and gently remind the reader that this is fantasy.

Lisa responded exactly as I expected. The idea that she needs to marry a stranger is repulsive, but if she doesn’t, her little nieces are out on the street. (And it would be her brother’s fault, not hers, but family, right? Maybe it’s a good thing I don’t have any nieces or nephews.) So far, so good. And Rick?

He’s good-looking, he’s wealthy, and he’s utterly obnoxious. He’s made a deal, he expects delivery, and he wants an obedient wife. The marriage ceremony is quick, efficient, and meaningless. The sex is brutal (literally – she’s bruised), but Lisa enjoys it despite everything (and I don’t like first time wonderful at the best of times).

Rick tells Lisa’s photographer she is no longer working.  He also ends her relationship with the boyfriend, and is jealous when Lisa and her ex meet by chance and are having a pleasant chat. He makes it clear that he is the boss, and she will follow his orders, even down to her sleeping position (never with her back to him), at one point spanking her for being difficult.  Eventually Stockholm syndrome sets in, and in the last few pages he confesses his love for her. Sort of. He’s had a lot of women, but she seemed to be good wife material, and “in my arms you became a warm and infinitely passionate woman.” This offensive comment is apparently him being kind and loving.

My strong dislike of the story, and reading it quickly to get it over with, makes it hard for me to say if it was well written or not, but one thing stands out: We never get Rick’s point of view. That could have saved the story – his perspective could have made him a more sympathetic character, and perhaps changed the tone of the book.

I did not like this story, and I don’t think I would have liked it when it came out. A few years before this was published, I was writing letters to the school paper complaining about the objectification and stereotyping of female students and graduates. However, I understand that some people like it, or at least must have liked it at the time. I’m conscious of dictating appropriate pleasures – it’s certainly not my place to say that no woman should enjoy a story of a forced and unpleasant marriage. My feminism includes the notion that women should be able to enjoy whatever they want, without someone dictating that good women like this and do not like that. Still – what’s to like?

One reason I kept reading it was to try and find the appeal in it – is it the fantasy of someone else making all your life decisions for you? Freedom from money worries? But Lisa was doing fine, and the wealth, though present, is background. She doesn’t respond to it. Sexual submission? I suppose that’s there, but it’s surrounded by so much unpleasantness, and it’s not over-the-top enough that I’m comfortable seeing it as fantasy. Is there the chance to identify with the powerful male? Without ever getting his point of view, that’s not easy.

A couple of people on goodreads and Amazon liked it, but acknowledge it is not for everyone. There is praise for the emotion and passion. I suppose anger and hurt are emotions, and they are intense at times. Maybe it’s just me. I don’t like Taming of the Shrew (or Kiss Me Kate) either (though the former has some good wordplay and the latter has some good songs). I suppose that somewhere out there, thirty years ago at least, there were readers who enjoyed this, for some reason. Good for them. It’s not for me, and I’m going to start being more careful when selecting my 50 cent bathtub reads.